Avot: Revival or re-inspiriting Hebrew

(En parallele avec la parution dans le “Jerusalem Post” en decalage, le blog consacre au 150eme anniversaire de la naissance, date hebraique, de Eliezer Ben Yehuda, renovateur de la langue hebraique, fait peu souligne en realite dans le pays. La date civile est le 7 janvier 2008).

AV_A Jerusalem Post Blogs 137: “Avot: Revival or re-inspiriting Hebrew “

This 30th of December 2007 corresponds to the 21 (kuf-alef) Tevet 5768 ) כ”א בטבת תשס”ח. As we end an international calendar of Western Christian origin, this day marks the Hebrew date of birth – 150 years ago – of Eliezer Yitzchak Perlman in Luzhky, a small town swindling on the border between Lithuania and Belarus. Before the Shoah, it was a big Jewish settlement. It is strange how calendars and dates can intermingle, showing different aspects of a prismatic reality that we love to break down and eventually disfigure or mutilate. The 19th century has given very strong personalities and we are their descents, a part of the heritage. This is a normal process for each generation, in any culture. With regard to Judaism, the whole of the Yiddishkayt, Jewishness, Hebrew identity and quests have been shaken to the deepest of our entrails by persecutions, pogroms, migrations, secularity and assimilation to non-Jewish lifestyles. In Israel – not to speak of the galut – dispersion – we prospectively are the growing seeds that slowly revive numerous aspects of the Hebrew and Jewish existence. It is not a question of memory. The process does include memory but directly places it to another level that is classic in Judaism. Memory does not trace back: it opens up to go forward, ahead and beyond all probabilities.

At the present, the reviver of the Hebrew language has a street in almost all of the Israeli cities. The strange phenomenon is that in these streets in particular, as in rehov Ben Yehuda in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, people will definitely speak or start talking in English. True, English is our trendy Aramaic or Esperanto. We do develop a local Israeli Yinglish Pidgin. The methods used to teach Hebrew to newcomers (I would also say to some yeshive-bucherim or Talmudic schools) can be terribly defective. 150 after his birth in a common Jewish East-European shtetl, Eliezer Yitzchak Perlman, inspired by something resembling the eight lights of Hanukkah, tremendously helps re-embodying the Klal Israel, the Community of Israel. But his anniversary seems vaguely celebrated. I tracked all possible books about his life and context that could be published in the coming days. The gaon, genial man of intuition, who incarnated such a huge challenge look like our local kabtzanim – קבצנים(needy)… they will survive, anyway, anyhow. When Perlman became Ben Yehuda, he wrote the Otzar-אוצר, the Treasury of the Hebrew language that remains unique. I grew up with his dictionaries next to my bed. Indeed, Hebrew had never died and many groups, movements were using Hebrew in Europe, especially for trading and different relationships, incl. discussing about the Scriptures. Eliezer ben Yehuda and the two sisters who successively married and assisted him turned Hebrew into a carnal quest, a living challenge facing what could still appear as a Quixotic dreamy vision. He made it grow as a wonderful linguistic instrument. Ben-Zion Ben Yehuda was the first baby not allowed to hear the lullaby naturally sung by his mother in Russian. He could be schizophrenic, autistic. The correct experience is to visit the Qumran’s scroll hall at the Israel Museum and see how teens spontaneously reconnect with the forefathers and the text of Prophet Isaiah. This presupposes a gigantic and prodigious mental experience, a prophetic boost.

Similar experiences may be compared with Hebrew throughout the 19th century in Europe. Ivar Aasen created the country-side and coastal Norwegian language (Nynorsk). Croatian, Modern Greek, Faroese or the eldest European tongues like Icelandic and Lithuanian or Latvian, many speeches got recognition or paved their way to renewal in times of nationalism. And this issue of nationality increased throughout the 20th century. It continues to reshape borders and mental cultural borderlines (e.g.: Kosovo, Mindanao, Timor, Bask land, Ireland). Is it relevant with regards to Hebrew revival and Ben Yehuda’s unique experience? This constitutes a part of the modern debate. As T. Herzl and most of the builders of the State of Israel, he was born in a context of hatred that was leading to “national freedom” or some solution to be freed from humiliation and new serfdom, poverty.

The celebration of his 150th anniversary should allow digging deeper into other relevant and basic insights linked with the Hebrew spirit of prophecy. This is certainly the major factor that is less en vogue at the present. But it should be underlined that Ben Yehuda’s father, Leib Perlman, was a Chabad hassid. He died when his son was five and the boy turned to the adepts of the Haskalah – Jewish enlightenment. It means, that, even widely supported by the secular Jews, the revival of Hebrew does include specific features of the Lubavitch Chabad movement. The famous Tanya’s reflection of R. Shneur Zalman of Lyadi about how “sounds are produced in cavities that cannot produce naturally produce any sound” (Ruach Piv, Shaarey Yichud 7). Speech and sounds are of divine and prophetic nature. We may get astray of something that sounds banal to our ears at the present even if most Hebrew-speakers would ask anybody from where they learnt the tongue. Ulpanim are definitely secular and the link with the prophetic aspect of the language, its “divine mamashut/essence” is definitely not evident or underscored. As the Chabad directly linked the Ashkenazim to the North African Jews, E. Ben Yehuda naturally spoke Hebrew with Jews from Algiers.

