Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Herzl's Switzerland Plan

Theodore Herzl founded the Zionist political movement in the late 19th century, aimed at creating a safe haven for the Jewish people.  Besides Israel, he considered various options to serve as the Jewish national homeland: First Argentina, and then later on, Uganda.

Herzl thought that the situation was so dire, that (even temporarily) Jews would be willing to forego Israel as their homeland.  In doing so, however, he showed ignorance of the eternal and ongoing bond of Jews to the  Land of Israel.  Israel was not just a dream, it was and is the core and essence of Judaism.

But Herzl also didn't realize how much Jews were connected to the Hebrew language. In his book, Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), published in 1896, he suggested the Switzerland plan:
It might be suggested that our want of a common current language would present difficulties. We cannot converse with one another in Hebrew. Who amongst us has a sufficient acquaintance with Hebrew to ask for a railway ticket in that language? Such a thing cannot be done. Yet the difficulty is very easily circumvented. Every man can preserve the language in which his thoughts are at home. Switzerland affords a conclusive proof of the possibility of a federation of tongues. We shall remain in the new country what we now are here, and we shall never cease to cherish with sadness the memory of the native land out of which we have been driven. 
We shall give up using those miserable stunted jargons, those Ghetto languages which we still employ, for these were the stealthy tongues of prisoners. Our national teachers will give due attention to this matter; and the language which proves itself to be of greatest utility for general intercourse will be adopted without compulsion as our national tongue. Our community of race is peculiar and unique, for we are bound together only by the faith of our fathers.”

Herzl did not realize that the Jewish nation is bound both by a common tongue (Hebrew) and by a common land (Israel).

But Herzl quickly realized his mistake.  Michael Berkowitz, Der Judenstaat's Hebrew translator, wrote in his foreword 'to the Hebrew readers' that Herzl asked him to erase that section.

In a later edition of the book, he retells the tale:
"When [Herzl] entered the Zionist circle and came to know the eastern Hovevei Zion group − their demands and aspirations and the state of their Hebrew education − he realized that there are among us many readers of Hebrew, not only of books but also of newspapers. And when he gave me permission to translate his book into Hebrew, he found in this very fact − that Hebrew readers would read his book − proof that this language can and will be rejuvenated as the national language and that it must be the sole dominant language in the Jewish state.  And then he asked me to erase from my translation the entire chapter which talks about the 'language of the land'.  But, for the literary truth, I chose to present the book with its original content and format, since even the German original didn't change in the newer editions, though the author had already changed his mind as to some details."

כשנכנס לחוג הציוניים והכיר את חובבי ציון המזרחיים, דרישותיהם ושאיפותיהם, ומצב השכלתם העברית, נודע לו, כי יש בקרבינו הרבה קוראים, לא רק לספרים אלא גם לעתונים יומיים, בעברית; וכשנתן לי הרשות לתרגם את ספרו לעברית מצא בעובדה זו עצמה, שקוראים עברים יקראו את ספרו, ראייה, כי שפה זו יכולה ועתידה לחדש נעוריה בתור שפה לאומית, וצריכה היא להיות השפה השלטת היחידה במדינת היהודים, ואז מלא את ידי למחוק בתרגומי את כל הפרק המדבר על אודות ״שפת הארץ״. אולם, למען האמת הספרותית, בחרתי לתת את הספר בתכנו הראשון ובצורתו המקורית, יען כי גם המקור האשכנזי לא נשתנה במהדורות החדשות, אף-על־פי שבכמה פרטים נשתנו כבר אז דעתו ומחשבתו של המחבר.

The 'details' in question were: Israel as the national homeland and Hebrew as the national tongue.

Herzl wrote his book in 1896, more than 15 years after Eliezer Ben-Yehuda launched his 'revival of Hebrew', but apparently nobody bothered to inform Herzl.  Herzl did not realize that Jews had been reading newspapers in Hebrew even before he was born.  He did not know that Jews met and conversed in Hebrew.  He was completely unaware that Hebrew was still living and breathing, just as he was unaware that the Land of Israel was still living and breathing.

And so Berkowitz translated the book, including the paragraph about 'nobody being able to order a train-ticket in Hebrew', in Hebrew.
  הן לא נוכל היום לדבר עברית, כי מאתנו יש לאל ידו לדרוש פתקא למסעו במסלת הברזל בשפת עבר? אבל גם הדבר הזה פשוט הוא מאד. 

It's interesting to note that though the modern words for 'ticket' and 'train'  (כרטיס and רכבת) had already been invented many years previously - 'ticket' by Yehuda Leib Gordon and 'train' by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda - Berkowitz used the more antiquated words.

