When Eliezer Perlman was a young man in his twenties, doctors diagnosed his tuberculosis and gave him only a few short years to live. His life span defied their prognosis and he died at the age of 64. He was buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and more than 30,000 people attended his funeral.
Who was he? All of us know him today as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of modern spoken Hebrew.
His life was filled with pains and sorrows. His first wife, Dvorah, died 10 years after their marriage from tuberculosis which she had caught from her husband. Shortly after, three of their young children died of diphtheria. In the Turkish Palestine, there were few hospitals and insufficient medicines.
Bereft of his beloved wife and three small children, and caring for his two remaining children, he married his wife’s younger sister, Hemda, with whom he had five more children. Of his 10 children, only 5 survived.
In Palestine, he worked feverishly to create new Hebrew words. He became a lexicographer and editor of five Hebrew-language newspapers.
He had a few devoted friends who encouraged him and supported him in his tireless efforts to re-create a new spoken language which had been dead for two thousand years. The ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem banned him and eventually ex-communicated him. Their reasoning was that Hebrew was the language for prayers and not intended to buy fish and vegetables in a market.
He retaliated by calling them lazy and idle people who did not work and who subsisted only on charity from Jews abroad. He called them parasites.
In one of his newspaper articles, a piece written by his son Ben-Zion, a phrase meant to organize a force for the speaking of Hebrew was turned over by his enemies to the Turkish Ottoman authorities under the guise that the word “force” might imply a revolt against the Ottoman rulers.
Ben-Yehuda was arrested and imprisoned for almost one year. After his release he continued as editor of his weekly Hebrew newspaper Ha-Zvi (the deer) and began his greatest work.. the creation of the first Hebrew language dictionary ever published.
He worked feverishly, often eighteen hours a day, trying to re-create lost Hebrew words. His labors took him to Paris, London, Vienna and Constantinople, to the great libraries where he searched for words from ancient Semitic sources… Arabic, Aramaic, Syriac, Coptic and Assyrian… sister languages of ancient Hebrew… looking for common roots.
In his absence from Palestine, his wife Hemda continued his work in Jerusalem, writing, editing and publishing his newspaper.
In 1881 when he first arrived in Turkish Palestine, there had not been a spoken word of Hebrew in two thousand years. By the time of his death in 1922, Palestine, then under a British mandate, had recognized Hebrew as one of its official languages.
He founded the Academy of the Hebrew Language in Jerusalem which still functions today as the main source of creating new Hebrew words. Ben-Yehuda is recognized as the Father and Reviver of the spoken Hebrew language. Through his efforts alone, Hebrew replaced Yiddish, French and German spoken in the yeshivot , and foreign schools throughout Palestine.
In one historical instance, Jews in Germany had contributed funds for the establishment of a technical university in Haifa. The language of instruction was to be German. Shortly after the Technikum opened, the language war began. Students went on strike demanding that only Hebrew should be the language of instruction. Ben-Yehuda’s faithful followers had won the war ! And Haifa had its Technion, the word which Ben-Yehuda had created.
In 1886 the first all-Hebrew language school in the world, Haviv, was opened in Rishon Lezion, my city. I pass by it, only around the corner from my home, several times a day, each time blessing Eliezer Ben-Yehuda for choosing the city where he himself taught.
In that year, the population of Rishon Lezion was approximately 350 . Today it is the fourth largest city in the State of Israel with a dynamic population of 250,000 and growing.
When the first of the 17 volumes of his dictionary, one of the largest in the world of languages, was printed by a famous German publishing house, it was entitled “A Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew”.
Unfortunately, Ben-Yehuda did not live to see the final editions of the 17 volumes which were completed by his loving wife Hemda and his son Ben-Zion after his death in 1922.
Of his 10 children, only 5 remained alive. But the legacy of Eliezer Perlman Ben-Yehuda, our every-day father whose language we speak, shines brightly in every school, university, street and home in Israel.
He was called the “faithful fanatic”. His entire adult life was devoted to the re-birth of a dead language. Such a task has never before nor since done.
His purpose, as he himself wrote was: “Yisrael b’artzo u’vilshono”.. the re-birth of the nation of Israel in its own land speaking its own language”.
My own inferior purpose has been to be “eved anochi l’ivrit lanetzach”… a servant of Hebrew forever.
Blessed be the memory of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, our every-day father.