There was an old Yiddish vitz-ויץ/joke: in a Tel Aviv bus, a mother stubbornly discusses with her son in Yiddish while the boy answered in Hebrew. A man told her to stop because Hebrew was the language of the future… The mom sharply said: “Good, but I don’t want him to forget that he is a Jew”. This joke showed around 1940… Curiously it could make sense today with the comeback of Yiddish. But Hebrew is the only paternal tongue. That was the quarrelsome point for Ben Yehuda’s son who got some Russian because a mother has to educate in a tongue that can be suckled like her own personal milk. Hebrew is the language of Avinu, Malkenu-אבינו מלכנו – Our Father, our King , Avinu shebeshamayim– אבינו שבשמים – our Father /Who is in heaven (not “are/art” according to the Jewish blessing grammar). We can hear many “speculations or fancies” about the language God spoke with Adam and the ancestors (Avot-אבות), still it sounds to be Hebrew and not Aramaic and nobody excavated the original earthen pot DVD on air from Mount Sinai. Who knows, Moshe maybe spoke Hebrew with a touch of then-Yiddish pronunciation like David Ben Gurion? Hebrew is universal and this is a dramatic point at the moment in a State where it apparently confirms a citizenship and existential identity given by mothers.

This is a theological problem that questions both Jews and non-Jews. Over thousands of years and indeed in the past two thousand years, Hebrew has mainly been “scriptural”. During the week, one spoke Yiddish and lush’n haqoydesh af shabbes – and the Holy Tongue on Shabbat (די גאנצע וואך רעדט מען די מאמע-לשון און אויף שבת די לשון הקודש). On the other hand, Rashi commented the TaNaKh by using a wide French lexicon grounded in the Champagne vineyards. This has created a gap that can lead to some “spiritual tongue-twisters or slips”. Israel is the State of the Jews (Judenstaat) that requires Hebrew as a common living language gathering very different groups of native origins. Judaism has always included or “grafted” people who took up them the realm of the Mitzvot. By the time of Jesus, proselytes were numerous. Thus, Judaism is not only national; it is connected to the faith of Israel.

This 150th anniversary of the birth of Eliezer Ben Yehuda interrogates in a way that we would prefer to avoid in these times of turbulences. Interestingly, the daily tongue develops with huge influences from all kinds of languages (Russian, Amharic, English and of course Arabic, inter alia). Over 40 years, the language gained in numerous ways to express humor, playful sentences, slang and sciences. It is indeed the real living tongue of the Israelis of all origins and of many Jews based abroad. It does not mean that Jews and Non-Jews use it alike. This constitutes a point of subtlety that is not rooted in some “nationalism” but in “relating to the Father in heaven”. It may at times make no sense for the secular, intermingled groups for whom Hebrew is a linguistic Esperanto.

Hebrew has been present in the Churches from the very beginning. Hebrew is not simply a medium that can be translated. It carries out the Father’s revelation and reaches to the mamashut – ממשות (Yid. mamushes). Hebrew refers essentially/substantially to the Talmud connected with the Mitzvot. It speaks out daily the Talmud daf yomi – דף יומי, daily study page. One year ago, I gave a lecture and underlined “that because of the tremendous gap between Judaism and Christianity appeared an strong estrangement. True, people pray in Hebrew. But, for the bigger part, they do not take into account – as Churches and individuals – the huge spiritual impact that always linked the Talmud with the spirit of the Bible, not the Gospel. And it might take centuries before we get to that point. It is still the prospective meeting point, if any.

It is good if Hebrew is used for the better knowledge of Judaism in the Church; but there is no need to make some folklore of it or “to christen” Jewishness and even Israelity. Israel relies upon both the Written and Oral Laws.

The Hebrew date of the birth of Eliezer Ben Yehuda corresponds in the Eastern Orthodox Church to the Sunday of the Forefathers that led to Jesus. It insists on the fact that, from Adam to Zacharias, Daniel, they showed total faith in God. It is a good day to show gratitude for the spiritual renaissance or continuous birthing of the prophetic tongue that abode the Fathers (avot – אבות).

Happy New Year 2008!

Jerusalem, December 30, 2007 – 21 deTevet 5768

ירושלים העיה”ק ביום כ”א דטבת תשס”ח


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