Father of the Modern Hebrew Language Part 3: The World’s Very First “Hebrew Child”

Published: November 1, 2018 | Maoz Israel Reports

Top photo: In the early 1880’s, the first of the first pioneers to the Holy Land were leaders of BILU. Left: Yaacov Shertock, whose son Moshe Sharett (who took a Hebrew last name) became second president of Israel; Right: Zeev Vladimir Dubnov. Center: Eliezer Ben Yehuda. Credit: Wikimedia

Eliezer Ben Yehuda was one of the most unusual human beings the Jewish people have ever birthed. He was a radical visionary, a dreamer of the nonexistent, a self-made genius lexicographer (compiler of a dictionary), plus an extraordinary organizer and influencer of people to attempt the impossible. All of this describes a very sick man who worked 19 hours a day for some 40 years. It was this man whom the God of Israel singularly used to resurrect a dead language and play a critical part in gathering the dry bones of a people scattered across the world.

Given some six months to live with tuberculosis, he and Devora, his bride-to-be, left Europe for the Holy Land in 1881. Jerusalem was his destination where he planned to fulfill his mission as long as he had breath. With the vision of a prophet, he understood that Hebrew would never become a national language unless there was a Jewish nation. But he equally understood that the Jewish people would never become a nation without a national language.

An equally amazing person was Devora, who gave her life to fulfill her husband’s vision. She arrived in her new country with a few Hebrew words she had learned on their voyage to the land of Israel. The great mission she accepted and partnered with her husband was to create the first Hebrew-speaking family in the world.

Eliezer dreamed of a family—his family—having many children, all speaking Hebrew from birth. And so Devora became pregnant only a few months after their arrival in Jerusalem. Her first task was to learn Hebrew herself, as she had covenanted with Eliezer that she would from then on speak only Hebrew with him, her friends and their children yet to be born. Not a single word of any other language was to be permitted.

Studying Hebrew Without Books

Now came reality. Devora studied many hours a day learning Hebrew—by herself. With no textbooks. With no other friends with whom to speak Hebrew.  Not even a husband to teach her the language, except at night when he came home exhausted from his work as substitute editor of Mr. Dov Frumkin’s little newspaper, The Lily.

The greatest challenge of all was their abject poverty. Often they struggled to buy enough flour to bake a loaf of bread—many times this was their entire meal.

About three months after their arrival, a visitor knocked at their door. His name was Nissim Bekhar. He was principal of a boys’ French school run by the Alliance Israelite Universal, through the generosity of the wealthy Baron Edmond Rothschild. In complete contradiction to Rothschild’s orders that his schools in the Holy Land not teach Hebrew, Nissim asked Eliezer to teach Hebrew in his school! He explained he was in agreement with Eliezer’s vision of a national revival, and understood the relationship between the people, the land and the language.

Bekhar told Eliezer he had been given no budget for such a position, but he was ready to take a bit off the salaries of two teachers of religion, and give them to Eliezer. Again, the visionary was working for a pittance, but his intense passion to teach young students “Hebrew in Hebrew” far outweighed his desire for money. “Hebrew in Hebrew” was Eliezer’s unique way of teaching. From the first day of each new Hebrew class, he would speak only Hebrew to his students. His classes were extremely successful and some of his very first students became leaders in the formation of the future new nation.

Ultra Orthodox Jews Pronounce Ban

But Eliezer had more immediate challenges. His Orthodox neighbors’ hatred for this “heretic” continued to intensify. They regarded Eliezer’s drive to popularize Hebrew and even teach children to speak Hebrew as an attack on the Jewish religion, their way of life. When he attended synagogue, no one came near him. In their minds, these Ashkenazi Jews linked nationhood with the coming of the Messiah. They declared a religious ban on the Alliance school, and on anyone who would dare enter its doors.

Meanwhile, Devora continued her daily struggle to learn Hebrew for her soon-to-be-born baby. Her loneliness was constant. A few women would have liked to befriend her but they didn’t speak Hebrew. Eliezer was adamant that she would speak no other language. She struggled on. Perhaps the most difficult part was that the man she so deeply loved was so despised by the citizens of Jerusalem.

The Very First Pioneer Group
David Salman Levontin succeeded in purchasing 835 acres of land near Jaffa from the Turks in 1882. On this acreage was built the very first Jewish settlement in the Holy Land—Rishon Le’Zion. Credit: Wikipedia

Nevertheless, as persecution of Jews in Russia intensified, Eliezer’s articles written in the little Hebrew newspaper caught fire. Word spread, and on the eve of Passover 1882, some 15 strapping young pioneers—including one girl—had just arrived amid horrific persecution from Russia and surrounding countries. Walking down the street they were shouting Ben Yehuda’s name as they searched for his house.

