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September 3, 2015 | 19th Elul 5775

Hebrew II

Galilee Diary #224
March 13, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

Suddenly Rachel climbed up and stretched out on the trunk of a carob up on the top of a hill. From there… she raised her voice high in song toward us, the group down in the wadi. We heard … not only her voice but a powerful echo responding: the whole landscape sang in ancient Sefardi Hebrew, which seemed to have been preserved here in its purity. It was as if our far-off ancestors, shepherds and maidens of Israel, who went out into these mountains on some day of joy or mourning, had hidden those beautifully authentic, precisely articulated Hebrew sounds in the crevices of the rocks to be preserved there till the day of deliverance came. And the day was now beginning to come.

-Zalman Shazar, Morning Stars (autobiography)

There is no question that for me, an important element of my Jewish identity is Hebrew. I don’t know why. I only know that I love the language – its grammar, its word-families, the associations it supports between the biblical and the modern experience. I love hearing it spoken well, in a lecture, in a play, on a bus. And while the intrusion of English often annoys me, I remind myself that there is no such thing as a pure language, and that “classical” Hebrew is full of words absorbed from Greek, Persian, etc., at various points in our history. I tend to resist romantic nationalistic tendencies in Zionism, “blood and soil” and all that; however, I have a soft spot for the place of Hebrew in Zionism. I see the revival of spoken Hebrew, the creation of a whole national culture in the course of a century, as one of the central achievements of the Zionist endeavor.

If we understand Zionism as an attempt to secularize Jewish identity, to create a way to be Jewish even if you don’t believe in God and His commandments, to transform Jewish identity from religious to cultural/national, then the establishment of Hebrew as a modern spoken language was a huge success. Until Zionism, Hebrew for most Diaspora Jews was the language of prayer and Torah study; their secular lives they lived in Yiddish, English, Arabic, Ladino, etc. Now there are millions of Jews who neither pray nor study Torah, yet live their entire lives in Hebrew. Their Jewish identity has been transformed entirely. Whether this is a perversion of Judaism or its elevation to a higher level is an interesting and difficult question. On the one hand, if you believe that the core of Judaism is faith and mitzvot (be they Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist), then this total secularization represents a catastrophe. On the other hand, no matter how rich and sophisticated our translations of traditional texts into English or other languages, only Hebrew speakers have total access to the deepest meanings of those texts in their authentic original. Even the most secular Israeli has the option of getting inside the Bible in a way that even the most spiritually intense reader of translations cannot experience.

One of the early players in the development of the education system in modern Eretz Yisrael was the Hilfsverein, a German Jewish philanthropic organization that ran the first teachers’ seminary in Palestine in the early years of the 20th century. It was the Hilfsverein that opened the Technion in 1914. To their leadership it was unthinkable that a technical college could function in any language other than German. The students at the teachers’ seminary and some of their teachers went on strike to protest, in what became known as “The Language War.” In the end, the Hilfsverein capitulated – even though there were no appropriate books in Hebrew, nor had much of the relevant vocabulary even been invented yet. The point was that language is the substrate of culture, it is a central element of our identity; it is, in a way, what Zionism is all about. Schools conducted in another language would cripple the Zionist vision from the start.

I think it is unfortunate that we so often reduce Zionism to identification with the state as a political entity, losing touch with the deep and powerful impact of the movement on the very nature of Jewish identity in our time – expressed and symbolized by the revitalization of the Hebrew language.

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