This Jan. 5 (27 Kislev in the Hebrew calendar) marked the 163rd birthday of Eliezer ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, and the ninth iteration of Hebrew Language Day, established by the Knesset legislation in 2010 to promote the Hebrew language in Israel and around the world.
In past years, the day was the centerpiece of a week-long celebration of the Hebrew language in its modern form. Major events took place around the country and in the media, anchored by a conference in Rishon LeZion—where the Haviv elementary school (est. 1886) has the distinction of being the first exclusively Hebrew-speaking school founded in the modern era—with the participation of thousands. This year’s celebrations were muted due to the COVID-19 crisis and migrated exclusively to the internet where the only live event was a visually boring interchange between four linguists in a sterile, corona-appropriate room.
The revival of Hebrew into the vibrant, contemporary and adaptable language that it is today was no easy task and is viewed as one of the modern miracles of the State of Israel, if not the most remarkable of them. Many of the early initiatives that ensured that miracle was undertaken directly or indirectly by the B’nai B’rith Jerusalem Lodge.
A small band of determined men led by Ben Yehuda were Hebrew’s very first chief protagonists, and they were all members of the B’nai B’rith Jerusalem Lodge, established in 1888. The lodge was called “a center of visions” by Ben Yehuda, who served as its first secretary, and it indeed became the unofficial cultural center in the turn-of-the-century New Yeshuv of Jerusalem, with the role of Hebrew being only one of a number of fundamental goals promoted by the lodge.
Believing that a Jewish national renaissance was conceivable only if it was consciously rooted in the Hebrew language and culture, the Jerusalem Lodge was the first public body in pre-state Israel to set Hebrew as its official language—the language in which Ben Yehuda penned the lodge’s first minutes (although each member had the right to speak in the language of his choice).
In 1889—just a year after the lodge’s founding—a number of young members established “Safa Berurah” (Clear Language Society) as the first organization aimed at “spreading the Hebrew language and speech among people in all walks of life.” The lodge pledged to “strive its utmost to revive the language and support the organization at all times according to our ability.” A year later this group founded the Va’ad Ha-Lashon ha-Ivrit (The Hebrew Language Committee), which published books, dictionaries, bulletins and periodicals, inventing thousands of new words. The Committee also created a uniform pronunciation of Hebrew speech out of the Babel-like variations reflected in the accents of Jews immigrating into Ottoman-era Eretz Israel from different parts of the Empire and Europe.
In 1903, the Jerusalem Lodge took another bold step to bridge the cultural and ethnic differences in the Yishuv and encourage the use of Hebrew by founding the first Hebrew-
speaking kindergarten in Jerusalem (the two first Hebrew-speaking kindergartens were established in Rishon LeZion in 1898 and in Jaffa in 1902).
Despite opposition by the ultra-Orthodox, the kindergarten was quickly filled to capacity and two additional kindergartens were founded by the lodge in other parts of the city, together educating hundreds of children from all walks of life to use Hebrew as their main language and infusing it into their homes. B’nai B’rith subsequently established a seminary for kindergarten teachers in Jerusalem, and the lodges in Jaffa, Safed, Tiberias, Rehovot, Haifa and Beirut also established Hebrew-language kindergartens.
The predominance of Hebrew in pre-state Israel was not assured without a war—albeit non-violent: the 1913 War of the Languages—in which Hebrew emerged victorious against German as the language of instruction in higher education. But by the time the war was fought, the predominance of Hebrew was being won with the new generation as scores of youngsters learned to speak what was destined to become the national tongue, thanks in part to B’nai B’rith.
When the War of Languages erupted, the Jerusalem Lodge was the only framework in which both principal protagonists—Efraim Cohen, who supported German-language instruction, and David Yellin, who supported Hebrew—were members. In response to a petition from the B’nai B’rith lodge in Constantinople, the Jerusalem lodge made efforts to reach a negotiated settlement to the conflict that had repercussions beyond the borders of Israel.
All of this was important to the Jerusalem Lodge because it fashioned itself as the only institution at the time that opened its doors to Jews of all ethnicities and from its inception set out to meld the fragmented Jewish sects in the city into a single Israelite community. Hebrew, though not yet the lingua franca of the New Yishuv, was the only common language of its Ashkenazi and Sephardi members, and the importance of maintaining its use at lodge meetings was constantly stressed.
The Committee of the Hebrew Language officially morphed into the Academy of the Hebrew Language under law in 1953, but already in 1929 the Jerusalem Lodge had drafted a declaration inspired by Israel’s national poet, Haim Nachman Bialik, to establish the Academy. The declaration, signed by some of the original members of Hebrew Language Committee—among them David Yellin and Professor Yosef Klausner—stated B’nai B’rith’s “special right to approach this large and daring task because it was the first pioneer as an organized civic body to revive the Hebrew language in the Land of Israel.”
Together with the establishment of the precursor to the National Library, which also played an important role in revising the Hebrew language and literature, B’nai B’rith can be proud in this celebratory week of the role it played in one of the great chapters of the renaissance of the Jewish people in Israel over the last 130 years—the revival of the Hebrew language.
It is therefore only appropriate that B'nai B'rith will soon initiate a conference at the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)—where it holds consultative NGO status—showcasing the unique ways in which Hebrew survived 2,000 years of detachment from its indigenous land to be revived as Jews began to return in significant numbers to the Land of Israel at the end of the 19th century. We will do this with pride, in recognition of the monumental contribution of our organizational antecedents to this process.
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