Rabbi Eliezer Ben-Yehuda enlightened Tucson Hebrew Academy middle school students about the origins of modern spoken Hebrew in a lecture at the school on Monday, Oct. 4. “My grandfather wanted to teach Hebrew as a living language so you could go to the store and buy a Coke,” Ben-Yehuda, author of “Fulfillment of Prophecy,” told his audience.
Ben-Yehuda’s grandfather, also named Rabbi Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, was born in 1858 in Luzhky, Lithuania, where anti-Semitism was rampant. The elder Ben-Yehuda immigrated to Jerusalem in 1881 — pre-Zionism, pre-kibbutzim — to fulfill his mission of providing a spoken language for all Jews. At that time, said Ben-Yehuda, “you could read Hebrew, sing it, recite it” but not speak it.
His grandfather always said, “One of these days [Jerusalem] is going to be the capital of a Jewish state.” The elder Ben-Yehuda started a newspaper in Jerusalem so that Jewish people would “learn Hebrew and have a sense of community,” Ben-Yehuda told the THA students.
The back of the newspaper listed newly devised Hebrew words. People kept pages of words, said Ben-Yehuda, until someone asked his grandfather to create a dictionary.
Tucson Jewish community cooperation brought Rabbi Ben-Yehuda to THA, said Guy Gelbart, Israel Center director and community shaliach. Adam Bellos, a 2010 University of Arizona graduate, met Ben-Yehuda at a CUFI conference in Washington, D.C. this summer and raised funds to bring him to Tucson. Bellos approached Gelbart, who contacted THA. Ben-Yehuda also spoke at the UA chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Jewish fraternity.
“What an amazing educational opportunity for the students,” said Gelbart, adding that Ben-Yehuda “talking to kids from kindergarten to fourth grade at eye level, in small groups, really left a strong impression on me.”
THA generally hosts three to four speakers a year, said Ronnie Sebold, THA director of admissions.