Something I can’t stop thinking about is how modern -Hebrew came to be. Picture a group of rag-tag Europeans descending on Ottoman ruled Palestine in the late 1800’s in an effort to forge a new Jewish homeland. Most of these people probably speak Yiddish in addition to dozens of other languages. A leader of the day, Ben Yehuda1, says that in order to begin building a strong nation, everyone must speak the same language and that language should be the historical language of the Jews (AKA, Hebrew). The only problem is that other than for praying and reading the Torah, nobody really spoke Hebrew and hadn’t done so for thousands of years. So, Ben Yehuda set out to teach everyone the old language. The process was slow through the First and Second Aliyah periods but by the end of World War I, Hebrew was declared the official spoken language of Israel (although Israel didn’t exist as a Country until nearly 40 years later it gave people time to practice!) The leaders of the day could have said that everyone should learn English, French, German, Spanish or even Esperanto, but instead they chose Hebrew, the language of our ancestors. It was one of many bold moves made by these founders of the modern Country of Israel.
By the way, one of the best streets in Tel Aviv is named after Ben Yehuda. We had great ice-cream, rented bikes from a South African immigrant, peeled Rikki off the side of a city bus after she lost control of her bike and slammed into it’s side, and watched the great city scene that is Tel Aviv. There is an equally fun street in Jerusalem named after the same guy. It’s a pedestrian mall with awesome falafel, lots of gift shops, restaurants, bookstores and a huge cross-section of Israeli and Diaspora culture.
1 Ben Yehuda was born Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman in Luzhki (now Belarus) in 1858. He was brought up in a religious home but then studied at the Sorbonne in Paris where he became convinced that Hebrew could become the spoken language of what was yet to become the new Jewish homeland. His dream was achieved. Ben Yehuda died in 1922 in Jerusalem at the age of 64.