Statistics indicate that 72.5% of Jews own this shirt.

Professor Ilan Stavans is one arrogant, cocky catchphrase-molesting, name-dropping Hebrew Crocodile Dundee.  So, pretty much exactly like me.  Which is why I enjoyed his recent book, Resurrecting Hebrew.  He begins it by  quixotically describing a dream where he became disconnected with Hebrew.  The dream involved wine, comfortable chairs, and a naked woman.   She starts talking to him in a language he didn’t understand, and when he woke up, he realized he had not used his Hebrew for too long (also, probably hallucinogens).   To remedy the situation, he goes from Jerusalem, to New York, to  Germany,  back to his own childhood Hebrew learning in Mexico City, to understand how Eliezer Ben Yehuda resurrected Hebrew  and what place modern Hebrew has now in Israel and in the Diaspora alike.

This book resonated with the linguaphile in me much the same way Excitement Video resonates with David Duchovny.  I remember coming to Israel the first time and being embarrassed that I, as a Jew, didn’t know Hebrew.  That summer, I was deciding on my freshman college classes.  As if by fate , neither French nor Japanese fit into my schedule, so I took a deep breath and scheduled Hebrew.  Six semesters and two months in Tel Aviv later, I love knowing Hebrew.  It’s like being let in on a secret, but at the same time, an open pathway to years and years of history. I love the letters, both block and curly cursive.  I love that the roots all connect and that a book is a sefer and a library is a sifriya, and that a story is a sipur. I love being ripped off for a taxi ride from Dizengoff Center to Hod HaSharon in Hebrew.    And you can tell that Stavans feels that same way.  Because he is pretty smug throughout the book.

My favorite parts included descriptions of Ben Yehuda’s home life.  Dude was badass.  For example when his first wife, Dvorah was having his son, Itamar, the first child to start speaking in Hebrew,  he wrote in his autobiography,

..the future mother of the boy was weak and frail by nature, and the stressful life…weakened her her even more.  Nevertheless, she agreed willingly not to employ a housemaid, so that the child would not hear the sounds of any langauge other than Hebrew.

Oh, and when Dvorah died, he married her sister.  After Dvorah wrote that it should be this way in on her deathbed.  Yeah.  E-Money was big time Hebrew ballin’.

But my point is not that Ben Yehuda was the Notorious B.I.G. of the yishuv.  My point is, do we Jews need a language to feel Jewish?  In a world where more Israelis are learning English, is Hebrew relevant (of course it is, I’m crazy Zionist…I’m just trying to create conversation.) For me, it is the case that I feel more Jewish when I say “Simla hazot bmechira?” than when I say “Pass the chollent,” or “Gut shabbos.”

But Stavans raises a great point.  Jews have always been comfortable conversing in a third language, not Hebrew, for millennia.  And, aside from Yiddish and Ladino, we also have languages that we’ve crafted ourselves, such as Bukharic, Judeo-Arabic, and Judeo-Provencal (Shuadit).  Stavans does a great job delving into all of this, and to, finally, elevating and resurrecting Hebrew.   If you want to learn more about all of this, including the origins of words like agvaniyah and ofna, this book is a great read.

(Oh, and by the way, if you’re wondering how this post connects to being Russian Jew.  Ready?  Stavans is really Stavchansky, his grandparents came to Mexico from Russia.  Ben Yehuda spoke Russian. And, Sholom Aleichem is in the book. That’s the trump card right there. )

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  • A very fascinating read indeed! Vicki, I’d love to read more on the linguistic history that you touch on – are there any particular resources you might recommend?

    Really enjoyed this 🙂


  • I thought it was a bloated, self-indulgent piece of garbage filled with embarrassing errors. Since it’s not really nice to say that, I axed a post I had planned as a review if the book. But I just had to get that off my chest!

    Vicki, if you want to read about Ben Yehuda, read Robert St John’s Tongue of the Prophets (1952). It’s hagiographic, and written by a guy who admittedly did not know Hebrew, but is full of facts and authentic anecdotes.

  • I love your post. You have a great sense of humor and prose timing. How many of them knew Kevin Bacon?

  • @Litterateuse Thanks! I would suggest first the book, which has a lot of mentions of texts that Stavans used to put together his work. And then, as S. mentions below St. John, which Stavans also references. Also, you can ask me. I am the premier expert of Hebrew revival in my (2-person) household.

    @Ukranian Pricess Russia, Ukraine, it’s all Eastern Jewroupe to me!

    @S. Yup, cocky, just like I said in my post. But it’s a starting point, at least for those of us who don’t know linguistics well, but love it as amateurs. I might take you up on St. John if it’s available.

    @larry You just made my day 🙂

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