Bet after Alef but only after Eliezer

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda Some years ago while visiting Israel I tried to learn a bit of Hebrew. It didn’t really work very well. I picked up a few phrases like “More coffee” and “First, a bathroom” and “My friend will pay” and discovered that roughly half the letters in their consonant-heavy alphabet involve a guttural “ch” sound and that although Hebrew famously has no vowels, it does. But it’s amazing that all around me people were yammering on fluently in it, including immigrants who hadn’t spoken a sentence of it before making Aliyah or their escape.

I mention it not to underline my linguistic lack of virtuosity. Rather, it’s to stress how amazing it is that the first known Hebrew conversation in the modern world took place on October 13 of 1881. To be sure, Hebrew was spoken and sometimes even understood in synagogue rituals and I’m sure some pedants showed off by conversing in the ancient tongue of their people through the centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132-136 AD and the dispersal of Israel. But everyday Hebrew lapsed gradually into silence by about 400 AD.

In this of course it is not alone. Who speaks Gothic today, or Phoenician? But Hebrew rose again, in one of those developments we take too readily for granted because we know it happened instead of noticing how weird it is. It revived, and became again the language of a people in exactly the same way that Cornish didn’t despite being a boutique revival project.

Could anyone reassemble Assyria today? Or any number of kingdoms once far larger and prouder than Israel? Yet the nation and the language were both restored by people who may indeed have qualified as “stiff-necked” but in a good way. Especially Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, né Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman, who was part of that first-ever ancient-modern Hebrew conversation and whose son Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda (who changed his name to Itamar Ben-Avi for reasons not relevant to his narrative) was the first native Hebrew speaker in a thousand years and a darn lonely kid because of it. He grew up to be an ardent Zionist and advocate for Esperanto whose total lack of success reminds us again what a miracle it is that Hebrew did revive.

The family had a terrible time getting other people to agree to speak only Hebrew, and were ostracized by the ultra-Orthodox for using it for non-sacred purposes. But they persevered and I can tell you that when I was in Israel, an enormously multilingual and cosmopolitan place for the most part, constantly welcoming immigrants speaking Spanish, Russian or Amharic and needing a lot of help to match that first halting, pointed 1881 chat, we did get into some corners so obscure that we found unilingual people… speaking only Hebrew.

Ben-Yehuda laughs last. Gutturally, I imagine. But long and loud and rightly so.