A personal and intellectual search for the history of modern Hebrew.
Haunted by a cryptic dream, Stavans (Dictionary Days, 2005, etc.) journeyed to Israel to learn everything he could about the revival of vernacular Hebrew in the 19th and 20th centuries. His complicated linguistic background as a Spanish- and Hebrew-speaking Jewish man in Mexico engendered a passionate curiosity in all things Hebrew, especially a man named Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the amateur lexicographer who set about in the late 1800s to resuscitate and reinvent the ancient language in the service of solidifying a Jewish political state in Israel. This project met with vehement resistance from Orthodox Jews, many of whom believed, and still believe, that Hebrew, as the language of God and of creation, should be reserved for holy matters only, not brought to street level to be used by anyone who would claim it. The search for Ben-Yehuda’s legacy proved much more complicated than the author had expected. He was not widely celebrated as the resuscitator of modern Hebrew in Israel; only a handful of his neologisms survive; and the scholars and experts interviewed by Stavans expressed, at best, ambivalence toward his life’s work. Instead of Ben-Yehuda's vision of a single, unified Jewish language, Stavans found that spoken Hebrew in Israel is infused with the political and cultural workings of several languages, including Arabic, English, Yiddish and, increasingly, Russian, among others. Throughout the book, Stavans nimbly interweaves popular and scholarly references to Hebrew’s evolution among Israeli citizens, including Palestinians, but he writes for an audience with a working knowledge of the language, pausing only occasionally to translate words and cultural practices for the uninitiated. In cerebral yet clear prose, he imbues the book with his passion for the Semitic languages in all their manifestations. The resulting text is more scholarly than the average memoir and more personal than a purely academic work—an amalgam of the author’s experiences and encounters.
A gem for readers interested in Hebrew and the politics of language.