Resurrecting and Embracing Hebrew
By ILAN STAVANS
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
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
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
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.