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The First Hebrew Family

Father of the Modern Hebrew Language Part 2 (Click here for Part 1)

When Eliezer Ben Yehuda decided to leave Europe for Jerusalem in 1881, there was not a single person in the Holy Land, or any place else in the world, who spoke Hebrew as their mother tongue. There was no such thing as everyday, spoken Hebrew—only words to be read from the Bible and rabbinical passages.

But Eliezer fell in love with the Hebrew language. Moreover, he saw it as the tool to recreate a united Jewish people who would return to their ancient homeland. Even stranger, he seems to have been the only human being in the world who grasped the connection between the language and the land.

He had plans to marry Devora Yonas, daughter of a well-to-do family, now in Russia, who had unofficially adopted him when he was a 14-year-old orphan. But then to his great dismay, at age 23, his
dreams shattered when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He wrote Devora’s father, Solomon, telling him that he could no longer marry his daughter because
the doctor said he might only have six months to live. He decided he must live in Jerusalem and finish out his days there.

To say the least, Solomon, Devora’s father, was relieved to receive Eliezer’s letter. They all loved Eliezer as part of their family, but there was no way their daughter could marry a sick man on his way to a desolate far-off land.
But when Solomon broke the news to Devora, she would not hear of it. She told her parents that she was going to marry Eliezer! She had waited for seven years to marry him and nothing was going to stop her now. Her mother, Rivka, was beside herself. How could she let her daughter go to that God-forsaken land with a dying man?

She Left Without A Passport

Amazingly, her father finally acquiesced. He saw the love she had for her man, and he decided to let her go. This was indeed a remarkable family. They arranged for her to meet Eliezer who would be in Vienna a week before he left for Jerusalem, and in two days she was smuggled out of Russia without a passport.

Eliezer was delirious with joy. He wrote in his diary:
“Not my sickness, nor a life of sorrow which seem to be my lot, deterred her from her desire to share my life. Our lives had become one, and the first Hebrew family in modern times had come into being.”

Speak Only Hebrew!

He told his wife-to-be, “Devora, you are going to be the first Hebrew mother in nearly two thousand years. Our child will be the first infant in all these centuries who will come into the world hearing nothing but the beauty of our ancient language!”

And then came reality. He told her there were certain conditions to the success of his life’s mission. His words to Devora went something like this:
“I must ask you, dear Devora, that from now on you shall speak only Hebrew. We must set an example for our people, for those who would come after us. Hebrew must live again! It must become more than just a language of literary exercise! We must run our home in Hebrew, bring up our children in Hebrew, make love in Hebrew—and if we fight and argue, even that we must do in Hebrew.”
She answered, “But I really don’t know any Hebrew, dear!” He insisted, “Until you do—keep quiet in Hebrew.” On the spot, while still in Europe, he began teaching her words in Hebrew. This is a “tree,” a “window,” a “street,” a “lantern.”

Married On The Way

In the fall of 1881, the new couple, accompanied by Eliezer’s Polish friend, Tchatchnikof, stopped in Egypt, and found a Rabbi to marry them. They arrived in Jerusalem, a city of 25,000, of which more than half were Jewish. They were overwhelmed by the utter squalor and wretchedness of the city. Open sewers and a stench everywhere. And they were practically penniless. But Devora was as unique a person, as was her husband.

The zeal of the prophets became her zeal, too. She was Eliezer’s wife now, and soon she would fulfill her love’s desire. She would become the first Hebrew mother in modern times. She would have many children, and they would be the first children in nearly two millennia to speak Hebrew from birth!

Another Miraculous Meeting

Because several of his Hebrew articles written in Europe had been published in a Jerusalem journal, the publisher, Dov Frumkin and his family, were awaiting the arrival of Eliezer and his wife. In one of those “chance” happenings, Frumkin told Eliezer he was leaving for six months and offered him a job on the spot as assistant editor. He would have a salary equivalent to $5.00 a month.

Eliezer believed he could provide a livelihood for himself and his wife, and launch a journalistic career. In addition, in order to encourage unity with the vision among the religious Jews of the city, he would become religious himself.

