"The more the nationalist concept grew in me, the more I realized what a common language is to a nation..."
One of the first Zionists and the driving force behind Israel adopting Hebrew as a national language, Eliezer Yitzhak Perelman was born in Lithuania in 1858. He had a religious upbringing and was hoped to eventually become a rabbi. However, he swapped the yeshiva for the secular world and went to study at a Russian gymnasium, learning Russian and French from Dvora Yonas, the daughter of a writer. Dreams of nationalism were in the air as Greece, Italy and Bulgaria fought to become independent nations, and Eliezer started thinking of reviving Eretz Israel. He changed his surname to Ben-Yehuda and started publishing political essays in Hebrew.
He went to Paris to study medicine, but was perhaps more interested in studying Hebrew and Zionism. Tuberculosis made him unable to finish his studies and he decided to emigrate at once. Dvora Yonas came with him, they married and went to settle in Palestine in 1881. During the sea voyage to Jaffa, Ben-Yehuda taught her Hebrew, and after that they never spoke any other language to each other. They settled in Jerusalem where there already was a growing Jewish community.
Dvora died from tuberculosis in 1891. Her younger sister Hemda offered to marry Eliezer and take care of his two young children. She made it her life's work to help him reach his goal, and learned Hebrew in record time, started working for his paper and eventually took it over so that he could research more Hebrew words.
Ben-Yehuda had three main plans for pushing Hebrew as a national language:
His son, Ben-Zion (Itamar Ben-Avi), was taught nothing but Hebrew. In fact, he was separated from other children so that he would not learn their language. Luckily he later had siblings to play with. Although he started speaking late, at the age of four, Ben-Zion did become a native speaker of Hebrew. The household became a living legend and an inspiration for other Zionists.
Ben-Yehuda declared that rabbis and teachers should use Hebrew as the language of instruction for all subjects. He became a teacher himself and taught his pupils Hebrew directly, through speaking it, not by going via some other language. This was only reasonable as the children came from all parts of the world and had no common tongue, but their teacher's idea was to plant Hebrew in the hearts of the young, so that they would speak it naturally from an early age.
Although Hebrew was a proper language that had once been spoken daily by its people, it now lacked many words to describe modern concepts or even everyday items. Ben-Yehuda and other scholars had to devise new words when they needed them.
To convince adults that they too could speak Hebrew, Ben-Yehuda published a newspaper called Hatzvi, where all topics that would interest a people living in its own land. Through their religious education, all males were able to read and understand the newspaper, and the words and ideas spread.
Ben-Yehuda also spent much time compiling a dictionary of Hebrew. Originally a list to aid himself in speaking the language, it grew to a precise list of philologically correct words for the new old language. His 17-volume A Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew was finally completed by his son and second wife after his death.
Ben-Yehuda did not revive a language that had been dead for thousands of years. Jews had learned Hebrew as part of their religious education, and those who had never left Israel still knew it as a second language. Still, he was the one who made it the natural first language of Israeli Jews. Most immigrating Jews were favourable to the ideas of Ben-Yehuda, but the ultra-orthodox were not. They thought that Hebrew was a language to be used in divine matters only, and that he was dragging it into the mud. To this day they refuse to use Hebrew in their everyday lives. The rest of the Israeli Jews did use it, and on November 29, 1922, the British mandate authorities recognised Hebrew as the official language of the Jews in Palestine. Ben-Yehuda lived to see his lifework complete, but not much longer. One month later, he succumbed to his tuberculosis at last.