Res­ur­rect­ing Hebrew

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By – November 15, 2011
Ilan Sta­vans woke one morn­ing from an unset­tling dream. At a par­ty a volup­tuous young woman speaks to him in a lan­guage he doesn’t under­stand; it’s Hebrew, explains his long-dead great grand­fa­ther, also a guest at the par­ty — this was, after all, a dream.

The dream and its after­math left Sta­vans uneasy. Once flu­ent in Hebrew, Sta­vans, a writer and pro­fes­sor of Latin Amer­i­can and Lati­no Cul­ture at Amherst Col­lege, had aban­doned his use of the lan­guage. Mul­ti­lin­gual and multi­na­tion­al, he now found him­self seized with a desire to recov­er his lost Hebrew — to res­ur­rect it and its sig­nif­i­cance in his life — and to learn all he could about the language’s res­ur­rec­tion. 

In track­ing down Eliez­er Ben-Yehu­da (1858 – 1922), who devot­ed his life to cre­at­ing a mod­ern, usable Hebrew as the heart of his ardent Zion­ism, Sta­vans launched a search that led him in many direc­tions — the role of Hebrew in cre­at­ing a nation­al iden­ti­ty, the his­toric ten­sions between the Ortho­dox and the Zion­ists, the place of Yid­dish in Jewish/​Israeli lit­er­ary cul­ture, Dias­po­ra ver­sus Israeli Judaism, the his­to­ry of post­bib­li­cal Hebrew. As Sta­vans exam­ines these issues with a wide range of schol­ars, writ­ers, lin­guists, and jour­nal­ists, he learns as much about him­self as about Ben-Yehu­da. A com­plex per­son­al jour­ney laced with a loose biog­ra­phy of Ben-Yehu­da and the cre­ation of mod­ern Hebrew, Res­ur­rect­ing Hebrew rais­es prob­ing ques­tions about lan­guage in gen­er­al and about Hebrew in par­tic­u­lar in shap­ing nation­al, reli­gious, and per­son­al iden­ti­ties. As with the oth­er vol­umes in Schocken’s Jew­ish Encoun­ters series, an index would have been help­ful; the Acknowl­edg­ments serve as a use­ful bib­li­og­ra­phy. Chronology.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

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