Resurrecting Hebrew

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Part of the Jewish Encounter series

Here is the stirring story of how Hebrew was rescued from the fate of a dead language to become the living tongue of a modern nation. Ilan Stavans’s quest begins with a dream featuring a beautiful woman speaking an unknown language. When the language turns out to be Hebrew, a friend diagnoses “language withdrawal,” and Stavans sets out in search of his own forgotten Hebrew ...

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Resurrecting Hebrew

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Part of the Jewish Encounter series

Here is the stirring story of how Hebrew was rescued from the fate of a dead language to become the living tongue of a modern nation. Ilan Stavans’s quest begins with a dream featuring a beautiful woman speaking an unknown language. When the language turns out to be Hebrew, a friend diagnoses “language withdrawal,” and Stavans sets out in search of his own forgotten Hebrew as well as the man who helped revive the language at the end of the nineteenth century, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.

The search for Ben-Yehuda, who raised his eldest son in linguistic isolation–not even allowing him to hear the songs of birds–so that he would be “the first Hebrew-speaking child,” becomes a journey full of paradox. It was Orthodox anti-Zionists who had Ben-Yehuda arrested for sedition, and, although Ben-Yehuda was devoted to Jewish life in Palestine, it was in Manhattan that he worked on his great dictionary of the Hebrew language.

The resurrection of Hebrew raises urgent questions about the role language plays in Jewish survival, questions that lead Stavans not merely into the roots of modern Hebrew but into the origins of Israel itself. All the tensions between the Diaspora and the idea of a promised land pulse beneath the surface of Stavans’s story, which is a fascinating biography as well as a moving personal journey.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Resurrecting Hebrew is exciting and penetrating. This story will be read with deep interest by all those who are fascinated by the renaissance of an ancient language."
—Elie Wiesel

"Ilan Stavan's personal search to discover his relationship with Hebrew leads him to explore the unlikely quest of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda to revive the language of the Bible, a language not spoken outside of the synagogue for two thousand years, as a spoken language. This quixotic, Borgesian undertaking, as unlikely as reviving Latin as the language of everyday Italians, somehow miraculously succeeded. Resurrecting Hebrew reveals, in a fascinating and informative way, how this impossibility became a reality. Written with commendable clarity and vitality, it is a brief, unforgettable masterpiece."
—Howard Schwartz, author of Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism

"There are fewer than eight thousand distinct words in the Hebrew Bible, yet a lone zealot and ragged refugees from every corner of the globe transformed the ancient Jewish tongue into the spoken language of millions. It is a story too fantastic for fiction, and Ilan Stavans tells it with erudition, charm, and a barely contained sense of astonishment."
—Aaron Lansky, president, National Yiddish Book Center and author of Outwitting History

Library Journal

In this short, poignant, and thoroughly engaging memoir, Amherst professor and Latin American literary studies scholar Stavans takes us on his own personal journey to understand the reemergence of Hebrew as a vital and necessary step in his own intellectual and emotional development, as well as an important milestone in the origins of the modern state of Israel. His journey is also a quest to understand better the secularist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who at the end of the 19th century sought to revive Hebrew, engaging in a "linguistic resurrection." Stavans's intellectual journey parallels his search for concrete traces of Ben-Yehuda in Israel, ending with a visit to his gravestone. This personal memoir is supplemented with an informative acknowledgments section that will enable readers to find the sources for Stavans's immense knowledge of Ben-Yehuda's life and the history and development of Hebrew, Zionism, and the interrelationships with other languages and cultures. While an index of terms and names would have been helpful, the abbreviated chronology is a welcome addition. Recommended.-Herbert E. Shapiro, Empire State Coll. of the State Univ. of New York, Rochester

Kirkus Reviews
A personal and intellectual search for the history of modern Hebrew. Haunted by a cryptic dream, Stavans (Dictionary Days, 2005, etc.) journeyed to Israel to learn everything he could about the revival of vernacular Hebrew in the 19th and 20th centuries. His complicated linguistic background as a Spanish- and Hebrew-speaking Jewish man in Mexico engendered a passionate curiosity in all things Hebrew, especially a man named Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the amateur lexicographer who set about in the late 1800s to resuscitate and reinvent the ancient language in the service of solidifying a Jewish political state in Israel. This project met with vehement resistance from Orthodox Jews, many of whom believed, and still believe, that Hebrew, as the language of God and of creation, should be reserved for holy matters only, not brought to street level to be used by anyone who would claim it. The search for Ben-Yehuda's legacy proved much more complicated than the author had expected. He was not widely celebrated as the resuscitator of modern Hebrew in Israel; only a handful of his neologisms survive; and the scholars and experts interviewed by Stavans expressed, at best, ambivalence toward his life's work. Instead of Ben-Yehuda's vision of a single, unified Jewish language, Stavans found that spoken Hebrew in Israel is infused with the political and cultural workings of several languages, including Arabic, English, Yiddish and, increasingly, Russian, among others. Throughout the book, Stavans nimbly interweaves popular and scholarly references to Hebrew's evolution among Israeli citizens, including Palestinians, but he writes for an audience with a working knowledge of the language, pausing onlyoccasionally to translate words and cultural practices for the uninitiated. In cerebral yet clear prose, he imbues the book with his passion for the Semitic languages in all their manifestations. The resulting text is more scholarly than the average memoir and more personal than a purely academic work-an amalgam of the author's experiences and encounters. A gem for readers interested in Hebrew and the politics of language.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805242317
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/16/2008
  • Series: Jewish Encounters Series
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 1,398,886
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.40 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Ilan Stavans

Ilan Stavans is the author of two collections of short stories and fifteen works of nonfiction, including On Borrowed Words and Dictionary Days. His many awards and honors include an Emmy nomination, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Pablo Neruda Medal, and the National Jewish Book Award (for his anthology The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature). He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture and Five College Fortieth Anniversary Professor at Amherst College.

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Customer Reviews

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