Resurrecting and Embracing Hebrew


The name Eliezer ben Yehuda was familiar to me. In my youth I had read about how the Lithuanian-born lexicographer had devoted his life to a single mission: to revive the 3,000-year-old biblical language, to adapt it to the modern world by making it a centerpiece of Zionism, the 19th-century ideology seeking to create a State for the Jewish people dispersed in the diaspora.

So I delved into the book A Dream Come True, the autobiography of Eliezer ben Yehuda. I didn’t find ben Yehuda’s writing inspiring. His style was careless, repetitive, and undistinguishable from a standard 19th-century autobiography of a colonial in the British Empire. He might have been a Zionist icon but in his writing, at least in A Dream Come True, he was rather unsophisticated. It’s a narrative of his life from the moment he discovered “the fire of love for the Hebrew language” up to 1882, a year when, having settled in Jerusalem, his son Ben-Zion ben Yehuda (Itamar Ben Avi), described as the first child in modern times to speak Hebrew, was born.

Ben Yehuda’s writing may have disappointed me, but I was hooked.

I had learned my Hebrew as a child at the Yidishe Shule, the Bundist day-school I attended in Mexico City. The school was decidedly secular. Our heroes were luminaries like Sholem Aleichem, Marc Chagall, and Mordecai Anielevitch, representatives of Yiddish civilization in the world into which Eliezer ben Yehuda was born. The education I received was built on the idea of difference. As Mexican Jews, we were told we were unique. Our uniqueness derived from a millenarian journey across the globe. We were Mexicans because our forebears had immigrated to that country from the Pale of Settlement. Most importantly, we were Jews. And being Jewish was being somewhat abnormal, not in the psychological but in the political sense. Many of us disliked this message. We fought to be like everyone else. But, as a teacher of mine once said to me, precisely our desire to be like everyone else is what makes us different.

I still remember my second-grade teacher writing the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet on the blackboard, which she used to introduce us to the multifaceted world of Yiddishkeit. She explained them by means of music. The class sang for most of the session a number of different songs. The one that stuck in my mind is the lullaby “Oyfn Pripetchik” (in English, “At the Fireplace”). Originally titled “Der alef-beyz,” it was composed by Mark Varshavsky, whose compilation of Yiddish Folk Songs was published in 1900. In English, it reads:

A flame burns in the fireplace,
the room warms up,
as the teacher drills the children
in the alef-beys.

“Remember dear children
what you are learning here.
Repeat it again and again:
kometz-alef is pronounced o.

When you grow older
you will understand
that this alphabet contains
the tears and the weeping of our people.

When you grow weary
and burdened with exile,
You will find comfort and strength
within the Jewish alphabet.”

Once the singing ended, we would talk, one by one, about aleph, bet, gimel, dalet… She would ask us to come up with a word starting with another one. I remember her telling me once: “Ilan, you’re a lucky boy. Your name starts with aleph, the first letter of the alphabet.”

Upon further research, I found out that “Oyfn Pripetchik” was popular, in part, as result of the discovery of Warshawsky’s work by Yiddish litterateur Sholem Aleichem, author of the classic Tevye the Dairyman, on which the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof was based. During the Holocaust, the lullaby was turned into a ghetto song, with the following modified line: “At the ghetto wall a fire burns, the surveillance is keen.” In the Soviet Union in the '60s, it was a clandestine tune. But in the Mexico of my childhood it was a portal to the Yiddish alphabet. It wasn’t the Hebrew letters that the teacher was teaching us but the alef-beys. Our Bundist forebears, methodical in their hatred of religion and biased supporters of the mameloshn in the language wars that divided the Jewish people since the Haskalah between secularists and their enemies, the Orthodox, and between Yiddishists and Hebraists, wanted to elevate Sholem Aleichem’s tongue to new heights. They wanted us to be a link to its future.

