Eliezer Ben Yehuda
by Mike Cohen
Eliezer Ben Yehuda is a hero of Zionism who ranks with Theodore Herzl and Chaim Weitzman as one of the cornerstones of the modern State of Israel. It is impossible to underestimate the contribution he made to the establishment of home for the Jewish nation.
Born Eliezer Perelman to a Chasidic family in Luzhki in the Lithuanian Province Of the “Pale”, from a young age he showed extraordinary promise as a Torah scholar and was destined to become a Rabbi. After Bar Mitzvah he was sent to yeshiva at Polotsk where under the influence of the rosh yeshiva Rabbi Yossi Bloyker, a covert follower of the Haskalah movement, he read a copy of Robinson Crusoe translated into Hebrew. This was the “turning point” in his life – the revelation that Hebrew was not exclusively for prayer and devotion but the common languageof the Jewish people before the Diaspora.
His education was completed at the Sorbonne where he studied Middle Eastern subjects and advanced Hebrew, the latter being conducted exclusively in Hebrew which convinced him that it was possible to revive the language and set him on the path to his lifetime vocation. In 1881 after four years of study in Paris he immigrated to the Turkish Province of Palestine (it was never called Palestine but the four separate “Sanjuk” Provinces of the area) and at the same time changed his name to ELIEZER BEN YEHUDA. He was committed a Zionist years before Herzl and before the first Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897 having been influenced by the freedom struggle of Bulgarians from Turkish rule and the George Eliot novel Daniel Deronda (1876) which called for a homeland for the Jewish people.
He settled in Jerusalem, now married to his childhood friend Deborah and was employed as a teacher by the Alliance Israelite Universelle an amazing educational organisation still functioning in Israel today. He was permitted to teach Hebrew in total immersion as he had learned in Paris and what was to become the model for the modern Ulpanim, the Israeli language schools for immigrants. When his son Ben Zion (Itamar Ben-Avi) was born it was forbidden to speak any other language to the child other than Hebrew and he thus became the first person to speak the “native” language in 2000 years.
Life under Turkish rule was difficult and the authorities were watchful for “nationalistic troublemakers” thus Ben Yehuda decided to become Turkish citizen to make his life easier. It was necessary to first relinquish his Russian passport and when he appeared before the Consul he discovered that he was his uncle (his Mother’s brother) kidnapped by Cossacks at an early age.
Ben Yehuda supplemented his income as assistant editor of Ha’Havatzelet a Hebrew language newspaper and in 1884 he became editor of his own newspaper Hatzvi, popular for it regular section featuring newly coined Hebrew words. The latter process was the work of the Hebrew Language Committee, Va’ad Ha-Lashon which he founded and was Chairman who devised words for modern everyday objects based on Semitic roots and grammar and what has become today’s Hebrew Language Academy the official control for the language.
Throughout his life he suffered from Tuberculosis (first contracted in Paris) and Deborah died of the illness in 1891 contracted from him, yet his tireless energy sustained him, often working 18 hours a day consumed by his lifetime obsession to produce the first Hebrew language dictionary. This first started as notes in his Paris student days and he witnessed the publication of the first 6 volumes and the drafts of the next 2, the remaining 8 volumes were published after his death by his son and second wife Hemda (Deborah’s sister). He died in December 1922 a few weeks after Herbert Samuels, the British Governor General of Palestinian, ceremoniously pronounced that Hebrew was an officially recognised language together with Arabic and English.
Ben Yehuda made many enemies in his lifetime especially amongst the ultra orthodox who viewed his work as sacrilegious yet when he died 30,000 people line the streets for his funeral on Mount of Olives. In his lifetime he witnessed his life work becoming a reality and today millions speak Hebrew due entirely to his commitment and devotion – there are few towns in Israel that do not have a “Ben Yehuda” Street as recognition to his contribution to the state of Israel.