Alexander A. Winogradsky Frenkel

Words of flames

On January 7th, 2024, the Eastern Orthodox Church and all Oriental Churches mainly located on an axis that starts in Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia) to slide down through Ancient Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran Israel, Palestinian Territories, Jordan, till Egypt and Ethiopia celebrate the Nativity or birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  Other Christians follow this old style or Julian calendar that shows a difference of 13 days. January 7th corresponded to December 25th, for instance, in the pre-Revolutionary Russian Empire. Until now, the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, the Russian Church, and the Serbian, Georgian and Old-Calendarist Churches only admit this calendar. The Western Churches celebrate the Theophany, i.e. the revelation of Jesus at the Jordan River on that day together with the Orthodox jurisdictions that follow the new style or Gregorian comput.

On that Nativity or Theophany Day, the Israeli society commemorates the 166th anniversary of the birth of Eliezer ben Yehuda, Eliezer Perlman, born in Luzhky (present Belarus) on the 21st of Tevet 5618 according to the Jewish calendar. The man was a prophet, with an innate sense of the meaning of the Jewish family, school teaching, and Jewishness. It makes him a dominant personality concerning all the problems encountered at the present by Israeli society. He was born, as most of the Jewish Israel-envisioning State, in the Russian Empire and, though it was quite difficult, he could get to the Russian gymnasium-high school. From the very beginning, the Jewish State revival in Eretz Israel is rooted in the Russian and Slavic weltanschauung (miropriyatie/мироприятие).

In 1858, in Jerusalem, people readily used to speak Hebrew. By that time, they were writing a lot in this language, in a way that would seem either “awkward or too sophisticated”. Intriguingly, in Jerusalem, the Russian ecclesiastical mission of the then-Moscow Synod (the Patriarchate of Moscow was re-established by the time of the Bolshevik Revolution) had a priest, Fr. Daniel Levinson, whose translation of the Divine Liturgy into Hebrew is a wonderful example of a really respectful rabbinic word choice and spiritual coherence. The language is nice. It does not really cope with a “colloquial speech”. This is hardly the case for religious texts. However, the clergyman was a former Talmudist and introduced specific expressions that made the texts less “alien” to the spirit of the Hebrew way of approaching theological concepts and connections with the Semitic heritage.

By the time Eliezer Ben Yehuda was born, Hebrew was a semi-reviving/living tongue in Jerusalem. Some authors have underscored that Hebrew should not even be considered a Semitic language, but rather a sort of reviewed “Judeo-Sorbian” dialect, i.e. a Slavic language in search of a Semitic past (P. Wexler, The Schizoid Nature of Modern Hebrew). It is correct that most of the first Hebrew speakers were of Yiddish and Russian mother tongues with some Ukrainian, Polish, and Belorussian words and phrases. It gave a certain taste and greatly influenced the development of Modern Hebrew. A recent Hebrew “Slang” dictionary shows the significant impact of Russian or Slavic expressions that came into Hebrew through Yiddish. This mental imprinting is more important because of the flight of the Jews from the Slavic cultural area to Israel in 1880 due to harsh pogroms.

In December 1890, Eliezer Ben Yehuda created the Hebrew Language Council which later became the Hebrew Academy. By the time of a “Biblical generation” (1881-1921), he could benefit from the Aliyah (climbing, immigration to Israel) from Russia of well-educated, motivated young people for whom it was normal to challenge history and switch to Hebrew in their homes (J. Fellman). Indeed, on November 29, 1922, the British Mandate Authorities recognized Hebrew as the national language of the Jews in Palestine. Eliezer Ben Yehuda died one month later. But the adventure was and definitely remains prophetic.

He had decided, together with many other Jews in the country, that parents could speak with mistakes to their children. In return, the kids would teach correct Hebrew to their parents.Veshinantam levaneycha – ושננתם לבניך…”, you will teach them (Mitzvot – מצוות) to your children “vedibbarta bam – ודיברת בם – and say/repeat them again and again into them” (Devarim 6:4) became a substantial and real reviving method for any Jew to make the tongue a living medium. This seems to be the main aspect. It is more than important in the present. True, this remarkable and exciting undertaking was also a mental, psychological, and spiritual challenge. Why? Hebrew had to get out of the scope of the synagogue dialogue with God and penetrate the shul, shtib, cheder /Jewish schools, and prayer houses (שול, שטיב, חדר), i.e. be re-introduced into the natural and outspoken world of education of the Jewish souls.

