‘The Story of Hebrew’ is a scholarly, engaging history of the language


kirsch-hebrew-copyOne of the curiosities in “The Story of Hebrew” by Lewis Glinert (Princeton University Press) is that the author manages to write a history of the Hebrew language without using a single Hebrew letter in the text, although Hebrew appears in the illustrations, including a page from Franz Kafka’s Hebrew notebook. Indeed, Glinert announces at the outset of his richly detailed and wholly fascinating book that it is “not much a book about what Hebrew words mean as about what the Hebrew language has meant to the people who have possessed it.”

Another curiosity is to be found in the fact that Hebrew started out as one of the languages of ordinary life in the ancient Middle East, was preserved in the holy texts of the Jewish people, and was reinvented to serve as the lingua franca of the modern Jewish homeland. To be sure, the most observant Jews still regard Hebrew as leshon ha-kodesh, a language so holy that they insist on using Yiddish for everyday transactions. And yet, as Glinert points out, Hebrew is also “the language of secular Jewish culture,” and the revival of Hebrew was one of the great successes of the Zionist project: “Whether religious or national in spirit, or both, creativity has driven the Hebrew language and its literature to ever-new vistas and forms.”

Glinert, a renowned linguist and professor of Hebrew Studies at Dartmouth College, is willing to entertain a pious question: “What language, then, did God speak?”  He points out that Jewish mystics proposed that “God was creating or deploying Hebrew itself, rather than waiting for a human being to do so,” and that Maimonides regarded all speech attributed to God in the Bible as purely metaphorical. History and science, however, offer a different explanation: “Scholars have long insisted that Hebrew was simply one of many Canaanite dialects, albeit one that happened to survive into the Common Era.”

The watershed moment, Glinert explains, was the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century B.C.E. Hebrew disappeared in various places around the Diaspora, and many Jewish communities required Aramaic and Greek translations in order to understand what is written in the Torah. But the leadership of the exiles who later returned to Judea, “in a remarkable textual act of spiritual resistance,” embraced Hebrew as the language in which the Midrash, the Mishnah and the liturgy were to be expressed: “Out of this grew a great corpus of Hebrew literature, embodying the religion and culture of the Jews down to modern times.”

“The Story of Hebrew” is deeply rooted in scholarship, but Glinert is an engaging storyteller, always lucid, wry and accessible. Thus, for example, he explains the intricacies and inner workings of Hebrew liturgy as it developed in antiquity, showing how “the poets were tempted to produce extravagant flights of fancy, building new words from old in ways even native speakers would have been unlikely to attempt.” And then he sums up: “Could the average worshipper fathom it all? Probably not. (Most modern Israelis can’t, either.)”

Throughout the book, the author reminds us that the survival of Hebrew over several millennia of history is remarkable in itself, although we can thank the generations of translators known as Masoretes for what might seem wholly miraculous. “They preserved both the living sound and shape of biblical Hebrew and the biblical text itself as canonized by the Rabbis two thousand years ago,” he writes. “Thus they ensured that Jews across the Diaspora would study from (more or less) identical copies.”

Yet Hebrew itself changed over time. In that sense, “The Story of Hebrew” is actually a story of the Jewish people, both in the Holy Land and throughout the Diaspora. For a thousand years or so, between the completion of the Talmud and the Jewish Enlightenment of the 19th century, “Hebrew was primarily a religious language.” Once the Jews began to leave the ghettos and enter the secular world, Hebrew was reinvented as a modern national language. “It was not only necessary to invent words denoting [the] locomotive, telegraph, or parliament; the language would also need to express such conceptual distinctions as people, nation, and state.”

Hebraists turned to “the lucid, no-nonsense rabbinic style of Rashi and Maimonides” to coin the new words they needed. While Theodor Herzl assumed that German would be the national language of the Jewish homeland, lexicographer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, poet Hayim Nahman Bialik and their like-minded colleagues devoted themselves to nothing less than the remaking of the Hebrew language.

Significantly, Glinert always finds a way to make these facts of history come fully alive for his readers, which is why “The Story of Hebrew” is both an eye-opening study of the Hebrew language and an extraordinarily pleasurable reading experience. For example, the author describes how Ben-Yehuda and his first wife, Dvora, resolved to speak only Hebrew when they arrived in Palestine — “an agreement that initially bound her to silence since she knew none.”

The rule was still in place when their first child was born. “Dire warnings by fellow Zionists that the child might grow up retarded seemed confirmed when he turned 3 without yet uttering a word — until one day Ben-Yehuda caught his wife singing a Russian lullaby and flew into a rage, when suddenly the frightened child blurted out Abba, Abba! (Daddy, Daddy!).”

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