From the Archive: The father of modern Hebrew — and his son

Julie Wiener

The staff of Doar Hayom. Ittamar Ben-Avi, Eliezer Ben Yehuda's son, is seated second from right. (Wikimedia Commons)

The staff of Doar Hayom. Ittamar Ben-Avi, Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s son, is seated second from right. (Wikimedia Commons)

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the late inventor of modern Hebrew, was recently feted in his native Belarus, from which he emigrated in 1881.

Ben-Yehuda, who died in 1922, was instrumental in Hebrew’s unique transformation from a sacred and largely dormant language to a national tongue spoken by millions. His son — Ittamar Ben-Avi — was also passionate about the language, helping write the first modern Hebrew dictionary.

Not long after his father died Ben-Avi, a journalist who edited a Hebrew newspaper called Doar Hayom, stirred up controversy with a radical proposal: that Hebrew exchange the aleph-bet for the alphabet. He started a weekly newspaper, Palestinai, that did just that, transliterating Hebrew into Latin letters.

Eliezer Ben Yehuda at his desk in Jerusalem, circa 1912. (Wikimedia Commons)

Eliezer Ben Yehuda at his desk in Jerusalem, circa 1912. (Wikimedia Commons)

Ben-Avi’s idea, which coincided with Turkey’s decision, as part of a westernization effort, to switch from the Turkish alphabet to the Latin alphabet, was widely criticized. In response, some suggested Hebrew speakers look not west but east:

If the Assyrian (square) script employed in writing Hebrew is to be changed, as is now being advocated, let the Jews of Palestine adopt the Arabic alphabet, instead of imitating the westernization efforts of the Turks by adopting the Latin alphabet.

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This argument is made in an editorial in the Arab weekly “Al Mustakim.” Commenting upon the propaganda of Ittamar Ben Avi, Palestine journalist and son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who instituted revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, the editorial, entitled “A Proposal to Our Israelite Brethren,” argues that the Arab characters are similar in origin to the Hebrew and, besides, the adoption by the Palestine Jews of the Arabic alphabet would tend to create a better understanding between the Jews and the Arab peoples.

Four years later (the newspaper and linguistic project were stalled as a result of the 1929 Arab riots in Palestine) Ben-Avi — who JTA described as “a dynamic figure in modern Palestinian journalism” — defended his proposal in an interview at his Tel Aviv home and claimed that he had come up with the idea before, not because, the Turks switched alphabets:

… Ben-Avi pointed out that in 1928 — months before the Turkish press took up the innovation — he produced a small weekly supplement to the now defunct Palestine Weekly in that form. Its appearance caused a sensation.

Even though he could not find a publisher for his Latin-lettered Hebrew alphabet, Ben-Avi claimed in the interview that opinion was shifting in his favor. He had, JTA reported:

…received hundreds of Hebrew letters, all written in latinized characters, from men and women the world over. Thousands of people, he says, particularly newcomers, have begged him to renew the attempt.

Speaking of the possible fanatic opposition that might be aroused by any attempt on his part to advocate an abolition of present-day Hebrew script, Ben-Avi argued that the Latin alphabet more closely resembled the alphabet Moses used than the “so-called Assyrian script in which the same Torah is now written. This Assyrian script is a stranger brought by our people from Babylon on their return to Eretz Israel under Ezra and Zerubabel … In short, it is untrue to say as my critics have said, that I am latinizing the Hebrew alphabet. What I am doing is just the reverse — I am fighting to reconquer what once belonged to us –one of the greatest inventions of humankind, Writing.

“In a phrase,” he concluded, with a vigorous shake of his familiar white shock of hair, “I am re-Judaizing the Latin and Greek alphabets.”

Despite the idea’s thousands of fans, it never took hold. Instead, the aleph-bet triumphed   — no doubt to the chagrin of many a young Diaspora Jew struggling through Hebrew school.