Israelis offer a 'Yom Huledet Sameach' to Ben Yehuda, resurrector of Hebrew language

Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who transformed Hebrew from the rusty language of ancient Israel and the Bible into the dynamic, dominant language of modern-day Israel, would be 155 years old today.

Ariel Schalit/AP
This December, 2012 photo shows visitors at the Mahane Yehuda market, one of Jerusalem's free tourist attractions. Beyond its earthly past, Jerusalem has an impossible beauty with broad appeal. For residents and tourists, secular and religious souls, city slickers or nature lovers, there is always an unexplored alleyway, street corner or vista that will show you the city as you’ve never seen it before.

If it weren’t for Eliezer Ben Yehuda, I wouldn’t be able to order ice cream, ask directions to the local furniture store, or discuss Gaza bombings in Hebrew.

Since I’m a new journalist in Israel who happens to love ice cream and arrived here with only one piece of furniture to my name, that would be grave indeed.

So I for one am grateful for Mr. Ben Yehuda, who was born 155 years ago today in the Russian empire.

Legend has it that the man was not only brilliant, but a little crazy. And you would have to be, if you were planning to try to resurrect an ancient language after roughly 2,000 years and expect it to become the primary spoken language of a country that didn't even exist yet.

But the Sorbonne-educated Ben Yehuda did just that – well before the state of Israel was founded in 1948, and even before Lord Balfour of Britain made his famous promise to the Zionists in 1917 to help establish a Jewish homeland.

Of course, Hebrew was the language of the Torah – the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – as well as other religious writings. So many Jews were familiar with it. But they didn’t use it to talk about things like grocery shopping or even politics.

Where to start? With your family, of course. When Ben Yehuda arrived in Israel with his family, he banned his wife and children from speaking any other language. According to tradition, his family was the first to speak exclusively Hebrew in the home.

He also helped start schools and Hebrew-language newspapers, and published the first dictionary of modern Hebrew, often drawing on biblical words to coin modern terms. Ultra-Orthodox Jews pushed back hard, arguing that Hebrew is a holy language and not to be used to discuss the mundane. Many of them still prefer to speak in Yiddish when discussing daily affairs.

But Hebrew is nevertheless the dominant language in Israel today, although Arabic is an official language as well.

But I digress.

You were wondering about how to order ice cream, right?

G'lida. That’s your ticket.

Todah (thank you), Ben Yehuda.

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