Eliezer and Devora Become Orthodox

While privately admitting that many of the Jewish traditions were old-fashioned, and others had nothing to do with the Torah or Judaism, he and Devora both took on the yoke of the Torah, keeping a kosher home, the Sabbath and the Holidays, going to synagogue and observing the traditions of Judaism. He grew ear locks and a long beard. He prayed every morning with his prayer shawl and phylacteries. He thought religious discipline would be a unifying agent for Jews everywhere.

But alas! The Orthodox saw Ben Yehuda as a pagan and an enemy of the Jewish people because he was defiling the holy language of the Bible and using it in everyday language. They could not imagine using this language to say, “Take out the garbage!” And they became Eliezer’s fierce and violent enemies throughout his life.

The Ben Yehuda family moved into their first rented house. It faced
the “Wailing Wall,” but they had to cross through seven dirty courtyards ankle-deep in debris to reach it. And to reach their rooms they had to climb a rope ladder.

Alone In Jerusalem

The community of 16,000 Jews in Jerusalem was a “generation of separation.” Each little group spoke in the tongue of the land from which it came, isolated from one another. Their various Ashkenazi Rabbis (from Europe) had the utmost disdain for the Sephardic Jews (from Islamic lands). And each little community spoke their own language. Eliezer and Devora had few friends in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Devora continued her daily struggle to learn Hebrew for her soon-to-be-born baby. Her loneliness was constant. A few women would have liked to befriend her but they didn’t speak Hebrew. Eliezer was adamant that she would speak no other language.

There was however, a couple heading a Jewish charity from England, Michael Pines and his wife, who because of a religious (but not extreme) upbringing, knew enough Hebrew to communicate. The four made a pact to only speak Hebrew to each other. For Ben Yehuda, ever the visionary, “that evening was the beginning of the revival of Hebrew as a common spoken tongue in the Land of the Fathers!”

Rothschild Insists on French in His Schools

Baron Edmond Rothschild was the greatest philanthropist of Israel’s pre-state days. Through his charity, Alliance Israelite Universelle, he purchased property for settlers near the Jaffa area, gave farmers vineyards and wineries from French grapes, and built a school in every new settlement.

But for him, the national revival of Hebrew as the national tongue was a pipe dream! In fact, the whole idea of multitudes of Jews making aliyah to Israel was pure fantasy. Yes, he would help the poor in the Holy Land, but the French Baron demanded that French be taught as the main language in all his schools! He simply saw Hebrew as a dead language.

Eliezer wrote a stinging article, a call to war against Rothschild’s Alliance, in which he saw him as a dangerous enemy to the whole concept of a national revival in the land of Israel. Yes, the Alliance was practical. Rothschild wanted to prepare these students to be able to function anywhere in the world. But Ben Yehuda understood in order to function best with the rest of the world, Jews would first have to have a strong identity as a people.

Soon after, a visitor knocked at their door. His name was Nissim Bekhar. He was principal of a boys’ French school run by the Alliance Israelite Universal, through the generosity of the wealthy Baron Edmond Rothschild. In complete contradiction to Rothschild’s orders that his schools in the Holy Land not teach Hebrew, Nissim asked Eliezer to teach Hebrew in his school! He explained he was in agreement with Eliezer’s vision of a national revival, and understood the relationship between the people, the land and the language.

Bekhar told Eliezer he had been given no budget for such a position, but he was ready to take a bit off the salaries of two teachers of religion, and give them to Eliezer. Again, the visionary was working for a pittance, but his intense passion to teach young students “Hebrew in Hebrew” far outweighed his desire for money. “Hebrew in Hebrew” was Eliezer’s unique way of teaching. From the first day of each new Hebrew class, he would speak only Hebrew to his students. His classes were extremely successful and some of his very
first students became leaders in the formation of the future new nation.

The Ultra Orthodox Jews regarded Eliezer’s heretical drive to popularize Hebrew and even teach children to speak Hebrew as an attack on the Jewish religion, their way of life. They responded by declaring a religious ban on the Alliance school, and on anyone who would dare enter its doors. When he attended synagogue, no one came near him. For them as Ashkenazi Jews, nationhood was linked with the coming of the Messiah, and until the Messiah was in the picture, no one should attempt steps towards establishing a nation.

