Turning new ideas into the conventional mainstream sometimes requires a dose of lunacy. Not the foaming-at-the-mouth type but the obstinate perseverance that strikes others as little short of insane. Eliezer Yitzchok Perlman (later known as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda) was this sort of person, utilizing even deceit and hypocrisy to get his own way. As he put it in one of his myriad newspaper articles:
“For everything, there is needed only one wise, clever and active man, with the initiative to devote all his energies to it, and the matter will progress, all obstacles in the way notwithstanding… In every new event, every step, even the smallest in the path of progress, it is necessary that there be one pioneer who will lead the way without leaving any possibility of turning back.”
Born to devout parents Yehuda Leib and Feyga in Lushki, near Vilna, it first seemed that the young Ben-Yehuda would grow up a respectable talmid chochom or even a gadol b’Yisroel. However, time and tide were working against him. By the time of his birth in 5618/1858, the Haskalah movement was fighting a mighty battle for the hearts and minds of East European youth, and its agents were constantly on the lookout to entice promising youngsters into their net. Eliezer became vulnerable to their depredations after his father passed away when he was five years old.
At the age of thirteen, Eliezer was sent to his uncle in Plotsk, near Vitebsk, to study in its local yeshivah. There he fell into the clutches of Yosi Bluker, a Maskil masquerading as a maggid shiur in the yeshivah. Under Bluker’s influence, Ben-Yehuda not only became a maskil himself but began having a bad influence on his fellow talmidim as well. When the yeshivah’s administration discovered what was going on, Ben-Yehuda and his teacher were thrown out into the street, but by this time, it was too late.
Ben-Yehuda now devoted his energies to studying history, politics, French, German, Russian, and Hebrew. By his early twenties, he was a fervent Zionist, feverish not only with the idea of creating a Jewish state but also with the conviction that the language of that state must be Hebrew, unlike Herzl who dreamt of the citizens of his old-new world speaking German.
During his studies, Ben-Yehuda contracted tuberculosis. Traveling in North Africa to soothe his aching lungs with dry desert air, he met the maskil Moshe Lunz, who told him that in Eretz Yisroel Ben-Yehuda’s dream was already a quasi-reality. Even though Hebrew was the mother tongue of no one, it was the common language of all. As Ben-Yehuda recalled in later years:
“Mr. Lunz informed me that the Jewish communities in Yerushalayim, Sefardim, Ashkenazim, Maaravim, Georgian Jews and more, although speaking amongst themselves in the language of their country of origin, since the members of one community do not understand the language of the other, they are forced, whenever necessary to speak in Lashon Hakodesh.”
This news ignited within him a new idea – the best place to fight to make Hebrew a national language would be in Eretz Yisroel. After his marriage in 5642/1882, he immediately set out with his new wife to Eretz Yisroel, informing her en route that henceforth he would be speaking to her only in Hebrew. Her protests, that she barely knew a word of the language, as well as her pleas to begin speaking Hebrew more gradually, fell on deaf ears.
When his first son, Benzion, was born in Eretz Yisroel, Ben-Yehuda insisted that he become the first child to be brought up speaking Hebrew.
In his autobiography, Benzion wrote that growing up as a language laboratory rat came at a cost. He was not allowed to come in contact with other children, lest their Arabic or Yiddish interfere with his Hebrew. Nor was he permitted to hear “the chirping of the birds and the neighing of horses, the braying of donkeys and the fluttering of butterflies, because even they are, after all, foreign languages, at any rate not Hebrew.” Benzion’s mother was not allowed to hire help for the same reason.
The boy’s speech development was retarded and he only began speaking at the age of four when his mother once forgot the rules and began singing lullabies to him in Russian. As Benzion writes, the sight of his father rushing in, slamming his hand on a table, and shouting his head off, shocked him into speaking:
“It caused a great shock to pass over me when I saw my father in his anger and my mother in her grief and tears, and the muteness was removed from my lips, and speech came to my mouth.”
How did Ben-Yehuda, a maskil, survive in Yerushalayim which, in those days, was predominantly populated by devout Jews?
“Now that I had settled in Yerushalayim,” he reminisced in later years, “I had an immediate question to resolve: What approach should I adopt towards religion? I decided to generally behave in the accepted Jewish fashion. Although I found this extremely difficult because of the hypocrisy involved, I found a leniency for myself, since it seemed to me then, that by the maskilim giving way on these points, we would be able to achieve the unity and control necessary to fight for national revival…
“I strove, as much as possible, to appear externally, too, like the Jewish public in Eretz Yisroel. I grew a beard, removed my European clothes, and wore long garments according to Jewish custom, and I put a fez on my head instead of a European hat, and I went in the streets of Yerushalayim, especially on Shabbos and Yom Tov, wrapped in a tallis with tzitzis. So I behaved for days and years until it became obvious that it was all for nothing.”