In fact, those 'new' words weren't really needed.  Hebrew was a living lanugage, and Hebrew speakers and writers could communicate quite well about the most mundane matters even before Ben-Yehuda appeared.  It is true that we were missing some vocabulary, but many newly coined words replaced existing words .   For example, using one-word nouns instead of compound nouns.

Though Berkowitz  preferred to retain the language issue in the Hebrew version of Der Judenstaat, he published a letter in the most popular Hebrew-language newspaper of the time, Hamagid, informing readers that Herzl had realized his mistake.

Berkowitz later served as Herzl’s Hebrew-language secretary. Herzl needed to know how the Zionist movement was portrayed in the Hebrew press, and needed somebody to assist him answering all the Hebrew letters he received…

See here for an archive of articles about our history in Israel.

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Thursday, January 08, 2015

What Convinced Ben-Yehuda That Hebrew Could Be Revived?

During the past millennium and a half, Hebrew was used by Jews mainly as a literary language (and, in fact, as the sole literary language).  However, Jews did use Hebrew in speech as well, when it was necessary to communicate with other Jews.

Linguist Chaim Rabin points out that since every Jewish man had to know Hebrew on some level, Hebrew was the natural candidate for the inter-Jewish 'lingua franca' - the common language.

As we'll see, Israel was the one place where Hebrew was consistently in use. Both because Israel is the birthplace of Hebrew and traditions remained for generations, and because Israel was the place where Jews from all over the world converged. And they usually shared only one language: Hebrew.

Since this use of language was anecdotal, all evidence is also anecdotal. This article does not intend to be complete - there are many more examples, from all over, of Jews speaking Hebrew.

Rabbi Saadia Gaon, of the 10th century, wrote the first Hebrew-language dictionary, where he explains: I've seen that many Jews aren't using our language properly, even on its simple level; and so of-course they aren't familiar with its more difficult words. And when they speak, they use many words erroneously."

"ראיתי שרבים מבני-ישראל אינם בקיאים בצחות לשוננו הפשוטה, ועל אחת כמה וכמה במלים הקשות שלה. וכאשר הם מדברים, הרי מלים רבות בשגיאות."

The dictionary was written mostly for poets, but Rav Saadia Gaon points out that the book it also intended to help Jews speak with God, wherever they go, in their business dealings, in the privacy of their homes, and to their children.

"שוח ישיחו בו עם אלהינו , בצאתם ובבואם , ובכל משלח ידם , ובחדרי משכבם, ואל עולליהם."

We have a few pieces of anecdotal evidence regarding 10th century Jews speaking Hebrew in Tiberias. Eli ben Yehudah ha-Nazir, a Hebrew grammarian, writes (in his Arabic book on the Hebrew language): "I would sit long hours in the town squares of Tiberias and its villages, listening to the speech of the simple and common folk, and studying the language and its foundations, and what they pronounced in the Hebrew language, and the Syriac language and its kinds, that is, the language of the Targum and the rest, for it is close to the Hebrew language..."

Aharon Ben Moshe Ben Asher, a grammarian as well, writes that a certain Hebrew pronunciation was common in Tiberias, "whether they read from the Torah or speak in conversation: men, women and children".

Jacob Mann, the great researcher of the Cairo Genizah, wrote that those documents show that Hebrew might have been spoken during the 10th-12th centuries, and that they supply material for study "on Hebrew in speech and in writing throughout the centuries both in Palestine and in the countries of the Diaspora."

Writing about a 12th century woman's letter, written in fluent and poetic Hebrew, he points out that she came from a learned family and that it "would not be unusual for her to have possessed a good knowledge of the Hebrew language".

The ability to write personal letters - which we can find Jews doing throughout the generations - shows that Jews had the vocabulary and capability to handle a Hebrew-language conversation. If you can write your friend what you did today, then, theoretically, you can also speak to him about it.

Rabbi Shlomo Parhon, a 12th-century North African scholar, wrote a lexicon in Hebrew called "Mahberet He’arukh" (מחברת הערוך). At the time, Sephardi linguists wrote their books in Arabic, which meant they were inaccessible to Ashkenazi Jews. Rabbi Shlomo Parhon wanted to introduce Ashkenazi Jews to the advances of Hebrew grammar by the Sephardi linguists.

In the introduction he apologizes for his bad Hebrew. Unlike European Jews, he says, he wasn't very experienced in speaking Hebrew.

