Zion’s Mother TongueVisions of a Promised Land The Language Of Survival By Benjamin Balint See note please
The remarkable rebirth of Hebrew is a tale worth revisiting in modern Israel. In 1948, besides the scholars and Jewish Palestinians probably more people spoke Kalmyc Mongolian than Hebrew. With the independence of Israel hundreds of thousands of Jews arrived from the graveyards of Europe, North and South Africa, the Arab countries, South and Central America, Australia, and Asia. They spoke and read different languages with different alphabets. Israel beset with the problems of surrounding enemies, lack of water and food, and lack of proper housing, undertook an epic ingathering of so many people from every corner of the world. They established a system of learning centers called “ulpans” where Hebrew was taught in intensive total immersion classes. Within one decade Hebrew was a language in which people joked, bickered, became leftists, were derided by rightists, and cursed and loved. Today, it is spoken by 8.59 million people. Incredible and commendable….rsk
The other day, I took some American visitors to the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem to see the Dead Sea Scrolls. My guests were struck not so much by the parchments themselves as by the sight of a group of Israeli fourth-graders, their noses pressed to the display cases, reading aloud from texts that were two millennia old.
In “The Story of Hebrew,” Lewis Glinert, a professor at Dartmouth College, aims to track the fate of the Hebrew language “from the Israelites to the ancient Rabbis and across two thousand years of nurture, abandonment, and renewal.” The most ambitious attempt since William Chomsky’s groundbreaking 1957 study, “Hebrew: The Eternal Language,” Mr. Glinert’s biography of Hebrew succeeds in representing the language not just as a vehicle of communication but as a crucible of national cohesion.
Mr. Glinert’s narrative, related with impressive sweep, begins with the classical Hebrew of biblical literature. The Bible’s sublime idiom is marked by stylistic suppleness and breadth, he says, that could encompass “narrative, prophecy, law, proverbs, philosophy, elegy, romance” and much else. The era of biblical Hebrew reaches as far back as the second millennium before the Christian era, and Mr. Glinert suggests that the spoken language survived the Jews’ exile to Babylon, their return and their struggles under Roman rule.
Spoken Hebrew seems to have died with little fanfare around A.D. 200, more than a century after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. But throughout the diaspora, Jews used written Hebrew to scaffold elaborate edifices of religious and legal interpretation. Though stateless, Hebrew would flourish as a written medium of cultural continuity. If the Jews safeguarded Hebrew, it was said, the holy tongue safeguarded “the people of the Book.”
The first of these edifices, the Mishnah, was compiled in the second and third centuries. This record of religious teachings and laws “created a rich lexical heritage that could be passed on to future generations,” Mr. Glinert writes, “and that Hebrew poetry and prose would draw upon long after Hebrew had ceased to be a spoken language.” The Babylonian Talmud—another great edifice of interpretation, setting out the authoritative commentary on rabbinic law—expanded Hebrew’s expressive possibilities by inflecting Hebrew with Aramaic, the lingua franca of the ancient Near East.
In the ensuing centuries those who standardized Hebrew’s grammatical architecture and honed its philological precision saw the language not just as a precious possession in itself but also as a fulcrum of Jewish life. “It must constantly be on our lips,” the Egyptian-born linguist and sage Saadiah Gaon wrote in the year 902, “for it affords us an understanding of the Divine Law.”CONTINUE AT SITE
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