Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Teaching the Aleph Bet: Where Hearts and Traditions Meet


Ever since I was a child, I have been terrified of rooms full of children — a strange trait for a Hebrew-school teacher.

Yes, I adore kids one-on-one, but large groups of them scare me.

I thought this fear would abate when I had my own children. I thought that giving birth must endow a woman with some sort of motherly comfort in rooms full of children. I was wrong.

So why do I love teaching Hebrew school?

Two reasons.

First: The fear lasts only a moment until we begin making an aleph with licorice, approximating bet with our bodies and forming gimel in our mouths.

By the time class is over, the kids know the first four letters and how to sing “Happy Birthday” in Hebrew. And we are no longer strangers.

In this mystical view, these letters are the DNA of our universe, a double helix of 22 beautiful shapes that constitute all of existence.

I love teaching children because in that room we do the sacred work of building a community and creating a bridge across which our traditions can be handed down, as so many before us have done.

At some point during the class, magic happens: We begin to see one another not as inscrutable little kids and inscrutable hulking adults, but as people, as Jews — little Jews and big Jews — across the broad divide between our ages.

Second: I love our traditions, and for me the Hebrew letters are where they all start.

Don’t get me wrong; I am a real Diaspora Jew. I write my songs and poems and essays in English. If you put me on a street corner in Tel Aviv, I would sound like a 5-year-old.

But open a page of Torah or the Mishnah and a whole world springs to life for me. I can almost feel the centuries of eyes, hearts and minds focused on these very same words. Whether the people reading them lived in the Middle Ages, the 1980s or today. Whether they went to bed every night in Spain, Africa, Russia, Iran or — like me — the Pacific Northwest.

Wherever and whenever we live, our hearts meet in these sacred squiggles, these letters that contain our stories beyond geography or time.

According to tradition, God looked into the Torah and created the world. It’s a psychedelic idea: The Torah existed before Creation. The world is literally made up of Hebrew letters — the same Hebrew letters we pronounce, haltingly or fluently, whether building aleph out of candy or standing at the front of a congregation, leading prayers.

In this mystical view, these letters are the DNA of our universe, a double helix of 22 beautiful shapes that constitute all of existence. And in practical terms, the alphabet connects us to Jews who have lived before us and will live after us.

And so, for these reasons, I will continue to teach the Hebrew alphabet and the stories our Torah contains, so that these kids can guard this treasure in their turn.

I’ll teach until my body can no longer carry me into the room, until my mouth cannot form the letters, until my ears cannot hear my students’ small voices shouting back to me in chorus: Gimel! Dalet! Hey!

If some of these kids grow up and never enter a synagogue again, if they never say another Hebrew prayer, if they leave the aleph bet behind and never look back, I bless them on their path. But I hope maybe a couple of them will feel called to walk into a room of small children, armed with a guitar, some aleph-bet yoga poses and the wisdom of Hebrew-school teachers before them.

So, I keep teaching.

Every time we teachers and our students enter the classroom, we are doing holy work. We are building a family, welcoming the next generation into the tribe, and giving them the greatest gift we have: the Hebrew alphabet — 22 beating hearts that carry us, generation after generation, through our beautiful, brief lives.


Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

The Desert Speaks


In hebrew the word to speak is spelled מדבר.

In hebrew the word desert is spelled מדבר.

Variations of the same structure,

the same essence,

the same lines and curves,

the same container molding the same atoms into different structures

two iterations of the same seed,

(fallen from the same flower and taken by the wind

taken by the breath

God’s or yours or mine —

speaking speaking speaking through sand and silence)

which tells us more than just what we read:

that the letters hold more than it seems,

that indeed the desert truly speaks.

The holy land, the holy home,

a perpetually open door.

Think about it:

where is there enough silence to hear to heavens hum?

Here.

Here, the desert speaks,

The desert speaks,

מדבר מדבר

The desert speaks to those who listen.

מדבר מדבר

Hannah Arin is a junior at Pitzer College pursuing a double major in religious studies and philosophy. 

