Instrument for Jewish unity
Pioneer Women, March 1950
This month will be observed as Hebrew Month by national organizations, schools, cultural and youth groups throughout the country. To emphasize Pioneer Women’s interest in the study and dissemination of the Hebrew language, we offer herewith excerpts from an address which was held under the auspices of the Histadrut Ivrit of America, the Hebrew Language and Culture Association.
The Jews of Israel would have never been able to become a nation had they not possessed their own language and proved themselves capable of reviving it. On the other hand, the Hebrew language would never have attained its present high degree of development nor have established itself so firmly if the people had not attained statehood.
Yet this process was not started with the attainment of statehood by the Jewish people in Palestine. It started from the very first day that a Jewish mother began to nurse her child in Hebrew, from the very first town where a Jewish farmer set out to plow up a field of Jewish land. It was the need for expression that created the ability on the part of our people to express itself. Such is the pattern of the linguistic development of the whole human race. It is the need that impels people to seek words, phrases, and images through which to express thoughts and feelings.
For centuries past the development of the Hebrew tongue was cramped because of the fact that Jews lived as Jews only within the narrow confines of their religious and communal existence. In all other spheres, such as those of commerce, trade and political activity, they lived not as Jews, but as people who shared the culture and language of their environment. That is why the Hebrew language of necessity underwent a certain process of atrophy in many fields of human endeavor. Our people could not express themselves fully in Hebrew simply because they did not live a many-sided Jewish life. Only by the achievement of the great and unprecedented goal of a full-fledged national existence in Israel has the Hebrew language received an historic impetus to provide expression for our many-sided national development.
With the advent of the Jewish state and the attainment of political independence, a tremendous push forward has been given to Hebrew. Again, this is first and foremost a question of dire necessity. We have today a real full-fledged army and we are faced with the need for an entirely new military terminology. We have a complex governmental administration and are faced with the need for expressing in Hebrew notions for which previous generations never had to find suitable words.
Again, it is a dual process which we have witnessed. Israel today is a melting-pot in two distinct senses. First of all, it is a melting-pot for human beings, for the people who have flocked there from all the corners of the world. Jews who are separated from one another by centuries of separate existence, by differences in climate, geographic location, culture, and language have not been cast by the mighty arm of Jewish history into a single melting-pot. They have to live together, under no end of difficulties and have to work and pull together. But gradually irresistibly a new nation is emerging, a homogeneous human mass imbued with the same desires and spirit and speaking with the same voice.
The same process is being undergone by the Hebrew language. We are reaching deep into the most ancient sources of our linguistic heritage. Starting from the Bible, we add the Hebrew of the Mishna and of the literary renaissance during the Golden Age in Spain. We continue to add to that various stylistic layers, from the literature of Hassidic lore down to the newest words coined by some journalist when faced with the necessity of transmitting properly some scientific term or some new political notion that comes over the radio or the telegraph wires.
All these layers of Hebrew language and culture, which only a few decades ago were completely divorced from each other, have now become woven into one homogeneous fabric of modern Hebrew that is at once rich and variegated. For whose sake has all this been accomplished? Is it to be for the sake of those in Israel alone?
The Link that Binds
We are faced with the problem of Jewish world unity and of rallying the Jewish people around the State of Israel. I believe that all of us feel that a new sense of Jewish unity has been created and enhanced through the establishment of the State of Israel. There is something tangible and concrete that has entered into Jewish life today, that draws people together and makes them stand and pull together.
Where is the unity, the link to bind our people together and make for mutual understanding? How can we learn to feel together as Jews and by enriching our culture to deepen our appreciation of the worthwhileness of being Jews? For merely to follow the newspaper reports in English about the progress of Israel and its spiritual life is but to receive a faint impression of the real thing. Our great national poet, Hayyim Nahman Bialik, once said that to read the poetry of one’s own people only in translation is like being doomed to kiss one’s own bride through a veil.
As the Hebrew nation in Israel progresses, it will grow and develop not only in material values but also culturally. It will and must create. It will delve all the more into the ancient sources of its cultural heritage. It will continually improve the quality of its literary and artistic expression. It will be able to impart a great deal to the Jews outside of Israel and to stimulate Hebrew cultural development in all the Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora.
Creating a Common Culture
The Jewish communities throughout the world will themselves, too, be able to participate in that creative process. Just as in past centuries as well as in more recent times, there arose Jewish centers which exerted a tremendous influence upon our cultural life throughout the world, such as those of Babylon, Spain and Poland, so today this is possible in the United States. We can have a decentralization and diversification of Jewish cultural creativity amongst the various Jewish communities provided that this scattered Jewish world works and pulls together and has something very basic in common.
That entails learning Hebrew. To learn Hebrew means to become really a Jew. If you can’t do it yourself, see that your children learn it properly. You may say it is too much to expect of the average person that he should know two languages. Is it really too much? Look at us in Israel. You will hardly find a well educated person there today who is not bilingual. He knows English or German or French in addition to Hebrew. Very many of us are trilingual. We teach our children both English and Arabic in addition to Hebrew, and it is definitely our aim that there should be as many people as possible in Israel knowing those three languages.
If there but be the desire, American Jews can: safely avoid blurring their national origin. This can be accomplished by an effort to promote and foster Jewish consciousness and to further our cultural and spiritual world unity as expressive of our attachment to the country of Israel. Surely, it should not be beyond the organizational capacity of American Jewry to create such ways and means of education, child-upbringing and community life so as to enable increasing numbers to know Hebrew and be able to read the Bible itself in the original.
You must realize what you miss and must make good your loss. Again, if not you yourselves, then your children. A veritable treasure-trove of knowledge and a source of pride and spiritual satisfaction await you. It is up to you to make it your own. To the extent that you do so, will your Jewish cultural horizon expand and your creative capacity grow. It is only thus we can create the essential and worthwhile unity that will raise the whole Jewish people to unprecedented heights of cultural life and creativity.