The Very First Pioneer Group

As persecution of Jews in Russia intensified, Eliezer’s articles written in the little Hebrew newspaper caught fire. Word spread, and on the eve of Passover 1882, some 15 strapping young pioneers— including one girl— arrived amid horrific persecution from Russia and surrounding countries. Walking down the street they shouted Ben Yehuda’s name as they searched for his house.

They had read Eliezer’s articles in “the newspaper from Jerusalem” asking them to return to their fatherland, and so they came! Well-educated college kids, they decided to follow the vision and called themselves BILU—the acrostics for “The House of Jacob; Go and we will follow!” They pleaded, “Eliezer, we are willing to do anything and everything— please lead us, please tell us what to do!” Several of these young people were already speaking some Hebrew learned in Russia.

Although Eliezer had only moved to Jerusalem a year earlier, he helped them get settled in different areas of the country and sent some to study farming at an agriculture school. They were really the first of the first, and they gave great comfort and excitement to Ben Yehuda. Today, every Israeli school child knows about BILU.

Turks Block Further Jewish Immigration

Immediately, more and more young Jews began to land in the port city of Jaffa. As Eliezer had foreseen, the Arabs began to complain. Within weeks, the Turks made a decree that no Jews would be allowed to immigrate to region of Palestine.

In fact, they declared it on the ninth day of Av, the same fateful historical day both Jewish Temples were destroyed by Israel’s enemies. The Jewish majority in the Holy Land began to decrease as Arabs from the surrounding areas freely swarmed into the land to find work wherever the Jewish immigrants were settling and building infrastructure.

Still, Jews were being smuggled into the Holy Land—mainly with bribes. A Jewish entrepreneur, David Zalman Levontin, actually succeeded in buying 835 acres of land 10 miles from Jaffa. His group invited the BILU young people to join them. Together they established the very first settlement in the land of Israel. They set up tents and called it Rishon Le’Zion—“The First to Zion.”

The group then rushed up to Jerusalem by horseback to announce the great news to Eliezer Ben Yehuda—to celebrate this great event. On that very night, another “first” became reality. Devora gave birth to the “first Hebrew child” in 1900 years, and they called him Ben Zion, “son of Zion.” Eliezer saw these two events as enormous signs that God’s favor was upon the land.

Waiting for Ben Zion to Speak Hebrew

Time went on, and the “first Hebrew child” grew into a fine, healthy little boy. He was carefully guarded so he would never hear one single word in any other language but Hebrew—mostly from his mother and father. He was alert and vivacious, a gregarious three-year-old, happy to see and be handled by his parents’ many close friends who had accepted the edict of speaking only Hebrew words to him.

There was only one small cloud over this little boy. He was three years old and he had not yet uttered a single word. Devora knew on her side of the family, all the children had begun to speak before they reached their first birthday.

She wondered if Eliezer was a late talker. Or if there had been a mute in his family. She was concerned because their friends began blaming her and Eliezer for his lack of speech. They reminded Eliezer that Hebrew was a dead language. One of his closest friends, Michael Pines, pleaded with Eliezer to teach Ben Zion a living language like Russian. Then, Pines said, he could always learn Hebrew as he grew older. Pines explained to Eliezer that learning Hebrew was good for adults, and even school children—“as you have shown in your classes at Alliance. But not for babies!”

Pines agreed that Ben Yehuda’s vision of a Hebrew-speaking nation was good. And he told how he and more and more Jews in the Holy Land were actually learning to speak Hebrew. But somehow, the citizens of Jerusalem had concluded that the little boy needed a chance to learn a known language, or he might end up an idiot!

In fact, the boy was almost four—and completely mute. But Eliezer shouted to his friend, “Then let him be an idiot!” Later he spoke to Devora, “Don’t you see? It is a great and noble experiment that we are undertaking with our child. I firmly believe that we shall succeed. “But if I do not, I promise you that I shall not be ashamed to declare my failure in public—to announce that Hebrew is a dead tongue, unfit for children to be weaned on.