"Because those who live here were not so accustomed to speaking the holy tongue, because all the places in Muslim lands share the same language, and all the visitors who come to them are familiar with their language, so that they had no need to use the holy tongue or to be accustomed to it. But each of the Christian lands has a different language, and when visitors come to them they don’t understand what they are saying, and they had to speak to them in the holy tongue, and therefore are more accustomed to it."

"Sefer Hasidim", written in Germany in the early 13th century, also mentions spoken Hebrew .

In one story, an elderly man is asked what he did to deserve such long life. He answers: "Because I had guests in my home and they did not understand my language and spoke Hebrew to me while I was in the bathhouse, and I never spoke [Hebrew] in the bathhouse or toilet, also for secular matters, even though it's allowed. And because I was strict [about the sanctity of Hebrew], I was awarded with long life."

Notice that the man spoke Hebrew, and could do for both religious and secular matters, but refrained from speaking it when he was in the bath or toilet.

Another story describes a Jew who was taken captive in a distant land. One day a group passed by, and the captive identified them as Jews, as they spoke Hebrew amongst themselves.

Sefer Hasidim also gives advice to those who don't speak Hebrew well. "If somebody comes to you who doesn't understand Hebrew and wants to focus in his prayers, or if a woman comes to you, tell them to learn the prayers in a language they can understand."

Obviously, not everybody could understand or speak Hebrew. Women, for example, weren't even expected to in that era. But most men were expected to pray in Hebrew and understand what they were saying.

Another example of Hebrew speech doesn't even involve Jews. Bertrandon de la Broquière, a French nobleman, visited Israel in the early 15th century and wanted to return to Europe overland, a very risky venture at the time for a Christian. In Damascus, he approached a Muslim, Kodja Barqouq, who was going towards Bulgaria and asked to join him. Barqouq who was concerned about whether Broquière could pass himself off as a local, asked him whether he could understand Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew, the vulgar tongue or Greek.

In the late 15th century, a German traveler by the name of Arnold von Harff visited Jerusalem and wrote down a few words and sentences he learned from a few local German Jews. The accent, as he wrote it down, is very much Ashkenazi, and there are some mistakes, but they even gave him an example of a short conversation:  "Are you Jewish? Yes."

"יהודי אתה? כן דיברת!"

Towards the end of the 16th century, in 1597, Rabbi Yosef ben Elchanan Halperin wrote a grammar textbook for children called "Em Hayeled" (The Child's Mother). This book was meant to teach Hebrew verb conjugation to seven-year olds. As the author explains: it's meant to teach children to speak properly and to write Hebrew, so that when a father asks his child a word, the child could respond without hesitation and without confusing tenses etc.

A year later, Rabbi Morderchai Yaffe wrote of his own experience: "I've heard the author's seven-year-old students with my own ears and they knew all the verb forms."

Rabbi Isaiah Horovitz, the Shelah, came to Israel in the early 17th century. He passed through Aleppo, where he gave a sermon. He tells about it in his letter to his family (written in Hebrew): "They only speak Hebrew, and whenever I gave a sermon there, I did so in Hebrew."

"וכל לשונם לשון הקודש, ובכל עת שדרשתי שם, דרשתי בלשון הקודש באר היטב"

Obviously, the Jews of Aleppo did not only speak Hebrew. But they could communicate with a rabbi who came from afar and did not know Arabic.

This is just one example of many. Many Jews were sent by the Israeli community to collect money abroad. They too often spoke Hebrew with their Jewish hosts.

In the mid-17th century, Rabbi Nathan Nata Hannover wrote a Hebrew-Latin-German-Italian dictionary meant to teach Jews how to speak other languages ("to teach you to speak to kings and dukes"). The premise, of course, is that Jews knew Hebrew fluently enough and that it was possible to teach regular speech in another language, using Hebrew.

One chapter is dedicated to talking business, or in other words: a conversational guide. Here's part of the conversation he brings, discussing going to the market: "We'll get there first, then we can choose the better and cheaper produce. After that, a lot of traders come to the fair, and they raise the prices."

The dictionary was quite popular and was reprinted several times throughout the 18th century. A later printer added French and more conversations, this time of a general nature (such as visiting friends).

Back to Israel. The early 18th century German Franciscan Monk, Friar Elzearius Horn, reports from Jerusalem that the Europeans mostly speak Italian, the Orientals speak Arabic or Turkish, and the Jews speak Hebrew.

Stephan Schultz, a German Protestant missionary, visited Israel in the mid-18th century. He tells of his meeting with Jews in a yeshiva in Tiberias, "which they, after that of Safed, hold to be the biggest in the Orient. Here I found about 20 youngsters who were studying the Talmud; some of them were from Poland, others from Italy and elsewhere. One among their teachers still knew some Yiddish, but the others, however, because they had left their fatherland very young, spoke Portuguese or Spanish and Arabic. I had to speak Hebrew therefore, which they understood best, but were not used to speaking."