Hebrew Word of The Week: kapparah


Hebrew Word of the Week: ktivah


Hebrew Word of the Week: ezrah


Hebrew Word of the Week: dvorah


Hebrew Word of the Week: esrimish


Hebrew Word of the Week: eroppah


A Poet’s Passionate Reflection in Prayer


Prayers are a particularly usable form of literature. And because they are composed by human beings to answer our most intimate needs, the stock of prayers always grows and changes. One scholar, for example, claims to count only 85 prayers in the Hebrew Bible, but the accumulation of Jewish prayer is now far beyond numbering and continues to grow ever richer and more plentiful.

Marcia Falk, author of “The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath and the New Moon Festival” (Reform Jewish Publishing/CCAR Press), is among the most prolific and influential of our contemporary prayer-makers. I first encountered her work when I reviewed her provocative and illuminating translation of “The Song of Songs,” and I admired “The Book of Blessings” when it was first published two decades ago. Now her classic book of prayer has been issued in a 20th-anniversary edition, which provides us with the occasion to reconsider the vitality and longevity of what she has contributed to Judaism.

Falk is not a rabbi. Rather, she is a poet and a painter, a scholar of biblical and Hebrew literature and a translator of Hebrew and Yiddish texts, all of which serve to inform her work as a modern maker of prayers. She declares that she stands in the tradition of Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel, whose heartfelt prayer was misapprehended by Eli the priest but not by God. “ ‘The Book of Blessings’ is a branch of a tree whose seeds were planted three millennia ago by a woman who prayed from her heart,” says Falk, whose poems occasionally appear in the Journal.

Yet she sees it as her obligation to find new ways of praying, precisely because traditional prayer is not accessible or meaningful to every Jew.  “ ‘The Book of Blessings’ is for those immersed in Judaism, and for those standing at its gates, looking for a way in,” she writes. “It is, especially, for those of us who have, at some time in our lives, stood like Hannah outside the sanctuary’s walls, suffused with longing, or anger, or pain.”

It is significant that “The Book of Blessings” is published under the auspices of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, a branch of Judaism that shares the egalitarian values that are so deeply embodied in her prayers — “the forging of fully inclusive and embracing communities,” as she puts it.

Falk derives many of her newly minted prayers from ancient biblical texts, and she honors the oldest traditions of Judaism by, for example, providing all of the prayers in Hebrew. At the same time, she seeks to make the prayer book fully accessible by including both the English translation and the transliteration of the Hebrew text. And she pointedly insists on replacing the patriarchal deity who is invoked in traditional Hebrew blessings — “Lord Our God, King of the Universe” — with a wholly gender-free phrase: “the source of life.”

To be sure, Falk’s prayer book will strike some readers as a step away from Jewish tradition.  The fundamental prayer of Judaism, as it is rendered in “The Book of Blessings,” starts with a familiar phrase — “Sh’ma yisra’eyl” (Hear O Israel) — but continues with words and phrases that amount to something far more elusive than the original text: “The divine abounds everywhere and dwells in everything; the many are One.” And, strikingly, she omits the traditional mourner’s prayer, the Kaddish, and offers a meditation based on a contemporary poem, “Each of Us Has a Name.” For many Jews, I suspect, that’s a step too far.

If Falk’s exquisite and evocative prayers are the heart of “The Book of Blessings,” the brain is to be found in the commentary that she provides at the end of her book. Here we find a frank explanation of her approach to prayer, a sophisticated discourse on Jewish theology and an eloquent justification of the courageous changes she proposes to make in the trappings of Jewish observance. Significantly, she quotes Ira Eisenstein, a student of Mordecai Kaplan and a leading figure in the Reconstructionist movement, for the notion that Jewish values can and should become “the central theme of passionate reflection,” which is exactly how I would describe Falk’s enduring classic.

“Hebrew is my s’fat dam — the language of my blood,” Falk writes. Like her biblical exemplar, Hannah, Falk has poured out her heart to God, and we are privileged to not only witness but to participate in that “passionate reflection.”


JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

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Hebrew Word of the Week: Kotel


 

 

Hebrew Word of the Week: tesher


 

 

Hebrew Word of the Week: shablul


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People pray at the Western Wall on Jan. 12. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Why Are There Two Jerusalems?