Hostility toward Hebrew began to change when I was in my teens. Among Mexican Jews, the '70s was a period in which Zionism, as an ideology, made a dent in our consciousness. Israel, riding on the wave of military self-assurance that resulted from the Six Day War, sent proselytizing emissaries to the various Jewish communities of the diaspora hoping to persuade youth to make aliyah—return to the Promised Land. Latin America, the fourth largest concentration of Jews worldwide (after the United States, the Soviet Block, and France), was a prime target, especially Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, where most Jews were concentrated.

Hebrew-language classes became mandatory in the Yidishe Shule. Textbooks were imported from Israel. Their socialist images (tractors, irrigation devices, pails and shovels…) were at odds with the bourgeois life Mexican Jews lived. We learned about David ben Gurion, the first Israeli Prime Minister, about the valiant one-eyed army man Moshe Dayan, about the martyred soldiers of the War of Independence. We learned about the kibbutz as the self-sustaining agricultural model of the future. And we learned about diaspora Jews in the Middle Ages, like Yehuda Halevi and Nahmanides, who at some point in their lives had decided to leave their country of origin, to make aliyah. Some died in transit; others arrived safely and are buried in the Holy Land. Concomitant to our existence in the land of the Aztecs was another nation that was also ours. It was only a matter of assuming our birthright for it to grant us full-fledged citizenship. Were we ready to ascend?


Not only the present reality of Israel but the history of Zionism became an important part of the curriculum. In order to understand the debacles of the modern country, a constellation of ideologues was presented to us: Theodor Herzl, Moses Hess, Max Nordau, Berl Katzenelson, Ahad Ha-Am, Vladimir Jabotinsky, Chaim Weizman, and, yes, Eliezer ben Yehuda. Like most of my friends, I learned the essentials about ben Yehuda. I don’t remember being particularly attracted to his plight, though. Herzl, a Hungarian-born journalist whose mission became clear during the Dreyfus Affair in France, was far more attractive. A teacher of mine gave me segments of his 1896 manifesto, The Jewish State, to read. It was arguably the most affecting piece of Zionist literature that crossed my eyes at the time.

Around that time my grandmother, Bela Stavchansky, a Polish Jew who emigrated to Mexico, where her three children were born, and had become a widow in 1965, traveled to Israel. She brought me back as a souvenir a small bottle full of colored sand (yellow, orange, red, and green) from the Negev Desert. She told me that as soon as she descended from the airplane in Tel Aviv, she had kneeled down and kissed the ground. Every Jew from the diaspora longs to return to the holiest of places, she said. The kiss is proof of our inner longing.

I kept the bottle in one of the shelves of my bedroom for years but seldom thought about it.

When I made my own first trip to Israel in 1979 I didn’t think about kneeling and kissing the ground. Nor did I look at the sand in the desert as more significant than the one with which I built castles, fortresses, and other sophisticated architectural structures in Acapulco during summer vacation. Still, I had deferred my entrance to college to live in Israel for a year. Life in the diaspora was confusing to me. What was I, a Mexican or a Jew? Did I need to choose between the two? What made me Mexican other than the accidental route my ancestors had taken to the New World from Poland and the Ukraine in the twenties?

In Israel I was eager to practice my Hebrew, to speak like a native as soon as possible. I made it a task to get the news from the newspaper Ha’aretz on a daily basis. Within a short span of time, I was reading writers like the leading poet of the Hebrew renaissance Hayyim Nakhman Bialik, the Galicia-born novelist Shmuel Yosef Agnon, and the younger crop in the original.

I found scores of Jews like me—dislocated tongue-snatchers ready to make the leap to become natives.

Much as I tried, I couldn’t feel fully at home. I soon realized that, deep inside, I liked being divided: Mexican and Jewish. Or better, that the concept of difference the Yidishe Shule instilled in me had permeated my entire identity. In the streets in Mexico I had been singled out as a Jew, making me feel uncomfortable, though not altogether unwelcome. My skin color was different, my name was different (I was born Ilan Stavchansky), my education was different. I didn’t fit in… and I liked it.

Discomfort can be a pleasant sensation.