And now we get to the 19th century, and to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. In his article "The Dream and its Realization" (החלום ושברו) (*), he explains that he believed Hebrew could be revived as a spoken language, because he met Jews who spoke Hebrew.

The first person Ben-Yehuda met who spoke conversational Hebrew was George (Getzel) Selikovitch - a Russian Jew who spent some time in North Africa. It was also the first time Ben-Yehuda heard the Sephardi accent. Selikovitsch told Ben-Yehuda that, until he learned Arabic, he spoke to the North African Jews in Hebrew. Ben-Yehuda summed up his meeting: "The question of the revival of spoken Hebrew was immediately solved".

Ben-Yehuda met M. Zundelman, an Israeli teacher, in Paris, where they sat at a cafe, and spoke in Hebrew for a couple of hours about Ben-Yehuda's plans. This was Ben-Yehuda’s first long, serious conversation in Hebrew, which wasn't aimed at 'speaking Hebrew', but rather to discuss the topic at hand.

Ben-Yehuda, who for the first time felt that he spoke Hebrew as if it was his natural language, realized how difficult it would be to use this language in day-to-day life and that he needed to make a list of words. He therefore coined his first new word: מילון ("milon", dictionary).

[Though Rabbi Saadia Gaon already coined a perfectly good word for it: אגרון - agron.  Today this word developed to 'egron', meaning 'theasaurus']

In 1875, Ben-Yehuda was hospitalized in Paris, and there he met Avraham Moshe Luntz, who came from Jerusalem and spoke Hebrew fluently.  All of Ben-Yehuda’s conversations with Luntz were in Hebrew, and he started getting used to the Israeli (ie, Sephardi) accent. Luntz told Ben-Yehuda that all the Jewish communities of Jerusalem spoke amongst themselves in their own tongue, but the only language they all shared was Hebrew, which they spoke with a Sephardi accent.

Ben Yehuda wrote that these conversations strengthened his belief that Hebrew could be revived in Israel.

It's interesting to note that by this time, the situation had completely changed from Parhon's time. Ashkenazi Jews all spoke a common tongue (Yiddish), while different Sephardi communities spoke different languages and could not understand each other. Therefore Sephardi Jews were more used to speaking Hebrew.

Ben-Yehuda could speak to people in Hebrew almost immediately when he got to Israel. When he spoke Hebrew to the landlord of his inn in Jaffa, the man was surprised, but answered him in Hebrew. Ben-Yehuda then went out for a stroll. The city was mostly Arab at the time, but there were a few Jewish merchants. He stopped by a Jewish money-changer, and conducted his first business deal in Hebrew. The man's easy Hebrew was like a 'salve to a sore soul, and the revival of the language shined again before my eyes."

"ויהי לי הדבר הזה באמת כצרי לנפש העגומה.  תחיית הלשון הבריקה שוב לפני עיני."

Ben-Yehuda took a wagon to Jerusalem. Ben-Yehuda asked the driver if he knew Hebrew. The driver answered 'a little', and though he stuttered, he was able to speak it in light conversation.

In Jerusalem he was met by Dov Frumkin, his boss at the Hebrew-language Havatzelet newspaper, who spoke to him in Hebrew. While he was by Frumkin, Ben-Yehuda had time to observe the many guests who came by. The Sephardi Jews spoke Hebrew, while the Ashkenazi Jews spoke Yiddish, though they also spoke a bit of Hebrew, in honor of Ben-Yehuda.

Ben-Yehuda also met with Yehiel Michael Pines, with which he spoke Hebrew.  Ben-Yehuda noted that Pines' wife could understand some of that conversation. However, Ben-Yehuda was critical of Pines, who always spoke Hebrew with him, but not with his family and friends.

Because Ashkenazi Jews continued to speak Yiddish to each other, though they could speak Hebrew to Sephardi Jews, later on Ben-Yehuda took to dressing up like a Sephardi Jew. That way Ashkenazi Jews didn’t feel uncomfortable speaking Hebrew to him.

Throughout the generations, Jews spoke Hebrew.  They did not use Hebrew in regular speech, but they could, when they needed to.

Hebrew is the only language in the world today to have been "revived", but that's because it was never dead.  Ben-Yehuda did not start from scratch, and as he himself recognized, that was a most significant factor in the revival of spoken Hebrew.

(*) Ironically, in modern Hebrew the phrase is used to mean "a dream and it's dissolution”.

See here for an archive of articles about our history in Israel.

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