Why is Yerushalayim plural,

One on high and one below?…

I want to live in one “Yerushal,”

Because I am just “I” and not “I”s.

—- Yehuda Amichai, “Open Closed Open”

 

Welcome to one of the great grammatical conundrums in the history of Jewish geography: why is the Hebrew word for Jerusalem – Yerushalayim — in the plural form?

Because, in fact, there is not one Jerusalem; there are two.

On a political level, there are two Jerusalems — the “new city” of west Jerusalem, and the Old City and eastern Jerusalem — two entities forged into one fifty years ago with the Six Day War.

On a linguistic level, there are two Jerusalems – Yerushalayim in Hebrew; al-Quds (“the holy city”) in Arabic.

On a geographical level, there are two Jerusalems. Jerusalem is on the border between the coastal plain that leads to Tel Aviv, and the wilderness that begins to its east. As soon as you leave Jerusalem, and head east, the Asian desert begins. Jerusalem, therefore, is at the nexus point of a Mediterranean climate and central Asian climate.

What is the origin of the “two Jerusalem” theory?

The first mention of Jerusalem in the Hebrew Bible is in Genesis 14, in the account of Abram’s war against the kings.

There Abram encounters Melchizedek, who is both the king of Salem and a priest of the Canaanite god El Elyon, God Most High. Melchizedek greets Abram with bread and wine and blesses him in the name of El Elyon. It is the first interfaith dialogue in history. There, the place is called Salem, or Shalem.

A few chapters later, in Genesis 21, Abraham returns to that place. He brings his son, Isaac, to “the land of Moriah” as a potential sacrifice.

Abraham calls the place Adonai-yireh, “God will see” — or simply, Yireh.

Abraham named the place Yireh, and Melchizedek knew it as Shalem. Yireh-Shalem becomes Yerushalayim. Those two names are soldered together: One name, given to it by a pagan king who blesses Abraham — representing the possibility of peace; and another name, given to it by Abraham himself, representing the presence of God and the sacrificial offerings that will be there at that place.

Peace between people and peace with God — wedded together in one name. A promise and a goad. A duality.

But, there is far more than this; as the late poet, Yehuda Amichai, intimates, there is a spiritual duality as well.

Jerusalem is Yerushalayim because of a subtle duality that is nevertheless omnipresent in our literature and thinking — the earthly Jerusalem (Yerushalayim shel matah) and the heavenly Jerusalem (Yerushalayim shel maalah).

Where does one begin on this quest for the heavenly Jerusalem and the earthly Jerusalem?

The idea of a supernal Jerusalem begins in Isaiah 6. The prophet has a vision of God in a supernal temple, surrounded by angelic beings, each one chanting “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts.”

The rabbis imagined that the heavenly Jerusalem served as an alternative and antidote to the real, imperfect Jerusalem. Their fantasies took on new fervor after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. They believed that the heavenly Jerusalem had its own temple with its own elite of priests and prophets.

Resh Lakish said: There are seven firmaments, and in one of those firmaments there is a place where millstones grind manna for the righteous, and in one of those firmaments there is a place where the heavenly Jerusalem, and the Temple, and the very altar are built, where the angel Michael stands and every day brings an offering.

The Rabbis idealized Jerusalem, twisting it beyond its own reality. For them, the mountains of Jerusalem pointed straight to heaven. They imagined Jerusalem as a place where no woman ever miscarried, where no one was ever stung by serpent or scorpion, where the fires of the altar were never doused with rain, where no wind blew the pillar of smoke over the worshipers.

The idea of a heavenly Jerusalem exists in Christianity as well.

For Christians, the earthly Jerusalem is Jewish and sinful; the heavenly Jerusalem, Christian and righteous. The heavenly Jerusalem is the place of the new covenant sealed through the blood of Jesus.

But you are come unto mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant. (Hebrews 12:22-24)

The ultimate vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem comes from Revelations. John sees the New Jerusalem descending from heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband in gold and precious stones.

