When Eliezer Ben-Yehuda arrived in Palestine in 1881, Hebrew had not been the spoken language of the Jewish people since the time of the Bible. Yet, thanks to Ben-Yehuda, by 1922 enough Jewish pioneers were speaking Hebrew that the British Mandate authorities recognized it as the official language of Jews in Palestine.
Ben-Yehuda conceived of Jewish nationalism as both the return to the historical homeland in the Land of Israel, as well as the revival of the Hebrew language. To accomplish the latter, Ben-Yehuda needed to inspire a near impossible feat: transform Hebrew, which for centuries had been used only in study, into a modern spoken language.
A Youthful Yearning
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was born Eliezer Perelman in Luzhky, Lithuania, in 1858. The son of a Chabad Hasid, Ben-Yehuda was given a traditional religious education at a local yeshiva. The rosh yeshiva, or head of the school, was secretly a maskil, or enlightened thinker. He introduced Ben-Yehuda to secular literature and piqued the boy’s interest in non-religious study.
Eventually Ben-Yehuda transferred to a Russian gymnasium, but he remained obsessed with modern Hebrew literature, eagerly consuming Hebrew periodicals, especially those concerned with Jewish nationalism. For Ben-Yehuda, nationalism became a way to embrace Hebrew without religion.
Ben-Yehuda found further inspiration in European nationalist movements. In the 19th century, Italy and Greece–both countries with ties to ancient lands and languages–became independent nations. In 1877, the year of Ben-Yehuda’s graduation from gymnasium, the Russo-Turkish war began and brought prominence to the Bulgarian national movement that sought independence from the Ottomans.
Envisioning the Jews as a nation akin to the Bulgarians, Greeks, and Italians, Ben-Yehuda became determined to help create a nation where the Jews could adopt Hebrew as their national language.
Soon after, Ben-Yehuda learned that Jewish communities were using Hebrew to communicate when other languages wouldn’t suffice. (Historians now know that this phenomenon had existed since the middle ages in Europe and the Near East.) In Jerusalem, for example, Jews spoke Yiddish, French, or Arabic colloquially.