Modern Hebrew: The Past and Future of a Revitalized Language
by Norman Berdichevsky
Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Co., Inc., 2014. 230 pp. $45, paper.
Reviewed by Judith Friedman Rosen
CUNY Graduate School
Middle East Quarterly
Modern Hebrew begins with great promise, tracing the transformation of the classical language of the Bible into a dynamic, contemporary vernacular successfully adapted to a modern nation. Although other nation-states such as Malta, Wales, and the Basque Country have attempted to reinstate their ancient mother tongues, none have had the success of the State of Israel. Through the relentless determination of men such as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and the support of leaders of the modern Zionist movement, Hebrew triumphed over Yiddish, German, and Russian to become the "vernacular of millions of Israelis" and a foundation of the modern state itself.
Berdichevsky shows how "Israel has link[ed] the fortunes of the new state to an ancient historic past more than three thousand years old." The author also traces the impact Hebrew has had on names, places, and vocabulary in the English-speaking world. And yet, it is remarkable how few American Jews, even those with some interest in Israel, have an interest in learning modern Hebrew.
Modern Hebrew, a language comprised of English, Arabic, Greek, Akkadian, Persian, Turkish, Yiddish, and German words and expressions is strong and flourishing in Israel. Even much of the Israeli Arab sector of the population has "come to embrace the Hebrew language" and "have contributed to Israel's cultural life." Yet, it is challenged like no other thriving nation's language because of Israel's limited population and political location. All media, academic papers, and theses reach a wider market and develop a more competitive edge when produced in English. Political leaders are expected to be adept and well-spoken in English to represent Israel internationally. Fewer Hebrew-language books are published than one might imagine, for large numbers of immigrants speak Hebrew but read in their mother tongue.
When Modern Hebrew departs from outlining the development, context, and history of the language, it falters. Berdichevsky argues for an Israeli state whose "being" should be based on the use of Hebrew, forming a Hebrew republic. This republic would deemphasize the notion of a faith-based "Promised Land," and instead, a universal republic would thrive where the Hebrew language would be the common denominator of all ethnicities residing in the country. The issue of a Hebrew republic is best left for debate in academic circles and resides awkwardly in an otherwise admirable work on a remarkable language.
Related Topics: History, Israel & Zionism, Jews and Judaism | Judith Friedman Rosen | Spring 2015 MEQ
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