Thus, Hebrew did take over traditional Yiddish, thus the vernacular Talmudic and not only Biblical training systems. When I arrived in Israel, some groups would only speak Yiddish. Today their children prefer to speak Hebrew though influences show to move back and forth and Yiddish get more and more trendy again.

Yiddishkayt reconnects, in a lively way, with the very humane character of God’s Words. Any simple Jewish Israeli child – and the foreigner living in their midst – speaks the TaNaKh and the Talmud, deepening the gap and misunderstandings with the other monotheistic traditions. Hebrew is biblical in Rome, Greek in Moscow and Athens, and English in London and New York. There is a profound estrangement/Entfremdung if not more to any in-depth full acceptance and use of the Talmudic roots of the Gospel. For example, we still have to rediscover the works of Daniel Chwolson who taught Hebrew and Judaism at the Orthodox and Catholic Academies of Saint-Petersburg in the 19th century.

The revival of the tongue relied upon teaching methods, backed by the Alliance Israelite Universelle since 1882. Each teacher was “an academic”… without tools, but absolutely dedicated to the task of upgrading spoken Hebrew. This inspiring strength is totally defective at the moment and definitely affects the Israeli educational priority duties. Teaching through creativity constitutes the fundamentals of the Mishnah and the Gemarah. Education and studies are thus essential in a Jewish group. The Russian First Aliyah newcomers were highly educated as are today the newcomers arriving from the former Soviet Union. But they are not given the same spirit and possibilities at the present as those who arrived in times of dearth. There are still typical Hebrew fan ulpan teachers whose vocabulary, sentences, intonation, and search for new words are marvelous. The same exists as concerns the development of Icelandic and its nýyrð – new words.

According to the secular revival or preservation of the national languages that were strongly endangered or not grammatically structured in the middle of the 19th century, Eliezer Ben-Yehudah undoubtedly belonged to a special generation of linguists who intended to correct and foster the development of old local languages. Ivan Aasen did it in Norway as he unified the Norwegian coastal dialects, closer to Old Norse than the official Riksmål of the bourgeoisie. He created Nynorsk (New Norwegian) which is widely used by country-side and social-caring supporters at the present. The Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded in 2023 to a renowned Norwegian writer and poet, Jon Fosse, “for his innovative plays and prose which give voice to the unsayable.” He only writes in Nynorsk.

In the meanwhile, in the Faroe Islands, the Lutheran pastor Venceslaus U. Hammershaimb also settled the many dialects that existed in the small archipelago and structured the dialects into one written language whose script can be difficult at first glance but is rooted in the semantic system and spelling chart of Icelandic. In the South Slavic regions, the common Serbo-Croatian language had also a personality, namely Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, a self-taught Serbian folklorist and linguist who, in the mid-19th century, assembled the different speeches that had been scattered into different traditions and scripts (Latin, Slavic, Glagolitic, and Arabic among other things).

This was the period of the rebirth of the European nations, whose linguistic splitting had to be settled. In this context, the rich influence of a region like today’s Belarus (Byelarussia) should be correctly appreciated, whose tongue is strongly interwoven with Polish, Ukrainian, Slavonic, and Russian. In Byalistok, the Jewish eye-physician Ludwig (Ludoviko) Zamenhof was shocked by the systematic linguistic ghettoization that forced him to create an international language called Esperanto. This very Lego-like language expressed something of the Yiddish and Hebrew experience by using Latin, German, and Slavic radicals at a time when Europe looked to shape new national identities.

Eliezer Ben Yehudah conceived the renewal of Hebrew as a living tongue that could gather the Jews who could return to Zion after the writings of the Prophets. Incidentally, he traveled to Paris and met with an Algerian Jew at the Butte Montmartre. They had no common speech and they decided to speak Hebrew, the tongue of the prayer books. It helped him to develop his project.

When he arrived in the Land of Israel, he had to face the opposition of the pious Jews who could not accept to speak a Modernized Hebrew language due to the sacredness of the heritage shared in this tongue. He decided to focus on the creation of “new words”, thus updating the new medium rooted in sister languages such as Aramaic and Arabic. He considered the latter as being the tongue that was directly connected to the common Semitic linguistic treasury. He used to frequent the Library of the Dominicans in Jerusalem, whose books and rich documentation gave him access to rare writings and allowed him to shape new words and expressions.

