In 1881 Eliezer Ben-Yehuda stepped off a boat in the port of Jaffa, took a look around, turned to his family, and said “From now on we are only speaking Hebrew.” The problem was that no one else really did. Ben-Yehuda set about reviving ancient Hebrew into a spoken language amongst the Jews of Palestine, making it a key part of the Zionist Movement.
Hebrew was used as a daily spoken language of the Jews from the time of King David up through the Roman Era, until around the year 200. It remained a literary language and the sacred tongue of the Jewish People — used in prayer, Torah study, and rabbinic legal documents.
Starting in the 1800s, Jews saw in Hebrew a return to a purer language that better reflected the ideals of Jewish history and culture, much more so than the vernacular languages like German or Russian or Yiddish. For the Zionists looking to both revive Jewish culture and to create a New Jew, Hebrew was symbolic of a time when Jews had their homeland in Eretz Yisrael, as well as a tool to unify the Jewish people around this nationalist ideal.
Enter Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. He wasn’t the first or only Hebrew speaker of his era, but he put Hebrew on the map. His idea was to teach Hebrew from infancy, thereby raising children fluent in the language in their ancient homeland, thus turning Hebrew into the national tongue. It worked. He started with his own son, Itamar, who was kept in near-linguistic isolation for his entire childhood, forbidden from associating with anyone who couldn’t speak Hebrew to him. Ben-Yehuda developed a Hebrew dictionary and a standardization process for new words and grammar — which he had to invent as Itamar grew up and needed to know words for things like ice cream, towel, and bicycle. To this day the Academy of Hebrew Language continues to invent new words in Hebrew to meet the needs of a modern and evolving society.
Not everyone was on board with learning Hebrew, like the Orthodox community. Even those who were eager to link Hebrew with Zionism struggled with the complexities of a new language. But as the historian Paul Johnson notes, Hebrew succeeded where other language revival attempts failed because Hebrew was concerned with the basics of daily life. In the 1880s there was only one native speaker of Hebrew — Itamar Ben-Yehuda. Today there are around nine million.
In 1908 archeologists found the Gezer Calendar, a small limestone tablet written in Hebrew. It dates to around 1,000 BCE, during the reign of King David and King Solomon.
Ben-Yehuda remembered his first Hebrew conversations upon arriving in Palestine: with a Jewish money changer, innkeeper, and wagoner.
Ben-Yehuda’s son Itamar was the very first native Hebrew speaker in nearly 18 centuries.
Theodore Herzl didn’t think Hebrew was going to work. “Who amongst us has a sufficient acquaintance with Hebrew to ask for a railway ticket!” he famously asked. “Such a thing cannot be done.”
NAMES TO KNOW
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda: an Orthodox Jew from Belarus, he was heavily influenced in his youth by secular Zionism, and was convinced that reviving Hebrew would be essential for building a Jewish homeland in Palestine. He began the modern Hebrew dictionary and pushed the teaching of Hebrew in Jewish schools.
Devora Ben-Yehuda: Eliezer’s first wife, who was on board with raising their child using only Hebrew. She died in 1891, leaving behind five children, three of whom died a short while later.
Paula/Hemda Ben-Yehuda: Devora’s last wish was for her husband to marry her sister, Paula, who changed her name to Hemda. She finished the dictionary that Eliezer started, and was a prolific fundraiser, advocate, and journalist.
Itamar Ben-Yehuda: child of Eliezer and Devora, Itamar was the first natively-fluent Hebrew speaker in nearly 18 centuries.
KEY CONCEPTS TO KNOW
Why Hebrew and not Yiddish? By the early 1900s Yiddish had 11 million speakers and was the daily vernacular throughout Eastern Europe. But both the Orthodox and the secular Zionists had problems with it. The Orthodox saw it as only a temporary, vulgar language until the Messiah comes and the world returns to speaking the divine language — Hebrew. For the Zionists who were trying to create a new kind of Jew, Yiddish was too much of a reminder of persecution and oppression, and of traditional Jewish ways that the Zionists were trying to eliminate.
There was plenty of opposition to reviving Hebrew as the national language. New immigrants were excited about learning Hebrew, but in the challenges of daily life in Eretz Yisrael often just resorted to speaking Yiddish with each other. Even leading Zionists like Theodore Herzl and Ahad Ha’Am didn’t think Hebrew would gain much traction. And the Orthodox felt that Hebrew, the holy language, should not be used for such “profane” daily matters like asking for ice cream or flirting on a Birthright trip.