During the period of this charade, he often met his maskil cronies in obscure places in order to avoid exposure. One member of his group, Dovid Yudelevitz, recorded how they met and plotted:
“Outside the town of Yerushalayim, in a small attic in a forest of trees… some maskilim of Yerushalayim got together. At their head sat a 25-year-old young man [Ben-Yehuda] and discussed how to revive the dry bones”
“’To revive the language, very good,” the oldest one said to him, “but how do you propose to do it?”
“Very simple!” he said. “All the schools already existing and all those that the nation will establish from today onwards, must teach our language, Hebrew, as a living language. All pupils have an obligation to speak Hebrew among themselves, whether at home or outside, wherever they are. Only Hebrew. And the older people who join us must get used to speaking Hebrew at home, at meetings, in shul, and even in the street and market…”
In a 5646/1886 newspaper article, Ben-Yehuda put it even simpler, “The Hebrew language will go from the synagogue to the house of study, and from the house of study to the school, and from the school it will come into the home and… become a living language.” To put it succinctly, indoctrination of the youth was the key.
In order to activate his ideas, Ben- Yehuda accepted an offer to teach in the Torah and Avodah School founded in Yerushalayim by the infamous Alliance Israélite Universelle, where the principal, Nissim Bachar, was pioneering a method of teaching Hebrew through Hebrew, using no language in the classroom except Hebrew. Although Ben-Yehuda had to give up this job after a few months, due to the tuberculosis that plagued him his whole life, other schools all over the country followed this lead, creating a generation of Hebrew speakers.
As mentioned earlier, Yerushalayim was the worst place Ben-Yehuda could have chosen for his operations since it was under the firm control of the city’s great talmidei chachomim, and to make things worse, not everyone was fooled by his religious clothes. One Shabbos night, when he was listening to Kiddush at a Yerushalmi’s home, his host jokingly pointed to a cigarette and asked whether he would like a smoke.
To gain influence, he would have to shake off the gedolim’s authority from the people, and the best way to do this was to break their hold over the Chalukah (stipend) funds. Three years after his arrival in Yerushalayim, he began making allegations in his newspaper, “HaTzvi,” that the Chalukah appointees were taking huge slices of the funds for themselves and distributing the remainder unfairly. From now on, he argued, people should give their tzedakah not to the traditional Rabbi Meir Baal HaNeis Fund but to the Zionistic Chovevei Zion movement.
He sent similar articles to maskil newspapers in Europe including the “Maggid,” “HaMeilitz,” and “HaTzefi rah.” His articles also insulted Yerushalayim’s talmidei chachomim, claiming that they were ignoramuses and comparing them to animals and reptiles.
In retaliation, Sefardi rabbis, led by the Rishon L’Tziyon Rav Refael Meir Panizel, gathered in the Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai Sefardi Shul on the 13th of Tammuz, 5647/1887, and made a cherem against him and his newspaper in forceful terms:
“We have declared a cherem against Eliezer ben-Yehuda editor of the “HaTzvi” with the cherem that Yehoshua declared against Yericho and the curse that Barak made against Meroz… The entire congregation declared together, ‘Behold, he is separated and parted from the congregation of Yisroel until he leaves his way and regrets the evil…’ And whoever reads the newspaper, “HaTzvi,” …may he be stung by the serpent of rabbonon that has no cure.”
After temporarily improving his ways, Ben-Yehuda resumed his tactics of insulting the local rabbonim, and as his wife recorded, was thrown into cherem once again:
“An announcer declared in the streets and markets that “HaTzvi” was under cherem and that it was forbidden to bring it into one’s house. No Jew was permitted to read it, and had to distance himself four amos away from it. On Erev Shabbos, posters were glued to the walls announcing, ‘You think that you fooled us by appearing among us with a long coat, a long beard, and wrapped in a tallis. No! You are a heretic and hypocrite, and we will be wary of your lies and not be caught in your trap!’”
And this was only the beginning of Ben-Yehuda’s troubles. To be continued… (iy”H)
(Main source: Rothschild, Shmuel. Tohar Halashon. Yerushalayim: Safah Berurah Publications, 5768.)