Sunday, August 10, 2008

Hebrew and Memory

Isabel Kershner has a fun article in the NYT about Hebrew, ancient and modern. She wonders if perhaps modern Hebrew is developing so swiftly that sometime soon it will leave biblical Hebrew behind, and the two will no longer be the same language. Then again, she admits, the case for this may not be very strong; perhaps it's more a case of general Israeli angst (along, I'd add, a pervasive Jewish propensity to kvetch).

This fellow is a young Israeli linguist who teaches at a university in Brisbane (which is pretty far away). I met him at that conference in Melbourne, where he gave some excellent lectures which I enjoyed no end while fundamentally disagreeing. He thinks Modern Hebrew is so far from Ancient Hebrew that it should be called Israeli.

It seems to me that this is a cultural matter. If you live in Tel Aviv, are secular and know next to nothing about the vast Jewish literature created in Hebrew these past three millenia or so, but enjoy the vitality and exuberance of the local language, you can be forgiven for thinking it's new and going places. If on the other hand that literature is something you engage on a daily basis, it's hard to see how your present language is going to detach itself from the traditional one. English, I'm told, is evolving so rapidly that Shakespeare, who wrote a mere 500 years ago, is already falling out of contemporary English. But then again, what proportion of English speakers read Shakespeare on a daily basis?

Today is Tisha Be-Av, the 9th day of the month of Av, the main day of national mourning on the Jewish calender. At the services yesterday morning we read the first chapter of Isaiah, just as Jews have been doing Saturday morning before the 9th of Av for the past 2000 years:

16. wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds
out of my sight!
Stop doing wrong,

17 learn to do right!
Seek justice,
encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless,
plead the case of the widow.

Except that we read it in Hebrew, of course, and any school child can understand it. I have always found it striking that the basic Jewish texts are not heroic paeans but rather stern admonitions about all the things we're doing wrong. Yesterday evening and again this morning we read another section of the Bible, Lamentations, again in Hebrew anyone around here can understand effortlessly (probably better than the rather stilted English):

chapter 2, verse 17: The LORD has done what he planned;
he has fulfilled his word,
which he decreed long ago.
He has overthrown you without pity,
he has let the enemy gloat over you,
he has exalted the horn of your foes.

An interesting sentence. The author, traditionally Jeremiah himself, having recently survived the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar, ruefully admits that this calamitous event was prophesied long before, in ancient times (yemei kedem) - from his perspective, after all, 568 BCE isn't ancient at all, it's the present. 2,600 years later, here we still are, reading his exact words, just as we've been doing ever since they were written, more or less:

chapter 5, 18: for Mount Zion, which lies desolate,
with jackals prowling over it.

Except that it isn't desolate, is it, and there aren't any jackals prowling over it. I know because it's less than two miles from here, and I was last there about a month ago.

It's days like this which underline how extraordinarily foolish some people can be when they rant about the foreign Jewish colonialists who barged in to someone else's land.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Biblical Hebrew consists of 836 'three-letter' root words. When you remove a letter; or add one, you change the word's meaning.

And, then, when you realize that Hebrew has "parts of speech" where the "word" indicates if the speaker is male or female ... And, if it's one, or another, or a group, in question ... you can see that Hebrew got reserected from the DEAD LANGUAGES POOL. When? By a European rabbi, back in the 1800's. That's a big period of time for you? Well, I don't know the name of this rabbi, either.

But, yes. Jews, by the score, gave up Yiddish. Which was the connective tissue that went so far as to have words falling into America's lexicon. Gave it up. As a response to the Holocaust.

Oh, while vaudeville also "went under the bus." Dunno why. But that's where the Jews who could perform in Yiddish, as well as English, did well. And,they also traveled aound America. There being stages to perform on, even away from the borscht belt, and from Broadway.

Why do some things die?

Individuals are not responsible.

Why do some things live? Again, what if one rabbi made all the difference? And, picked up the ancient "root" words; less than one thousand ... and built this into a going language?

How does modern Hebrew cope, you might ask? Probably the same way that modern Greek copes. Where today's Greek kids can't read the ancient texts; made so famous in the context of Western Civilization.

As to ancient prophecies, if you only listened to EINSTEIN. He pointed out the truth, that it's all myth. And, it caters to young minds. Doesn't go the distance in telling the truth. But you've got people who adhere to this stuff; and they also want to have seats in governments.

While in America (where voting is done in secret), the bible thumpers have run themselves into a wall.

What wall you ask? One that doesn't accept papers stuffed in between ancient stones.

I still think we are only one step in a process of change.

From the ancient past, I know the Jews survived the burning down of the First Temple. Then didn't talk too much about the Second one. WHere the Romans, thru Herod, pumped in a fortune ... Because they were hoping to turn "the mighty temple into a home for Jupiter." Jupiter and Zues are the same guy. One is said in Roman. And, the other was said by the Greeks, as they took it whole, from the Eygptians.

Houses of worship are best when people go into them WITHOUT the supports of any government!

Still, it's part of the fabric of Western Civilization. And, when Rome fell? The lights went out for 1000 years.

Oh, you want another fact? When the Jews were chased from Spain, circa 1492; a small group of 750 Jews arrived in Poland. Where they thrived. And, grew.

Too bad people try to use history as something one-dimensional.

While in today's world, even the Catholics have emptied out of their pews in Europe and America.

While the Pope seems to do well among the multitude of Hispanics.

Nagasaki, meanwhile, had been the hub of christianity in Japan. Go figa on what makes a target a target?

As to the Pope, this one, as well as the last, seems to have fabric ripping between the Vatican and the Bishops who serve in Africa. And, South America. Where the popes are still singing celebacy.

And, the Jesuits are communists; just like the new adherents to the Catholic Church's roster.

Not that I care.

You just can't sell me religous indoctrination any more. But go ahead. Believe what you want.