To begin with, his work seems to line with the national rebuilding processes developed in Europe. Still, creating new words is usual in Icelandic and in Greek, the latter having always been kept alive as Aramaic that never had disappeared since the return from Babylon and the apostolic period… till nowadays. Such insights for a man who acted as a really secular person are rooted, intriguingly, in his Chabad background, Hassidic family heritage, and culture. The pious Jewish groups could not, at first, accept Hebrew as a colloquial renewed lingua franca. The Jews rarely connect to the fact that France and Paris strongly impacted positively (it is not always the case there for them) on some specific international, intercultural processes of newness. The Rav Mendel Schneerson of Lubavitch (Chabad) also planned in Paris to support the re-connecting project of matching the Ashkenazim (East-European Jews) and the Mizrachim (Oriental Jews) as both were present in the French capital before he fled to the United States.

At the turn of the 19th century, Eliezer Ben Yehudah carried an immense task of launching a deeply featured topic: the unfathomable goal to revive an apparently “dead” language. As the heir and witness of both the secular and Hassidic ways of transgenerational Jewishness, he could act by overcoming the dreamy aspect of the work to introduce into the resurrection – the non-stop acting development – of Hebrew. It thus appears as a sign of resurrection, reinvigorating speech prospects and paving the way to new revolving words, thoughts, and creativity. It cost a lot to Eliezer Ben Yehudah. He had been excommunicated by the Orthodox Jewish communities because living Hebrew supposedly could affect and change the fulfillment of Divine Words shared at specific periods of encounters in the course of history. He did not see the real development of the language and only heard that Hebrew was recognized as the official language of the Jews in Palestine under the British Mandate. He had lived in dire conditions and the sponsorship granted by the Jewish Organizations was allotted as he was passing away.

The third step that brought back Hebrew to revival was to oblige the home family to only speak in that language. This is the normal consequence of a functioning synagogue and shul-educational system. Before leaving his home to go to school, the mothers used to bake cakes of honey in the form of the Hebrew alphabet. Ben Yehudah adopted the reversed process to anticipate the revival of the tongue: “Son of man, eat from the scroll… that was sweet as honey (devash lematoq – דבש למתוק) in my mouth” (Ezekiel 3:1). What had found its place in the synagogue, i.e. the community as a society living with the specificities of the Word, had to reach out each home, family, individual. This also presupposes a very strong sense of responsibility, “fatherhood” and the decision to achieve a project.

But “devash lematoq – דבש למתוק – sweet as honey or honey to sweeten” refers to the faith of Israel and this should be taken into account, whatever doubtful, non-believers definitely speak Hebrew. It shows something of an immeasurable rich and resounding Presence and communion covering all ages and places.

Le’an? לאן?   – Where are we going to with Hebrew? Computer keyboards can’t even manage the letters adequately. Final dots, interrogation marks, and commas – as in Arabic network keyboards – cannot be fixed accordingly!

This is a unique spiritual and human experience. Hebrew – even not known or not pronounced – has unconsciously been the native (innate) tongue of every Jew and shows in many ways in the realm of psychology, human attitudes, reflection, beliefs, trading, and all layers of human activities. It has to be handled with care and not be used as a means for excluding others. Hebrew is not framing. It needs “border ropes” (cf. Talmud) to foster breathing and go on a multi-faceted trip.

The revival of Hebrew resembles the statement made by Paul of Tarsus concerning “resurrection” (To the Romans 11:25: “For I would not, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, and that you should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles have come in”).

This is why Hebrew continuously interrogates the Churches. It is worthless to fake using a language or to try to make it an instrument of conversion. In the Churches, Jews have often been denied their “Father tongue – שפת האב” for some obscure reasons that there should be no difference between Jews and non-Jews in Jesus. Hebrew is the speech that God used to teach by a series of Word revelations and repeated phrases, life-giving letters of fire. This did not only target the Jewish tribes and people. The Master of the Universe made of Hebrew a special parlance imprinted by the seal of Divine Oneness. The Jews subsequently considered as a tragedy that the Hebrew Scripture had been translated into Greek, i.e. an “alien” tongue, although the texts were said to be written by the Jewish Sages of Alexandria.