“However, I am still quite convinced that our child will be no less capable of speech and reason, no less smart than all other children born in Jerusalem or Moscow, for that matter. Soon, very soon, he will begin to speak, and his words will be a balm for us—like the words of the prophets of old!  “And you, Devora, will be the heroine, the first Hebrew mother since the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Titus!”

Eliezer Catches Wife Singing Russian

Not long after, he was returning from a trip to Rishon Le’Zion, to meet with some of his followers and sell a few more subscriptions to his newspaper. Mrs. Pines had just visited Devora and remarked about, “children who are made a sacrifice for the sins of their parents.” Pierced through her soul, she held her child and wept. She thought back to her own childhood in Russia, and without thinking, began singing a lullaby to her child in Russian, tears running down her face.

As fate would have it, just at that moment, Eliezer entered the house and found his wife singing this Russian song to Ben Zion. Furious, he began shouting at her. Devora, not realizing she had been singing in Russian was confused at his outburst and not able to answer. She cried in silence, and Ben Zion, wanting to come to his mother’s help, shouted, “Abba, Abba, lo!” (Father, father, no!)

Both parents were stunned—and then broke out in shouts of joy! Their son was speaking! And his first words were in Hebrew! Despite the rabbinical ban on speaking to the family, crowds of people from all over Jerusalem came to see the “miracle child”—the first child in the entire world to speak Hebrew as his only language!

The First Hebrew Boy Invents his own Hebrew words

From that time on, he wouldn’t keep quiet. Full of questions, he would ask, “What is this? What is that?” Eliezer was pushed to come up with new words that did not yet exist in Hebrew. Ben Zion, instinctively understanding the language’s logic, soon began making up his own words. In fact, as soon as his brother and three sisters were born, one after another, Ben Zion became their teacher, often coining words that his father was more than happy to add to his list of new words that were published in his weekly newspaper columns.

The children’s successes were great examples to the pioneers of the new settlements who were teaching their own children Hebrew with many challenges, because they lacked so many practical words.

First Hebrew Dog

One day Ben Zion found a stray dog, and told his father that it was a “Hebrew dog.” He pled with his father that he really needed this dog because then he would have someone besides his mother and father to talk to. One day the five-year-old and his dog were sent to the post office to mail a letter.

He lost his way and ran into a group of ultra-Orthodox kids. He started to run and yelled for his dog saying, “Mahir! Bo!” (Quick! Come!) The religious kids thought he was calling his dog “Meir,” the name of their Rabbi. Enraged, they killed the dog and beat Ben Zion unconscious. The first Hebrew dog became a casualty of Israel’s rebirth.

When Eliezer’s second boy was born to the household, he had to borrow the money for the circumcision. Eliezer was finally satisfied that Hebrew would always be Ben Zion’s mother tongue, so he allowed him to attend Rothschild’s school with other kids, learning also French and Turkish. That is, until he heard his son singing patriotic songs in French and decided again to home school.

Jumping Through the Turkish Hoops

Even though Eliezer had been associate editor of the small news bulletin The Lily for his first year, he longed to be editor of a daily paper of his own, “as attractive in appearance as LeFigaro, the Paris Daily!” Obviously, that would take some time. But he was raring to go!

His first obstacle was the Turks with their stodgy bureaucracy. Under no circumstances would they grant Ben Yehuda a license to start his own Hebrew-language newspaper. Then through good fortune, Eliezer met a Sephardic Rabbi who happened to have applied for a license some time before, but was not using it. The Rabbi was happy to rent it to Eliezer for the equivalent of $2.50. Eliezer borrowed the money and began publishing what would become the most important tool of communication for the new settlers of Israel and for encouraging new immigration—and it was all in Hebrew.

However, with Eliezer as the sole owner of the paper, their money had to first go towards the paper – their sole source of income – before it went to feed his family. Without enough proper nourishment, Devora became weak and ill. She often found herself coughing and running a fever. In their sixth year, Devora began coughing up blood. She had contracted her husband’s tuberculosis.

To be continued in the January 2019 Yeshua Israel Report
– by Shira Sorko-Ram

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