One of the Greatest Contemporary Scholars of Islam Was a Lover of Hebrew

June 1, 2018 | Martin Kramer
About the author: Martin Kramer is a historian at Tel Aviv University and the Walter P. Stern fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as founding president at Shalem College in Jerusalem.

Known for his mastery of Arabic, Turkish, and Persian, which enabled the extraordinary depth and breadth of his scholarship, the late historian Bernard Lewis—who would have celebrated his 102nd birthday yesterday—held a special place in his heart for Hebrew. Lewis was laid to rest in Tel Aviv’s Trumpeldor cemetery last week. Herewith, Martin Kramer’s eulogy at the burial:

Trumpeldor cemetery is, to Tel Aviv, what the Père Lachaise cemetery is to Paris. Here, mostly in the southwestern corner, are the graves of the great lights of Hebrew letters: Ahad Ha’am, Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik, Shaul Tchernichovsky, Ḥayyim Yosef Brenner. Alongside them are Zionist luminaries: Max Nordau, Haim Arlosoroff, Moshe Sharett, Meir Dizengoff. Here also lie Israel’s two most renowned artists, Reuven Rubin and Naḥum Gutman, as well as the singer Shoshana Damari and the satirist [and filmmaker] Ephraim Kishon. And many more. . . .

Bernard famously would say that he became enamored of Hebrew while preparing for his bar mitzvah. When it was over, he insisted on continuing his Hebrew study, and his father obliged by finding him a tutor. Thus did Bernard become a budding Hebraist. As a teenager, he translated into English “quite an immense quantity” of modern Hebrew poems. “I think there must have been hundreds of them,” including Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik’s “In the City of Slaughter” and “The Dead of the Desert.” Most went unpublished, but not all, although Bernard often signed them with a pseudonym. . . .

Bialik [has] lain in this cemetery, right over there, for the last 84 years. I never asked Bernard why he wanted to be buried here, although it’s a wish that goes back a good while. The obvious explanation is that it’s close to his apartment by the sea, where he felt so at peace. But I wonder whether it’s also because it’s near to the resting place of Bialik and the other Hebrew greats, and that here he would be reunited with his first love: ivrit, Hebrew. He mastered many languages. But Hebrew he loved, and from it stemmed the love for his people and this land.

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