Web sites that are Hebrew-friendly are honoring Ben-Yehudas legacy

I am going to devote the next weeks looking at Hebrew on the Internet: how to learn Hebrew online, where to play the best Hebrew games and how to make your browser Hebrew-friendly.

But first back to Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922). In a marvelous essay, Jack Fellman, a senior lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, explains that Ben-Yehuda believed Jews "must return to their land and begin anew to speak their own language." You'll find it at www.us-israel.org/ jsource/biography/ben_yehuda.html

According to Fellman, Ben-Yehuda and his wife, Deborah, promised to raise their son Ittamar as the first all-Hebrew speaking child in modern history. Ben-Yeduda felt so passionately about protecting his son from other languages that "when visitors came to the house who did not know Hebrew, Ben-Yehuda would send [Ittamar] to bed so that he would not hear their foreign languages."

Thanks to Ben-Yehuda's zeal and Ittamar's needs, Ben-Yehuda coined words for such objects as dolls, ice cream, jelly, towel, bicycle and hundreds more to help Hebrew become a vibrant language. "Before Ben-Yehuda," Fellman writes, "Jews could speak Hebrew; after him they did."

Nowadays, much of Ben-Yehuda's legacy is entrusted to Israel's Academy of the Hebrew Language: http://hebrew-academy.huji.ac.il/english.html For almost half a century, the academy and its linguists, scholars, poets and translators have been debating the language and ruling on its grammar and usage. The academy's decisions are binding on all government agencies including the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

Rather than allow foreign words to overtake the language, the academy is constantly creating new Hebrew words. For example, a logo is a samli, an alien is a chai'zar, while a sitcom is a comediat matzavim. Of course no Web site celebrating the rebirth of Hebrew would be complete without a photo of Ben-Yehuda's library. It's at http://hebrew-academy.huji.ac.il/benye.html

On the other side of the Atlantic, the New York-based National Center for the Hebrew Language — www.ivrit.org — works to build unity among Jews through Hebrew. "Ivrit is the one element shared by every religious denomination, every political grouping, every social organization and every cultural undertaking of Jews," says the Web site, which is full of resources for lovers of Hebrew. Among them: an Ulpan Directory if you want to spend some time in Israel, a Literary Corner, a Hebrew Marketplace where you can read about the latest Hebrew software, and my favorite, a section called Words and Roots. These witty essays trace a Hebrew word or phrase to its origins. Did you know that if you sneeze in Tel Aviv, you may be wished "Assuta!" (Aramaic for "health!"). Find out why you may be wished "Hadassah!" if you sneeze in Jerusalem at www.ivrit.org/words_roots/ words_roots.html

There are many sites that track the evolution of Hebrew from ancient times to the present. One of the most concise is World of Hebrew and Jewish Languages by Tsuguya Sasaki, at http://www.ts-cyberia.net But even more intriguing is Sasaki's autobiographical essay "Fascinated by Jewish Languages," in which he explains how Hebrew and Yiddish became so important to an introspective boy born in a little village in northern Japan. Intrigued by languages, Sasaki learned several, but it was his interest in Hebrew was so strong that he eventually moved to Jerusalem. Eventually he was awarded his doctorate in the Hebrew language.

"Coming back to Japan after five years felt quite bizarre," he writes. "Only then did I notice what a strong influence Hebrew and Yiddish had had upon me. Now I no longer know to which side I belong… Maybe it was all beshert, who knows."