I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is the new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name…And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. (Revelations 3;12)

For Christians, the heavenly Jerusalem was not real. It was an ideal. In the Middle Ages, there were many fanciful descriptions, maps, and paintings of Jerusalem, each one showing Jerusalem as the center of the world, as the sages themselves imagined it – as axis mundi.

The idea of the heavenly Jerusalem finds its way into even the very architecture and design of the modern city of Jerusalem.

Anyone who has been to Jerusalem marvels at the beauty of Jerusalem stone as a building material.

The man who first figured this out was Sir Ronald Storrs, the first British military governor of Jerusalem, and a vicar’s son. He enacted a law that permitted only Jerusalem stone to be used as a building material used in construction in Jerusalem. In his memoirs recalls the medieval hymn “Jerusalem is built in heaven/ Of living stone.” He believed that the earthly Jerusalem should be a replica of the heavenly Jerusalem.

By contrast, the Jewish view of the heavenly Jerusalem is that it is actually not entirely in heaven.

In fact, the heavenly Jerusalem is adjacent to the earthly Jerusalem.

Towards where should we pray? Rabbi Hiyya said: Toward the heavenly Holy of Holies. Rabbi Simeon ben Halafta said: Toward the earthly Holy of Holies. Rabbi Pinchas said: There is no disagreement here. The earthly holy of holies is directly opposite the heavenly Holy of Holies. (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 4:5).

Jerusalem represents the revealed presence of God in human history. In the liturgy, in seder kriat ha-Torah (the service for the reading of the Torah), you would expect references to the place from which Torah came – Sinai.

Not so. Instead, Jerusalem has a starring role. As we take the Torah from the ark, we echo the plaintive cry of Jews in Jerusalem during Crusader times: “Rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.” “For out of Zion Torah goes forth, and the word of God from Jerusalem.” In fact, the revelation at Sinai is absent; instead, the Torah service asks us to remember and dramatize the first time that Ezra read the Torah to the returning exiles at the newly built, makeshift second Temple.

Jerusalem represents the homecoming of the soul. At the end of Neilah, as well as at the end of Pesach seder: “Next year in Jerusalem!”

We can understand singing those words at the end of the seder; we have just imagined ourselves leaving Egypt, and about to trek into the wilderness on our way to the land of Israel/

But, why do we say those words at the end of the Day of Atonement? Because, here, Jerusalem is not “really” Jerusalem. It is a metaphor for inner wholeness, forgiveness, and redemption.

Jerusalem ultimately represents God. The Jerusalem Talmud says that in days to come, the name of the city will be “Adonai is there.” “Do not read ‘shama,’ there, but rather, shemah — her name.”

Jerusalem and God will have the same name.

Let us not read this as the deification of a city.

Rather, let us read this as the urbanization of an ideal of holiness.

Let us return to the Christian perception of the heavenly Jerusalem.

Because Jerusalem is not just Jerusalem. It is, properly, Zion – and beyond that, it is the state of Israel itself.

A theology is only as good as the implications that flow from it. Were it not for Christian (more precisely, British) philo-semitism of the nineteenth century, Zionism could never have come into existence. Sir Ronald Storrs – but not only Storrs, Balfour himself – personified that thrust. Christian Zionism is itself a child of this phenomenon – an over-idealization of the Jews and their land.

Over the last fifty years, since the Six Day War, criticism of the state of Israel – its policies, and even its very existence – has mounted. While some of the sharper, more pointed critiques verge on anti-Semitism, not all of them do.

Some, in fact, are the results of a welcome, but ultimately misplaced, philo-semitism. It is the expectation — not that Jews are devils, but that they should be angels. The same should be true of a Jewish state – that it should be angelic, perfect, beyond reproach.

Christian perceptions of the heavenly Jerusalem crowd into the public imagination. It is the problem of a misplaced philo-semitism. Like anti-semitism, philo-semitism relies on distorted, fantastical views of Jews and Judaism. Philo-semitism can become a malevolence, masked in benevolence. In fact, this love-hate relationship with Jews and Judaism is one of the most pre-dominant themes in Christian history.

Philo-semitism is the hope – even the expectation – of the moral excellence of the Jewish people. It is a moral excellence that has yet to be achieved.

