Page 56 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 16

Basic HTML Version

e w i s h
o o k
n n u a l
4 2
that Hebrew was being spoken in Eretz Israel by the common
folk, even by coachmen. This produced an indelible impression
on the visitor from abroad. It was known in Eretz Israel from
time immemorial that conversational Hebrew was the medium
of communication among rabbinical students, “kabbalistic” mys-
tics and the rank and file of Jews who were at home in no other
language. But Ben Yehuda yearned for more than this. He was
eager to see Hebrew develop as the universal language, to be
spoken not only by the Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Yemenite
writers and savants in their scholarly intercourse, but also, fluent-
ly and naturally, by workers and artisans, by shopkeepers and
farmers, by coachmen and porters.
Furthermore, he was prompted not by the idea of “sanctity of
the language," nor even by the romantic notion of the unity of
the Jewish communities and the unity of the generations—the
then “leitmotiv” of Hebrew speech recognized alike by the Jews
in Jerusalem and by the Zionists in the Diaspora; he was impelled
principally by a political motivation. For him the advocacy of
Hebrew had the same meaning as the struggle between languages
in the territories of the Hapsburg Monarchy prior to World War
I, the same as the struggle for Polish in Russian-ruled Poland, for
Gaelic in British-ruled Ireland and for German in Posen. In
other words, he regarded the emergence of Hebrew as an over-
riding political issue through which a nation could battle to win
both political freedom and national sovereignty. Therein lay the
fundamental difference between him and all other contemporary
champions of Hebrew, both in Eretz Israel and abroad. It must
be kept in mind that the speaking of Hebrew was not included
in the program of the nationalist Smolenskin, of the
Lilienblum, or of the political Zionist Herzl. Ben Yehuda
was unique in his purely political conception of the role of
He was alone, too, in his perseverance as a warrior onTEe
Hebrew battle-front. To go on preaching uninterruptedly the
cause of Hebrew speech to closed, petty minds, to hear constantly
the derisive comments about “that crazy fellow” who is trying
to force harried Jews anxious about their livelihood to exchange
their respective mother-tongues for some half-dead language—all
this required heroic diligence. Yet he carried the banner of
Hebrew for forty long years, never despairing or faltering, and
never satisfied that what he had done was sufficient. To his very
last day he kept admonishing and reiterating tirelessly, in print
and by word of mouth, that the only salvation for the Jewish
people lay in speaking Hebrew. It is not an anecdote but a true
story, that Ben Yehuda told a friend who had complained of ill-
health, “Speak Hebrew and you’ll get well.”
Some years ago I called him “a Jack of a single trade,” which
he really was. He could be quite submissive and tolerate suffer-
ing in silence; he could truckle to the high and mighty. But early