They had read Eliezer’s articles in “the newspaper from Jerusalem” asking them to return to their fatherland, and so they came! They called themselves BILU—the acrostics for “The House of Jacob; Go and we will follow!” Well-educated college kids, they decided to follow the vision.  They pleaded, “Eliezer, we are willing to do anything and everything— please lead us, please tell us what to do!” Several of these young people were already speaking some Hebrew learned in Russia.

Although Eliezer had only moved to Jerusalem a year earlier, he helped them get settled in different areas of the country and sent some to study farming at an agriculture school. They were really the first of the first, and they gave great comfort and excitement to Ben Yehuda. Today, every Israeli school child knows about BILU.

Turks Block Further Jewish Immigration

Immediately, more and more young Jews began to land in the port city of Jaffa. As Eliezer had foreseen, the Arabs began to complain. Within weeks, the Turks made a decree that no Jews would be allowed to immigrate to Palestine.  In fact, they declared it on the ninth day of Av, the same fateful historical day both Jewish Temples were destroyed by Israel’s enemies.

The Jewish majority in the Holy Land began to decrease as Arabs from the surrounding areas freely swarmed into the land to find work wherever the Jewish immigrants were settling and building infrastructure.

Still, Jews were being smuggled into the Holy Land—mainly with bribes. A Jewish entrepreneur, David Zalman Levontin, actually succeeded in buying 835 acres of land 10 miles from Jaffa. His group invited the BILU young people to join them. Together they established the very first settlement in the land of Israel. They set up tents and called it Rishon Le’Zion—“The First to Zion.”

The group then rushed up to Jerusalem by horseback to announce the great news to Eliezer Ben Yehuda—to celebrate this great event. On that very night, another “first” became reality. Devora gave birth to the “first Hebrew child” in 1900 years, and they called him Ben Zion, “son of Zion.” To Eliezer—the visionary—he saw these two events as enormous signs that God’s favor was upon the land.

An illustration representing Rishon Le’Zion sometime between 1906-1913. Begun in 1882, this settlement almost collapsed because of poor farming results and very scarce water sources. The Jewish philanthropist, Baron James Rothschild came to the rescue by providing farming techniques and water wells. Credit: Wikipedia
Waiting for Ben Zion to Speak Hebrew

Time went on, and the “first Hebrew child” grew into a fine, healthy little boy. He was carefully guarded so he would never hear one single word in any other language but Hebrew—mostly from his mother and father. He was alert and vivacious, a gregarious three-year-old, happy to see and be handled by his parents’ many close friends who had accepted the edict of speaking only Hebrew words to him.

There was only one small cloud over this little boy. He was three years old and he had not yet uttered a single word. Devora knew on her side of the family, all the children had begun to speak before they reached their first birthday.

She wondered if Eliezer was a late talker. Or if there had been a mute in his family. She was concerned because their friends began blaming her and Eliezer for his lack of speech. They reminded Eliezer that Hebrew was a dead language. One of his closest friends, Michael Pines, pleaded with Eliezer to teach Ben Zion a living language like Russian. Then, Pines said, he could always learn Hebrew as he grew older. Pines explained to Eliezer that learning Hebrew was good for adults, and even school children—“as you have shown in your classes at Alliance. But not for babies!”

Friends Fear for Child’s Mental Capacity

Pines agreed that Ben Yehuda’s vision of a Hebrew-speaking nation was good. And he told how he and more and more Jews in the Holy Land were actually learning to speak Hebrew. But somehow, the citizens of Jerusalem had concluded that the little boy needed a chance to learn a known language, or he might end up an idiot!

In fact, the boy was almost four—and completely mute. But Eliezer shouted to his friend, “Then let him be an idiot!” Later he spoke to Devora, “Don’t you see? It is a great and noble experiment that we are undertaking with our child. I firmly believe that we shall succeed.

“But if I do not, I promise you that I shall not be ashamed to declare my failure in public—to announce that Hebrew is a dead tongue, unfit for children to be weaned on.

“However, I am still quite convinced that our child will be no less capable of speech and reason, no less smart than all other children born in Jerusalem or Moscow, for that matter. Soon, very soon, he will begin to speak, and his words will be a balm for us—like the words of the prophets of old!

“And you, Devora, will be the heroine, the first Hebrew mother since the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Titus!” 

Eliezer Catches Wife Singing Russian
Ben Zion, born July 31, 1882, “first Hebrew child.” He later changed his name to Itamar Ben-Avi. Credit: Wikipedia

Not long after, he was returning from a trip to Rishon Le’Zion, to meet with some of his followers and sell a few more subscriptions to his newspaper. Mrs. Pines had just visited Devora and made the remark about, “children who are made a sacrifice for the sins of their parents.” Pierced through her soul, she held her child crying. She thought back to her own childhood in Russia, and without thinking, began singing a lullaby to her child in Russian, tears running down her face.

