One hundred and sixty years ago today, one of the great modern day innovators was born, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who revived the Hebrew language.
Ben Yehuda dedicated his life to renewing an extinct langue that up to that moment belonged to prayer books and Jewish texts only. He fought shatterd barriers, broke conventions and led a movement of believers, so that our Hebrew nation would have one living language to define us. Ben Yehuda was a visionary, an innovator and a man of dreams who shaped and formed our modern Zionist identity.
During his lifetime, Ben Yehuda met with resistance. There were those who balked at using the holy language of Hebrew for the coarse communications of daily life. To them, this was a divine tongue, and to speak it so would be a desecration. But Ben Yehuda found unanimous acceptance from the next generation, one that could see a new state was on its way, and would need its own language to help forge its identity.
One who followed was Aharon Appelfeld, a prolific author of dozens of books and novels. Appelfeld passed away last Thursday at the age of 85.
Born in the former kingdom of Romania in 1932, Appelfeld survived the Holocaust before eventually settling in Israel. His published works were almost entirely centered on his experiences in the war, the first years of the burgeoning state of Israel and the Holocaust.
A laureate of the prestigious Israel Prize for literature in 1983, Appelfeld was no stranger to other recognition—winning many other Israeli and international prizes. He established his reputation as a literary giant before completing a grand total of 47 published books, all of which earned him his place in the world of Israeli literature as a pioneer of the modern Hebrew language.
And he is one of my favorite authors.
I have read many of his books, all of which stand on my bookshelves, bowing in respect to their creator—the magician of words, master of language, and a wizard in joining the beauty of our ancient Hebrew with Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s revived language, all into one masterpiece.
I grew up not too far from Jerusalem’s famous Ben Yehuda Street, raised with a great appreciation for words, their sanctity, power and impact. Surrounded by thousands of books, my childhood was one in which the written word held a place of honor.
If possible from high above, from his place of rest, Eliezer Ben Yehuda would be shocked to see the shops and signs along the streets carrying his name in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv today. We are selling Israeli goods, Judaica items and the country’s best cuisine under foreign names, attempting to offer an international aroma.
Thankfully, our identity doesn’t lie in the hands of shop windows and signs but rather in the richness of our culture, texts, arts and traditions.
With a growing number of Israeli authors joining the pantheon of Hebrew literary lights every year, we carry with pride the title most books published annually per capita.
Ben Yehuda Street may offer a mirror of foreign influences and attempts at international flavor, but Ben Yehuda’s words offer something more. They salute their redeemer with awe. He was able to pull our language off the dusty shelf of antiquity, and turn it once again into spoken currency, today showcasing the best of Hebrew culture, and the greatest tribute to Ben Yehuda’s vision.
Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center