Ben-Yehuda, Eliezer

Ben-Yehuda, Eliezer
(Eliezer Yitzchak Perelman)
   Pioneer of modern Hebrew. In 1879 an article called ‘Sheelah Lohatah’ (‘A Burning Question’) appeared in the Hebrew journal Ha-Shachar, produced in Russia by Perez SMOLENSKIN. It was signed Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a pen name for Eliezer Perelman, a medical student in Paris. The article advocated the revival of a Jewish national entity in Palestine, with Hebrew as its language, and serving as a cultural centre for the scattered Jewish people. The idea that Hebrew could be brought to life again as a modern colloquial language seemed totally unrealistic at the time, even to a Hebrew writer like Smolenskin himself. Ben-Yehuda had grown up in Lithuania in a traditional household of Chabad Chassidism, but had turned to secular education. His views on political nationalism, and its basis in culture and language, were influenced by the struggle for national self-determination of the Bulgarians and other Balkan peoples in the Ottoman Empire that provoked the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–8. Having contracted tuberculosis, he abandoned his medical studies and set out for Palestine in 1881. From then on, the promotion of Hebrew became his life’s work and he pursued it with single-minded zeal.
   To start with there was personal example. On his way to Palestine, he married a friend of his youth, Deborah Jonas (d. 1891), and insisted that they should talk only Hebrew in their home, though she had to learn the language from scratch. Their son Ithamar ben-Avi (1882–1943) was the first child in the country to be reared in Hebrew. When Deborah died, he married her younger sister Chemdah (1873–1951), and the same rules applied to her and their children. In 1902 Mrs Ben- Yehuda baked a special cake to celebrate the tenth Hebrew-speaking household in Jerusalem. For some years after his arrival in the country, Ben-Yehuda was a teacher at the Alliance Israélite Universelle school in Jerusalem, a post he accepted on condition that his classes on Jewish subjects could be conducted in Hebrew.
   Ben-Yehuda found a variety of instruments for his purpose. He ran a weekly newspaper. He set up the Va’ad ha-Lashon (Language Council), to help coin new words and expressions; it languished for many years, but later gathered momentum, and was the forerunner of the Hebrew Language Academy in Israel. Above all, he started to compile a monumental dictionary that included in its scope all ancient and medieval Hebrew writings and documents (vol. I, 1910). It was completed, with the help of his widow and son Ehud, long after his death, and the last of its seventeen volumes appeared in 1959. Ben-Yehuda’s movement would have found it even harder to make progress if the yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, had remained static. The Ashkenazi Orthodox Jews resented what they regarded as his perversion of the sacred tongue for secular purposes. He found affinities with the Sephardi Jews and adopted their pronunciation of Hebrew and even their garb; but they had their own languages, and felt no urge to switch to spoken Hebrew. What gave his efforts fresh impetus were the new Zionist immigrants that started arriving from Russia - the Bilu in the 1880s, and the Second Aliyah between the turn of the century and World War I. They learned Hebrew eagerly, and a network of modern Hebrew schools started to grow up for their children. The need of the teachers for a new, expanded and standardized vocabulary had to be met, and this produced results. A crucial battle was won when Hebrew was adopted for the technical school established in Haifa by the German Hilfsverein, that intended German to be used. This school was the forerunner of the present Haifa Technion. Another victory for Ben-Yehuda was gained when Hebrew was adopted, together with English and Arabic, as an official language of the British mandatory regime in 1920.
   Today Hebrew is the established medium of Israel life and is being learnt to an increasing extent by Jews elsewhere; it is the only case of an ancient language that has been successfully revived in modern times.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

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  • BEN-YEHUDA, ELIEZER — (1858–1922), Hebrew writer and lexicographer, generally considered the father of modern Hebrew, and one of the first active Zionist leaders. Born Eliezer Yiẓḥak Perelman in Luzhky, Lithuania, he officially adopted the pseudonym Ben Yehuda, which… …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

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  • BEN-YEHUDA, ḤEMDAH — (1873–1951), Hebrew author; wife of eliezer ben yehuda . Her sister Deborah was Ben Yehuda s first wife. After she died, Ḥemdah went to Jerusalem from Lithuania and married Ben Yehuda in 1892. She aided her husband in his literary work, wrote… …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

  • Ben Yehuda Street — ( he. מדרחוב בן יהודה), known as the Midrachov , is a lively pedestrian mall in downtown Jerusalem, Israel.The street is named for the founder of modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben Yehuda. It is lies between King George Street and Zion Square. ee… …   Wikipedia

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  • Eliezer Ben-Yehuda — For the street named for Eliezer Ben Yehuda in Jerusalem, Israel, see Ben Yehuda Street.Infobox Person name = Eliezer Ben Yehuda caption = birth date = January 7, 1858 birth place = Luzhky, Russian Empire death date = December 16, 1922 (Age 64)… …   Wikipedia

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