Modern Hebrew: The Past and Future of a Revitalized Language

By IAfrica
In World News
Aug 18th, 2014
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rfFrontpage Interview’s guest today is Dr. Norman Berdichevsky, an author, freelance writer, editor, researcher, translator and lecturer of history and culture for several major cruise lines. Formerly a lecturer of Hebrew at the University of Central Florida, the Theological Faculty of Aarhus University in Denmark, and the Jews’ Free School in London, as well as an experienced translator (From Hebrew and Danish to English), he is the author of six books and lives in Orlando, Florida. He is the author of the new book, Modern Hebrew: The Past and Future of a Revitalized Language.

FP: Dr. Norman Berdichevsky welcome to Frontpage Interview. Let’s begin with what inspired you to write this new book.

Berdichevsky: Thanks Jamie.

My knowledge of Hebrew, my experience teaching the language in the Diaspora and the eleven years I spent in Israel working as a professional translator, opened up new horizons and enabled me to participate in the resilience of spirit that Israelis feel in the face of adversity. My goal in writing this book is to reach as wide an audience as possible of both Jews and Gentiles, including those with no prior knowledge of the language, to make them more aware of the importance Hebrew has played in the forging of contemporary Israeli society and culture and its function worldwide as the new Jewish international language.

A dynamic nation has been created with a determined belief in a common origin, destiny and struggle with a unifying common language adapted and modernized by the only people who identified with it and its ancient homeland. Anyone wishing to understand modern Israel, its history and development towards a more inclusive society for all its people including non-Jews should be familiar with Modern Hebrew and how this language grew and changed over the past mere one hundred and thirty years through challenges and dilemmas resulting in startling achievements and new prospects.

FP: Expand for us on the transformation of Hebrew and why this book is so important in touching on this issue.

Berdichevsky: Few subjects have commanded the attention and provoked, fascinated, excited, and enchanted so many readers as the saga of the Zionist rebirth of Israel.  Yet in this monumental literature, relatively little space has been devoted to the epic transformation of the classical language of the Bible into Modern “Ivrit”, the national language of the State of Israel, its everyday vernacular spoken by more than  seven million people. It was grafted successfully onto an older literature and longer historical continuity than Latin or Greek and is the official language of business, research, the law, and government of the dynamic State of Israel.

The book explores the historical background, past and current controversies, challenges, dilemmas and prospects facing the Israeli people that stem from the choice made four generations ago to create a renewed nation in the Land of Israel with Hebrew as their national language. It is a study in the politics, linguistics and sociology of language, exploring the relationship of the Israelis with the Jewish Diaspora as well as their fellow non-Jewish citizens, the largely bilingual Arabic and Hebrew-speaking Arab population.

Stateside, many still equate Hebrew with its rabbinical counterpart, the purview of bar mitzvahs and synagogue prayer. In Israel, the story is different. In the 1880s, early Zionists sought to adopt a modernized version of the ancient biblical language. Most believed it couldn’t be done. Today, Israeli Hebrew has become the most successful language revitalization project in history. It is used in every realm of Israeli life.

FP: What topics do you cover specifically?

Berdichevsky: The book is written for those with no prior knowledge of Hebrew as a national language and colloquial vernacular. It examines some of the basic “mechanics of the language,” including the many changes that have occurred in the transition to Modern Hebrew. It analyzes how it overcame many obstacles to become a spoken vernacular and its growing prestige. It deals primarily with the social and political role of the language, the role model Modern Hebrew played for other national revivals(Welsh, Irish, Basque Maltese, Catalan, Modern Greek and Turkish). Also discussed are the dilemmas facing the language arising from the fact that Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora “don’t speak the same language,” while Israeli Arabs and Jews often do.

Why has Hebrew declined in the Diaspora and what are the long term consequences of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora Not Speaking the Same Language? How did Hebrew become a modern language? How did it win out over Yiddish? How different are Modern and Biblical Hebrew? What has acquisition of Hebrew meant for the Arab minority in Israel? Why has study of Modern Hebrew declined in the United States? How has the Arab Spring turmoil been reflected among the Arab minority in Israel? The book deals with all of these vital questions.

“Modern Hebrew” does not cover literature nor is it another biography of the pioneer founder of the movement to make Hebrew into a modern spoken language, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. It is the story of his vision and how it animated a large part of the Jewish world, gave new confidence and pride to Jewish youth during the most difficult period of modern history and infused Zionism with a dynamic cultural content.

FP: What major updates did Zionists have to make to biblical Hebrew or the language of the Mishna?

