Why the Hebrew Revival Succeeded While the Attempted Revival of Ancient Iranian Failed

Sept. 20 2018

Born to a Zoroastrian (or Parsee) family in India, Manekji Limji Hataria (1813-1890) dedicated most of his life to improving the circumstances of his coreligionists in both India and Iran, advocating for their civil rights and trying to ameliorate widespread poverty and illiteracy. But another cause close to his heart was the revival of the pre-Islamic Persian language—a language related to, but very different from, modern Farsi—in which ancient Zoroastrian religious texts, as well as an impressive literary corpus, are written. Hataria’s efforts roughly coincided with those of Eliezer Ben-Yehudah (1858-1922), who contributed more than anyone to the creation of modern Hebrew. Sara Molaie compares their efforts, and contrasts Ben-Yehudah’s success with Hataria’s ultimate failure:

Ben-Yehudah’s and Manekji’s language revival efforts had different goals, as well as different challenges. Manekji’s objective was to remove Arabic elements from the Persian language and to proliferate [knowledge of] ancient Persian literature. By contrast, Ben-Yehudah wished to create a vernacular version of Hebrew that would pave the way for Jewish nationalism, which required creating new words and importing new concepts into the language. Ben-Yehudah not only had to persuade people to speak Hebrew for non-religious purposes but also had to convince Jews to use words that had never existed before. . . .

[Manekji] called on Parsees to fulfill the mission of reviving ancient Iran and “the recovery of pre-Islamic literature,” but he did not lay emphasis on the oral practice of the language. The revival objectives of Persian literary associations were broad, highlighting the writing of pre-Islamic Persian rather than the speaking of it. [Furthermore], because of the lack of people with knowledge of the language, Manekji could not train students [at the network of schools he founded] in speaking or writing it.

By contrast, Ben-Yehudah was able to convince school administrators in Jerusalem to teach in modern Hebrew, and he trained two other teachers to continue the work in his absence. . . . Teaching in modern Hebrew increased the number of speakers and, more significantly, let the language enter homes and streets of Palestine. As these children grew up, they started to become fluent in Hebrew and shape their own Hebrew-speaking families.

Ben-Yehudah, unlike his conservative contemporaries, also realized that language can only thrive with dynamic usage. Adding words from a variety of non-biblical sources—despite opposition from rabbis and other members of the community in Jerusalem—was a crucial linguistic strategy that Ben-Yehudah employed successfully, while Manekji insisted inflexibly on the purification of contemporary Arabic-influenced Persian.

Welcome to Mosaic

Register now to get two more stories free

Register Now

Already a subscriber? Sign in now

Read more at Stroum Center for Jewish Studies

More about: Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, History & Ideas, Iran, Language, Modern Hebrew, Zoroastrianism

Is There a Way Out of Israel’s Political Deadlock?

On Tuesday, leaders of the Jewish state’s largest political parties, Blue and White and Likud, met to negotiate the terms of a coalition agreement—and failed to come to an agreement. If none of the parties in the Knesset succeeds in forming a governing coalition, there will be a third election, with no guarantee that it will be more conclusive than those that preceded it. Identifying six moves by key politicians that have created the deadlock, Shmuel Rosner speculates as to whether they can be circumvented or undone:

Sign up to read more

You've read all your free articles for this month

Register

Sign up now for unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Jewish Journal

More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Election 2019, Israeli politics