The liberal Christian philo-semite does not hate the Jew because the Jew has rejected Jesus. The liberal Christian philo-semite is merely disappointed with the Jew because the Jews have not yet lived up to the advertisements of moral excellence that they have created for themselves. The liberal Christian philo-semite sees the reality of the earthly Jerusalem – an Israel that must still fight, has problematic policies, where the people are far from saintly – and is disappointed, sometimes, radically disappointed — that the heavenly Jerusalem is not yet here. They are not like the fabled Southern anti-semites who used to look for the horns on the Jews they met. They are looking for angel’s wings. And when they do not find those wings, the disappointment can become anger, can become hatred.

That disappointment with the all-too-human, realpolitik failures of the Jewish state has seeped into leftist Jewish critiques of Israel and Zionism. They are addicted to the prophetic ideal, while often forgetting that the Jews and the Jewish state have real enemies who never got that prophetic memo.

That is the paradox. In the Jewish soul, we live with the vision of a heavenly, perfect Jerusalem of our ideals. But, in real life and in real time, we live with the imperfect, morally tainted, earthly Jerusalem. The tension is built into Zionism, and Jewish historical longing – the struggle between being a “light to the nations” or “like all the nations.”

It does not seem likely that we will solve this conundrum and this tension any time soon. Jerusalem – like all of us – is a spiritual work in progress. Reb Naftali of Ropschitz, a Hasidic master, taught: “By our service to God, we build Jerusalem daily. One of us adds a row, another only a brick. When Jerusalem is completed, redemption will come.”

Let that be a new definition of Zionism, in our time – the work of making the earthly Jerusalem look more like the heavenly Jerusalem.

 

Hebrew Word of the Week: miltser


Hebrew Word of the Week: yerushalayim


jerusalem

A boy’s life and the birth of modern Hebrew


cov-angels-copyA new illustrated children’s book tells the story of a Jewish boy who has no friends and whose parents won’t let him play with anyone, fearful that other children actually may talk to him. He doesn’t speak until he’s 4 years old, and when he does, it is in response to his father’s anger at his mother for trying to soothe the boy by singing a soft Russian lullaby.

It’s a true story, and the boy at the center of it grows up to be Itamar Ben-Avi, son of Eliezer Ben-Yeduda, the founder of modern Hebrew.

Prolific children’s author Richard Michelson chooses well in “The Language of Angels” by focusing the story of the reinvention of the Hebrew language on Ben-Yehuda’s young son. At birth in 1882, Itamar was named Ben-Zion (he later changed it), and his parents wanted him to hear and speak Hebrew exclusively. Their intent was to raise the first Hebrew-speaking child in modern history.

When Ben-Yehuda and his wife, Devorah, immigrated to Palestine in 1881, Hebrew was only a written language and recited solely in the synagogue. But it was clear that as Jews from other countries arrived to Eretz Yisrael in large numbers at the end of the 19th century, they would need a common language, and Ben-Yehuda was devoted to making that happen.

Itamar’s family story is fascinating and unique. As an adult, he wrote an autobiography, from which Michelson takes much of his source material, and it translates well to the picture-book format.

Bright, folk-tinged illustrations by Karla Gudeon are enhanced by clever placement of Hebrew words and letters that seem to fly off the page joyously. Children are at first drawn into a possibly sad story of a boy who has no friends, spending much of his younger years fending off bullies who think he is desecrating Hebrew as the holy tongue. But the excitement builds when Itamar wants ice cream but doesn’t know how to ask for it.

“Because ice cream didn’t exist two thousand years ago, no one in history has ever asked for it in Hebrew,” Michelson writes in the book. After a bit of research, Itamar’s abba makes up the word “glida” on the spot, but, by then, the author tells us, “the glida had melted.”

Eventually, Itamar makes many friends and they compete with one another to make up new words for his father’s brilliant Hebrew dictionary. As Hebrew is taught at school to children as a first language, and easy-to-read newspapers help spread the word to adults, the Ben-Yehuda family experiment served as proof that it was possible to achieve the miracle of reviving an ancient language that had not been spoken for centuries.

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hww-shalom

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‘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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