Eliezer's Obsession

Article excerpt

Resurrecting Hebrew

By Ilan Stavans

Schocken Books

2008, $21.00, pp. 240


Ilan Stavans' Resurrecting Hebrew is a daring literary adventure, fusing memoir, biography and a study of linguistics, presented with a narrator's voice that may appropriately be identified as that of a critic. The subject of Stavans's biography is Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who is credited with bringing Hebrew back to life--a lifelong effort that began at the time of the Jewish national movement in Ottoman Palestine at the turn of the century. Although a heroic figure in Israel, with streets named in his honor, Ben-Yehuda's linguistic achievements are not immune to Stavans' sensitive contemporary ear, which weighs the subtle differences between classical Hebrew and the way Israelis use the language today.

The memoir aspects of this remarkable scholarly work echo the author's fascination with Ben-Yehuda's obsession. Language seems to be as hauntingly indispensable to Stavans' identity as it is to Ben-Yehuda's, as one might expect from the author who himself has written books on the fascination of words and the roots of their meaning. Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, grew up in Mexico City, where he became aware of the importance of a linguistic legacy through contact with the advocates of Yiddish as the true language of the Jews. He was deeply moved by those who aspired to elevate Sholem Aleichem's heritage to new heights and who wanted their students to be a link to its future. But with the advent of the British Mandate in Palestine and ultimately Israel, Hebrew--formerly a liturgical and literary language--all but replaced Yiddish as the triumphal symbol of historical aspiration: a mother tongue. Stavans' personal odyssey begins when he dreams of a beautiful lady speaking an unknown language that turns out to be Hebrew. A friend diagnoses this as a symptom of "language withdrawal." And so Stavans is off and running, reading, traveling, interviewing, to weave Ben-Yehuda's historic mission into his own quest for the lost vernacular of his people. In A Dream Come True, Ben-Yehuda had written, "All my life I have been inconsolably grieved about two things. I was not born in Jerusalem, not even the land of Israel. And my speech from the moment I was able to utter words was not in Hebrew." It is a revelation of feeling not unlike Stavans' sense that "losing one's" Hebrew is like losing "one's soul." Tracking Ben-Yehuda's life as a Lithuanian-born lexicographer who went on to become the Samuel Johnson of the Hebrew dictionary, Stavans treats the reader to brilliant discursive passages that are frequently as erudite as they are engaging. He contemplates the order of the Hebrew alphabet with an old friend, Rabbi Rebecca Krausz. Stavans asks her, "But why does aleph come first? Why not gimmel or tav or yud?" Rabbi Krausz replies that the question is at the core of Jewish theology. …