Berdichevsky: The language had to change radically. Biblical Hebrew has a vocabulary of about 7,000 words, of which maybe 1,000 or more are obscure today. It was totally unfit even for the end of the 18th century, let alone the 20th century. An educated Israeli today has a vocabulary of at least ten times that. There are also significant differences in the structure and grammar of the language. For instance, if you look at biblical Hebrew, the tenses are completely out of joint; the past and the future mix in the same sentence, for stylistic purposes. Modern Hebrew also established a standard pronunciation that didn’t exist before. It is for this reason that many students with some training for their bar-Mitzvah and able to read the prayers are unable to follow the modern language.

FP: What has acquisition of Hebrew meant for the Arab minority?

Berdichevsky: In spite of the current crisis over Gaza, and violent demonstrations (condemned by almost all the mayors of Arab towns in Israel), the trend among Israeli Arabs, especially those in the professions is greater educational and career opportunities through Hebrew and the rate of proficiency and even fluency among them has steadily increased. It is no accident that few Arab Israeli men seek marriage partners with women from the West Bank who are much more conservative, not likely to work outside the home, and not proficient in Hebrew.

It comes as a surprise to many foreign observers that nine of fourteenEgyptian universities, including Al-Azhar Islamic University, offer courses in Modern Hebrew with approximately 20,000 students, more than are studying the language in the United States! They are majoring in Middle Eastern Studies. Mounir Mahmoud, an Egyptian journalist, told the Israeli daily Ma’ariv that between two and three thousand students graduate each year with bachelor’s degrees from Hebrew studies courses. He explained that Egyptian students “are exposed to Israeli culture and history, and unlike their colleagues who see Israel as only a source of hatred and conquest, they learn about it from a different angle altogether.”

In a journalistic scoop on July 2, 2013, Israeli reporter Guy Zohar interviewed Egyptian woman journalist and political activist Heba Abu Seif on Israeli live television.  Her perfect and fluent Hebrew surprised many viewers and is an optimistic sign. Just as Israelis could now view events with direct commentary from on the spot sources in their own language, it portends a revolutionary transformation that in the future, Arab opinion about Israel will no longer rely entirely on its own traditional and highly biased accounts.

FP: What does the American Jewish Community miss out on by not knowing Modern Hebrew well?

Berdichevsky: Over the past two generations, there has been a steady decline among many American Jews in the cultural and emotional identification they feel with Modern Hebrew literature, song and dance, elements that once drew them close to the Zionist project and the emergence of a modern national Israeli culture. Many tourists in Israel miss out on much that is not available by instant translations.

All laws, debates in the Knesset, the legal cases in court, and applications for patents, are, of course in Hebrew. Israeli affairs portrayed by the media in the Diaspora are often based on highly selected and fragmentary extracts of published material translated and occasionally mistranslated from Hebrew. Although many people with an interest in Israel are aware of the importance of the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language and may recognize the name of pioneer linguist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, they do not appreciate the difficulties involved or what challenges were posed before the eventual accomplishment of what almost all linguists had declared impossible.

This is a remarkable story that deserves to be told to a mass audience. Moreover, it is the story of the three generations long world-wide rivalry with Yiddish and the techniques used to make Hebrew into a language capable of handling all the demands of a modern society. Not knowing Modern Hebrew, neither they, nor their children are familiar with Israeli authors, playwrights, movie directors, actors, singers, pop singers, athletes, or the standings of Israel’s football (soccer) clubs.

While no educated person, let alone a Jew, is ignorant of Albert Einstein (he remains the Jewish figure most celebrated by the world, as determined by the number of postage stamps representing dozens of countries which have so honored him for his achievements in physics), the same cannot be said of Arik Einstein, who, until his death in November last year was certainly regarded by the Israeli public as its most beloved singer in the modern era of popular Hebrew song.

Yet, he was largely unknown among Jews abroad who are unfamiliar with Modern Hebrew language and culture. His popularity, appeal and charm have been compared to that of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen combined. He certainly remained in the public limelight for as long as any of these three American superstars and what is more impressive, he was equally successful in all of the genres of modern popular song including traditional love ballads, patriotic expressions of love of country, its landscape and people, soulful laments, protest songs and even children’s songs and rock.

Why is such a personality so prominent in Israel’s cultural life such an unknown quantity in the Diaspora. In spite of all the oceans of ink spilt over “Jewish solidarity” and that the Jews are one people, the reality is that there is a growing cultural gap in which language plays a major role. This is the point of departure of my book that also touches upon the political divide between Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora, especially in the United States.

FP: Dr. Norman Berdichevsky, thank you for visiting Frontpage Interview.

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