Belarus town honors Eliezer Ben Yehuda, father of modern Hebrew

Cnaan Liphshiz

GLUBOKOE, Belarus (JTA) — A ceremony honoring Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, was held in the presence of Israeli dignitaries in a Belarussian town connected to his past.

The ceremony, which launched the second Jewish learning conference in Belarus of Limmud FSU, was held Thursday at the main square of Glubokoe, located 100 miles north of Minsk, where Ben Yehuda, who died in 1922 in prestate Israel, learned Jewish studies and where his wife was born.

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Israelis attending the gathering of a few dozen people near a statue honoring Ben Yehuda, which was erected in 2010, included Ambassador to Belarus Yosef Shagal and Gil Hovav, Ben Yehuda’s great-grandson, a celebrity chef and food critic in Israel.

“Beyond being a great man and a visionary, my great-grandfather was also a man who was very much preoccupied with being respected,” Hovav said in his speech, which was delivered in Hebrew. “He would get into fights with people who he thought should show him more respect, and he rarely won in his lifetime.”

Born in Luzhki in 1858, Ben Yehuda was exposed to secular studies while undertaking Jewish studies in Glubokoe. He immigrated to Ottoman-ruled Palestine in 1881, where he devoted himself to modernizing and reviving Hebrew by inventing hundreds of words that were then missing from the language, including the nouns for handgun, sock, immigration, police and newspaper.

“In our family, we rate cities by the size of the street honoring Eliezer,” Hovav said after the ceremony. “Jerusalem and Tel Aviv rank high, Haifa not so much. Your town scores pretty high, though.”

The ceremony featured a municipal all-female marching band and choir.

Hovav also unveiled a plaque in memory of Ben Yehuda in his birthplace of Luzhki.

In his address, Shagal said Ben Yehuda was “but one of a wealth of personalities that show how deep Israel roots grow in Belarus.”

Highlighting these cultural links is a priority for Limmud Belarus, where 600 people are participating, said the Limmud FSU’s founder, Chaim Chesler.

“This emphasis helps Jewish and non-Jewish Belarussians connect to Israel and the Jewish people,” he said, adding that during the four-day conference, his group will inaugurate an exhibition at the National Museum in Minsk about the late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose parents were born in what is now Belarus.

Other prominent Israelis with Belarussian roots include former presidents Shimon Peres and Chaim Weizmann, as well as former prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir.