Few figures loom as large in the pantheon of Zionism, the history of the State of Israel and the very annals of the Jewish people as does Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a humble scholar from Belarus who sparked an unprecedented linguistic revolution. The man's indefatigable vision turned a semi-stagnant liturgical language into the living speech of a vibrant country.
Ben-Yehuda was the champion of modern Hebrew, and it was due to his realization that the Jews of Ottoman and British Palestine, who came from all corners of the world, would need a common (and expressive) language that Israeli Hebrew as we know it began to take shape. Ben-Yehuda forced himself and his family – including his son, the first exclusively Hebrew-speaking child in at least 2,000 years – to speak only Hebrew, and in the process he invented thousands of words for items not referenced in Classical Hebrew.
He embarked on the compilation of his life's work, A Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew. Ben-Yehuda's Zionism was not merely linguistic; in 1881, along with tides of other idealistic Eastern European Jews, Ben-Yehuda and his wife immigrated to Jerusalem. Soon afterward, he founded a Hebrew newspaper, Hatzvi, and a month before he died in December 1922, the Hebrew language had been declared by the British Mandate the official language of the Jewish community in Palestine. Though you can’t find a testament to the life and work of Ben-Yehuda at his house, you can see his porch.
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