Hebrew ceased to be anyone’s native tongue around the 2nd century CE. In 19th-century Europe, Jews attempted to revive Hebrew as a modern language, but only as a literary one. It was the quixotic and determined Eliezer Ben-Yehudah who first envisioned bringing the language fully back to life. Lewis Glinert, author of the recently published The Story of Hebrew, explains what this entailed:
In a Jewish section of Jerusalem, in 1885, Ben-Yehudah and his wife Dvorah were fearful for their child: they were rearing him in Hebrew, an unheard-of idea. They had taken in a wet-nurse, a dog, and a cat; the nurse agreed to coo in Hebrew, while the dog and the cat—one male, the other female—would give the infant Itamar an opportunity to hear Hebrew adjectives and verbs inflected for gender. All other languages were to be silenced.
When Itamar turned three, however, he had still not uttered a word. Family friends protested. Surely this mother-tongue experiment would produce an imbecile. And then, the story goes, Itamar’s father marched in and upon finding the boy’s mother singing him a lullaby in Russian, flew into a rage. But then he fell silent, as the child was screaming: “Abba, Abba!” (Daddy, Daddy!). Frightened little Itamar had just begun the reawakening of Hebrew as a mother tongue. . . .
Speaking Hebrew was actually nothing new in itself; it had long been a lingua franca among Yiddish-, Ladino-, and Arabic-speaking Jewish traders (and refugees). The markets of the Holy Land had resonated with Hebrew for hundreds of years. But a pidgin is not a mother tongue. Ben-Yehudah was a born philologist; he plucked words from ancient texts and coined his own, hoping one day to launch Hebrew’s answer to the Oxford English Dictionary. The birth of Itamar gave him an opportunity to put his experiment with Hebrew to the test. Could they rear the boy in Hebrew? Could they shield him from hearing other tongues? And, just as critically, could the family be a model for others?