Friday, June 09, 2023

Reviewing: “The Story of Hebrew,” by Lewis Glinert. Princeton University Press, 296 pages. 2017. ISBN: 9780691153292.

Many people have likely heard the claim that Hebrew is the only ancient language to be in active use today. While speakers of Farsi and Chinese may disagree, Hebrew’s resurgence and resurrection may be the linguistic equivalent of a miracle. From being a peripheral language in far-off Israel a little over a century ago, it’s now a vibrant language spoken by millions across different continents.

In a fascinating new book, “The Story of Hebrew,” Dr. Lewis Glinert, professor of Hebrew Studies at Dartmouth College, provides a history of the Hebrew language from biblical times to today. While written by an Ivy League professor and published by Princeton University Press, this is nonetheless a most readable and highly engaging book.

In addition, knowledge of Hebrew is not needed to enjoy this remarkable book. At Dartmouth, Glinert teaches the class “From Genesis to Seinfeld: Jewish Humor and Its Roots.” In keeping with his dry sense of humor, he has written an entire book about Hebrew, and aside from a few illustrations, not used a single Hebrew character. The truth is that this is not a book about what the Hebrew words mean. Rather it is about what the Hebrew language has meant to the people who have possessed it.

The book tells two stories. First, how Hebrew has been used in Jewish life for the past 3,500 years—how it was left for dead, only to come back. The other story is that of how Jews and Christians have conceived of Hebrew, and invested it with a symbolic power far beyond normal language.

A few of the many questions that Glinert addresses are: How did Hebrew figure into the sense of identity of the Jews? How did that relationship change with the advent of Zionism and their love affair with the Hebrew language? What kept Hebrew from dying out completely? And perhaps most importantly: What can its remarkable story teach about the working of human language in general?

The story of Hebrew starts at the beginning with the chumash. Glinert notes that the chumash tells the history of the Jewish people almost entirely in prose, deliberately turning its back on the epic poetry with which the cities of Ugarit, Ur and every other Near Eastern culture recounted their cosmic beliefs. This use of the Hebrew language created the reality that the spoken language in its ordinary form, that which the patriarchs and matriarchs spoke, formed the basis for today’s use of Hebrew.

This leads to the question: If Moshe Rabenu found himself on Dizengoff Street, could he understand the Hebrew spoken? Glinert believes if you gave him a dictionary and a few minutes to adjust to the accent, he’d be able to take it all in. Since Hebrew now has the same basic vocabulary and word structure as it did 3,500 years ago, with a little adjustment, new Hebrew, which was grafted onto its ancient roots, means that an Israeli adult can readily open the chumash and start reading.

Even more remarkable is when Hebrew is contrasted for example with the Old English of Beowulf, written a mere 1,000 years ago. Of the over 3,000 lines of this epic poem, one is hard-pressed to find a single line that is comprehensible to an English speaker today.

In the chapter “Jerusalem, Athens and Rome,” Glinert interestingly calls the sages of the Talmud “linguistic revolutionaries.” He meant this in the sense that they saw that to preserve Hebrew, rather than using a different language, their legal and moral teaching employed a simple, even folksy style of Hebrew. By using this new vernacular Hebrew, replete with shared terms from Greek and other languages, the Sages could add life to a language near death. The brilliant foresight of the sages to move the oral law to the Hebrew language, was their planning for the future of the Hebrew language.

Glinert provides a fascinating overview of Hebrew and the many areas it touched, building insights on how Christians embraced Hebrew, often via the Jews they disdained, who thought by using it, they would be better able to convert Jews to Christianity.

For those who thought Hebrew was a shoo-in as the national language of 20th-century Israel, Glinert writes how that was not the case. As late as 1914, most Jews in Israel, even the most ardent Zionists, were skeptical about the future of the new Hebrew language, and the majority were not sending their children to Hebrew-speaking schools. German remained the official language of the international Zionist movement. Other languages that were considered as a stronghold for the future included Yiddish, French, Arabic and even Turkish. Amazingly, within 50 years, Hebrew was fully revived.

My only critique of the book is its brevity. At 250 very readable but all too brief pages, this is a topic that begs for more detail. The last chapter alone, about Hebrew’s resurgence in the modern state of Israel deserves its own full-length book.

Glinert weaves an amazing story here. Both a history of Hebrew, and its miraculous (he’s an academic, so doesn’t use terms like that) restoration, is unparalleled in linguistic and sociopolitical history. The story of Hebrew’s resurgence is perhaps the ultimate victory for a long-persecuted people. “The Story of Hebrew” is a mesmerizing and most worthwhile read.

 By Ben Rothke


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