As fate would have it, just at that moment, Eliezer entered the house and found his wife singing this Russian song to Ben Zion. Furious, he began shouting at her. Devora, confused and not able to answer, had not really been aware she was singing in Russian. She cried in silence, and Ben Zion, wanting to come to his mother’s help, shouted, “Abba, Abba, lo!” (Father, father, no!)

Both parents were stunned—and then broke out in shouts of joy! Their son was speaking! And his first words were in Hebrew! Despite the rabbinical ban on speaking to the family, crowds of people from all over Jerusalem came to see the “miracle child”—the first child in the entire world to speak Hebrew as his only language!

Some Hebrew Words Created by Ben Zion

From that time on, he wouldn’t keep quiet. Full of questions, he would ask, “What is this? What is that?” Eliezer was pushed to come up with new words that did not yet exist in Hebrew. Ben Zion, instinctively understanding the language’s logic, soon began making up his own words. In fact, as soon as his brother and three sisters were born, one after another, Ben Zion became their teacher, often coining words that his father was more than happy to add to his list of new words that were published in his weekly newspaper columns.

The children’s successes were great examples to the pioneers of the new settlements who were teaching their own children Hebrew with many challenges, because they lacked so many practical words.

First Hebrew Dog Becomes Martyr

One day Ben Zion found a stray dog, and told his father that it was a “Hebrew dog.” He pled with his father that he really needed this dog because then he would have someone besides his mother and father to talk to. One day the five-year-old and his dog were sent to the post office to mail a letter.

He lost his way and ran into a group of ultra-Orthodox kids. He started to run and yelled for his dog saying, “Mahir! Bo!” (Quick! Come!) The religious kids thought he was calling his dog “Meir,” the name of their Rabbi. They killed the dog and beat Ben Zion unconscious. The first Hebrew dog became a martyr of Israel’s rebirth.

Now, the second boy was born to the household. Eliezer had to borrow the money for the circumcision. Eliezer was finally satisfied that Hebrew would always be Ben Zion’s mother tongue, so he allowed him to attend Rothschild’s school with other kids, learning also French and Turkish. That is, until he heard his son singing patriotic songs in French! Ben Yehuda switched to home schooling on the spot.

Jumping Through the Turkish Hoops

Even though Eliezer had been associate editor of the small news bulletin The Lily for his first year, he longed to be editor of a daily paper of his own, “as attractive in appearance as LeFigaro, the Paris Daily!” Obviously, that would take some time. But he was raring to go!

His first obstacle was the Turks with their stodgy bureaucracy. Under no circumstances would they grant Ben Yehuda a license to start his own Hebrew-language newspaper. Then through good fortune, Eliezer met a Sephardic Rabbi who happened to have applied for a license some time before, but was not using it.

This Rabbi was happy to rent it to Eliezer for the equivalent of $2.50—and the journalistic entrepreneur found another friend who would loan him that sum! It was Eliezer’s door to starting a real newspaper in Jerusalem. Over the years, it became the most important tool of communication for the new settlers of Israel—and it was all in Hebrew.

But with Ben Yehuda as the sole owner and editor of his paper, he became poorer than ever. Dirt poor.  Even though he had a growing family, his newspaper was always fed  first. He just didn’t have enough subscriptions to make any profit. But the paper was part of his dream to bring Hebrew back to life among the Jewish people. Furthermore, it generated interest among persecuted  Jews—especially in Russia—to immigrate to the Land of their Forefathers.

Must Find A Solution

But without enough proper nourishment, Devora became weak and ill. She often found herself coughing and running a fever. In their sixth year, Devora began coughing up blood. She had contracted her husband’s tuberculosis. The doctors suggested she spend some time in the warmer climate of Rishon Le’Zion, which she did for three months. She improved, but then Eliezer, too, began to cough blood. In order to survive, Devora suggested that Ben Yehuda take a trip to Russia, to meet with those interested in immigrating to Israel, and to sell more subscriptions to his newspaper. Fortunately, his (still) good friend, Mr. Pines, took on the job of editing the newspaper while Ben Yehuda traveled. But before he left, Eliezer said, “Devora, you must promise me by all that is holy you will continue with my ban on the children hearing anything but Hebrew while I am gone.” Devora promised.

To be continued in the January, 2019 Maoz Israel Report.

Sources: Fulfillment of Prophecy, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, by Eliezer Ben Yehuda (grandson) 2008; Tongue of the Prophets, The Life Story of Eliezer Ben Yehuda by Robert St. John 1952; https://goo.gl/ MVmMUK; https://goo.gl/8r29uN