Speaking of Hebrew

Monday, April 26, 2010

Over time, successful social transformations lose their capacity to amaze. So it is that we forget just how astounding was the modern revival of Hebrew as a language suitable for all aspects of life.

Of course, Hebrew never really died; throughout history it was the written language of scholarship and religious thought, and the spoken and sung language of prayer. This rich and multi-layered legacy was mined by the Zionist writers, linguists, and educators who over decades would painstakingly bring forth the modern Hebrew language.

Among the questions they had to settle was how, exactly, to pronounce it. The decision was to adopt a hybrid variant of what is known as Sephardi pronunciation—all the more remarkable in that those doing the deciding, prominent among whom was the great lexicographer Eliezer ben-Yehuda, were themselves Ashkenazi Jews, usually from Eastern Europe.  Theirs was a prime example of the search for authenticity, one of modernity's most valued and elusive signs of grace. 

The decision had a prehistory. From the late 18th century onward, many Jewish maskilim, or Enlighteners, had looked to the Jews of medieval Spain (Hebrew: Sepharad) for role models and precedents. In the work of Sephardi poets, philosophers, and grammarians they saw a reflection of their own cultural ambitions, and in the Sephardi heritage a broad, noble, sunlit path out of the grim traditionalism of their Central and East European communities. At the same time, a number of pious traditionalists themselves had come to prize Sephardi Hebrew for the presumed faithfulness of its transmission from antiquity.

In her recent study, A New Sound in Hebrew Poetry, the scholar Miryam Segal traces the impact of the decision to institutionalize Sephardi pronunciation in early-20th-century Palestine.  Among those affected were such great poets of the national renaissance as Hayim Nahman Bialik and Shaul Tchernichovsky. Not only did their verse conform to Ashkenzai  accents and stresses, but their entire cultural agenda involved enunciating new ideas and experiences in the familiar cadences of Ashkenazi Hebrew. Others felt the tension as well; in particular, rabbis otherwise sympathetic to Zionism sought to retain the Ashkenzai accent, and with it the sacral qualities of Hebrew.

With time, writers would make the new Hebrew their own. And as far as spoken Hebrew is concerned, the now-regnant Sephardi pronunciation has entirely superseded the old way, to the point where, for ultra-Orthodox Jews and secular Yiddishists alike, Ashkenazi pronunciation serves as a marker of dissent from Zionism's triumph.

All revolutions have their price, and the Hebrew revolution was no exception. Something was undoubtedly lost when Hebrew became a secular vernacular; but the transformation continues to be a wonder and an astonishment. 


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