January 7

Eliezer Ben Yehuda with his newspaper, Ha Tzvi

Lithuania. Birth of Eliezer Perelman, the father of modern Hebrew - or Ivrit, as it should properly be called. Trained as a doctor in Paris, he was one of the early Zionists who pressed the case that Herzl would eventually formalise, advocating Jewish settlement in the yishuv of Erets Yisrael fifteen years before the first Basle Congress. And made the conviction meaningful by emigrating there himself, in 1881, when he was just 23.

He also made the case for Zionism and for Ivrit by example, publishing a Hebrew-language newspaper, Ha Tzvi, and taking the Hebrew surname Ben Yehuda in place of the Yiddish Perelman, though Ben Yehudit would have been so much more appropriate (he probably didn't know, most Jews to this day don't, that the language of the Bible was never called Hebrew back then, but Yehudit - see Nehemiah 13:24), and any of Peninah (פְּנִינָה - coral), Margalit (מַרגָלִית - gem), Charuz (חָרוּז - bead) or Dar (דַר - mother of pearl) would have served as an accurate translation of his own name, by his own rules, depending on which type of pearl he wished to favour. 

The true pearls anyway were two sisters, Devora and Hemda Jonas, Jerusalemites now but originally from Verkhnyadzvinsk, in Belarus. Eliezer married Devora in 1882, and had five children with her, but in 1891 she died of tuberculosis, and he took Hemda for his second wife. With both it was understood that Ivrit would be the language of their home, and they brought up their children as the first to be fluent in it. For this he was universally ridiculed (universally may be overstating the matter; but there were about 20,000 Jews in Turkish Falastina in 1881, and about 19,990 of them ridiculed him, so "universal" is appropriate in the context). Hebrew had not been a living language since the fall of the First Temple in 586 BCE - through the last five hundred years of Jewish sovereignty the first language was Aramaic - so why would you revive it now? To which Eliezer Ben Yehuda had a pearl, an absolute gem of an answer: there hasn't been a hope in hell of creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine for nearly two thousand years, so why would you revive that false hope now? People got the point and started learning Ivrit.

Ben Yehuda's argument was actually twofold. First, that the revival as a spoken language of the ancient language, would provide an essential prop in the revival of the yishuv. Second, that Jews returning from so extensive a Diaspora required an esperanto to avoid the pitfalls of Babel, and this Ivrit could most easily provide because actually everyone already knew it; prayer and scripture study, after all, had always been in Hebrew, because that's the language of the Bible and a significant proportion of the prayers; while Ladino-speakers were no more inclined to learn Yiddish as a lingua franca than Yiddish-speakers were Ladino. Ultimately he was proved prophetic.

Va'ad ha-Lashon, the committee to oversee the renaissance of Biblical and liturgical Hebrew - Yehudit, or now Ivrit - as a modern tongue, was set up in 1890, and Perelman remained its leader until his death in 1922. His lexicon contains every Hebrew word from every period, and rivals Gesenius in its scholarship. Best of all are the modern creations rooted in the ancient. Chashmal (חַשְׁמַל) for electricity for example - take a look at Ezekiel 1:4 - as also Delek (דֶלֶק) for the fuel we put in cars; and marvellously Letadlek (לְתַדְלֵק) when one airplane refuels another in flight (the word was actually invented long after Ben Yehudah, but employing his system, when in-flight refuelling was invented as a necessity of Operation Entebbe). Not all of them caught on alas. Sicha rechoka (שיחה רחוקה) is literal for a telephone, but Telefon (טֵלֵפוֹן) is what is used, a Hebrew Franglais but without an academy of bigoted xenophones to back it up.

What likelihood of Catelonian being revived, now that the Spanish government in Madrid has crushed its attempt at independence? What likelihood the Breton or Basque, the Rohingya or Kurd, surviving the attempts to destroy them in favour of universal, or simply local, homogenisation? According to National Geographic, "One language dies every 14 days. By the next century nearly half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken on Earth will likely disappear, as communities abandon native tongues in favor of English, Mandarin, or Spanish." Though at the same time there are other languages that have been recovered, as several of my Welsh friends whose kids are now learning it in school can confirm. A full list of those that have been revived, or at least are being attempted, can be found here. Kol ha kavod (that's "congratulations" in modern Ivrit) to Eliezer ben Yehuda for reviving one of them.

The death-day (1972) of John Allyn McAlpin Berryman, who was really and boringly John Smith until he took the poetic pseudonym, boring as a poet too, by his own admission - who would bother to read more by him if this piece of glumness were the norm and not the "just me being my usual witty, playful self":-

(Photo credit: Tom Berthiaume)

“Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.  ← 1st phrase incorrect. 2nd spot-on
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns, 
we ourselves flash and yearn,                      ← would scan better with ‘ourselves’ at the end
and moreover my mother told me as a boy  
(repeatingly) “Ever to confess you’re bored   ← 'repeatedly' would be grammatically correct
means you have no    also incorrect use of speech marks; singles here please
Inner Resources.” I conclude now I have no  
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.

The poem is "Dream Song 14"; the notes in green are mine; his appearance in this blog on his death-date (the show is over) rather than his birth-date (so much potential, who knows what he will make of it), may also explain why this poem is in my "Book of Days" rather than in my "Private Collection".

Amber pages:

The birthdays of French composer Francis Poulenc (1899), and flautist Jean-Pierre Rompal (1922)

The birthday also of that lesser writer but fine zoo-keeper Gerald Durrell (1925)

1610, Galileo discovered the first 3 satelites of Jupiter (see January 8, and also March 29

1798, Britain introduced the world's first income tax 

1839, Daguerrotype first shown (see January 2)

1914, First ship through the Panama Canal, just ten years since the treaty was signed (November 18, 1903) that gave consent to dig it; though it wasn't officially opened until August 15 of that year, and control of the canal wasn't transferred to Panama until April 1st 1982 - and this despite Panama having become fully independent from Colombia (whatever that means when you are also geographically adjacent to the USA) on November 3, 1903

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