It only means that all are equal. The child who was born these days in Bethlehem, the city of David, never used Hebrew (largely traced back in the Gospel) for national purposes. New insights into the Talmud and its importance have been “unwillingly” proposed by Eliezer Ben Yehuda. He could not avoid doing that. Hebrew has to be a part of the Church without too much will of capture, replacement, or superseding by the non-Jewish side. It constitutes a part of the incarnation of the Word and a mark of belief in the resurrection.

In this sense, it remains the “Language of the Father (in heaven) – lishona d’Abun d’vshmaya / ܠܫܘܢܐ ܕܐܒܘܢ ܕܒܫܡܝܐ  (Aramaic)”. The Words are sown in a specific way in the Semitic dialects: as semen-less though a DNA resourceful impulse of life. This is at least somehow parallel to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and the unique overshadowing of a young untouched woman born of the seeds of David.

Hebrew has been too often seized by the non-Jews: whether Christians of all existing denominations. Hebrew together with Aramaic left the reality of interpretation, and commentaries, both in Christendom and Islam. Hebrew and Aramaic are rarely approached as a single tongue. This developed into a mental split, a series of breaches. But, at present, the Hebrew language belongs to the universal heritage of all the Nations. They can comprehend and explain the texts the way they want, outside of the very core of its Semitic and Hebraic environment. As Hebrew revives in Israeli society with exceptional vigor (slang, word creation, wit, reflection, scientific expertise), there is a real danger for the new generations raised in this Modern tongue that the language be sterilized by dropping the divine part of its lexicon. On the other hand, Christians may be willing to learn and use it without referring to the sources of the revelation in the Sinai and transmitted throughout time and space.

Interestingly, Yiddish, called the “mame-lush’n/מאמע-לשון = language of the mother, maternal tongue” was profoundly marked by the hostile speeches learned in the European dispersion. In the Ukraine, Moldova, Lithuania, Belarussia, Bessarabia, and Romania, Poland it was impacted by spiritual and theological experiences brought from Jerusalem and Mesopotamia. But Yiddish retains the specificity of a mental and insightful heritage that traces back to Babylone and it is far more fascinating to consider the links between Judaism and Christianity in the impossible challenge to reduce the breaches that deeply affected the message of the one revelation of the Only One.

These ambiguous features may have been quite present in the process that allowed Eliezer Ben Yehudah to carry out his appeal to precipitate the revival of Modern Hebrew. His immense task remains a bit underestimated in many ways. In many fields of activity, Hebrew would not be used and English would be preferred, especially in Israel. It is sad because in some cases, as the Technion, for instance, the World renowned University of Haifa (Technicologies and futurist research), Hebrew could bring a touch of Israeli scientific and cultural in-gathering and open up new feelings and prophetic views.

The Christians experience the newness and updated words of the Gospel as a life-giving source at each Divine Liturgy where the Gospel as the living and actualized Word is proclaimed and uttered. It allows a specific outlook in the verse: “Therefore I say unto you, the Kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof” (Greek: “καὶ δοθήσεται ἔθνει ποιοῦντι τοὺς καρποὺς αὐτῆς” / Aramaic:”ܠܥܡܐ ܕܥܒܕ ܦܐܪܐ”, Matthew 21:43).

The revival of Hebrew with ancient/new – old-futurist semantic features breaks through the rules of stiff prestige shown by the respect due to the religious dead or not spoken languages such as Latin, Gheez, and Coptic.

Again, Eliezer Ben Yehudah could carry out this work because in him were deeply interwoven specific cultural mixups: the Yiddish, Hassidic Hebrew, Aramaic, Russian, Byelorussian, Ukrainian, Polish, and German (inter alia) linguistic capacities that, through Byzantine, Hellenistic and Latin cultures could bring him to reconnect with the long Semitic (Arabic, Ugarit, Nabatean) dialectology. Such a work cannot only be the fruit of on single man. The prophetic aspect of such renewal will allow, over time, to match with the needs of new times. It strongly participates in the process of redemption.

About the Author
Alexander is a psycho-linguist specializing in bi-multi-linguistics and Yiddish. He is a Talmudist, comparative theologian, and logotherapist. He is a professor of Compared Judaism and Christian heritages, Archpriest of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, and International Counselor.
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