Resurrecting Hebrew a fascinating look at modern language

In Jorge Luis Borges’s story “The Circular Ruins,” a magician dreams a man into life. This is no easy task. In the shade of an abandoned temple, the magician sleeps with determination, slowly molding and shaping the man into being. This dreamed man is mortal in all respects, save his imperviousness to fire. In the end, when fire comes for the dreamer, he too realizes that he is a child of another man’s dream.

Ilan Stavans’ “Resurrecting Hebrew” presents the reader with a similar problem. Two dreams, or rather two dreamers, share the narrative. It is the tension between them, the underlying question of who is the author of who, which lends Stavans’ account of the origins of modern Hebrew so much of its power. Interweaving questions of language, diaspora, the personal and the political, Stavans’ work is fascinating and informative.

The book begins with Stavans’ own account of an uncanny dream, in which Hebrew becomes incomprehensible. The author learned the language in a Jewish day school in Mexico City and became fluent during a period living in Israel, but thereafter his Hebrew fell into disuse. Spurred on by a friend’s diagnosis that the dream is a sign of language withdrawal, Stavans embarks on a quest to reclaim his lost Hebrew and to understand the history of the language.

The other dream is personal and grandiose. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the idiosyncratic promoter, publicist and lexicographer popularly credited with reviving modern Hebrew, is the hero of Stavans’ narrative. Born into a religious family in East Central Europe in 1858, Ben-Yehuda went on to embrace Zionism and moved to Jerusalem in 1881 on a mission to recreate Hebrew — first introducing it to his family, then to the world through his modern Hebrew dictionary.

Through Stavans’ journey, which takes him to Israel in search of Ben-Yehuda’s linguistic and cultural legacy, Ben-Yehuda’s character unfolds. He was a tireless lexicographer, inventing hundreds of new words — though many of them were never taken up by the public. He also was a charlatan who feigned religious practice when he first arrived in Jerusalem in order to convince the established Orthodox Jewish community to join his linguistic project.

Some of the finest moments in the book are those in which Stavans leans on his academic training (he is a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at the University of Massachusetts) to analyze Ben-Yehuda’s literary and material remains. These include an insightful reading of a passage in Ben-Yehuda’s autobiography, “A Dream Come True,” in which Ben-Yehuda discusses his desire to raise his first child in linguistic isolation, fearing that hearing other languages would spoil his ability to speak Hebrew. Stavans reads in this passage the ethos of Robinson Crusoe, as well a redemptive return to the Garden of Eden: Ben-Yehuda as Adam, his wife Dvora as Eve, and Hebrew as the key which reopens the locked gates.

This brings us back to the question: Who is the dreamer and who is the dreamed? As much as Stavans’ narrative brings Ben-Yehuda to life, Ben-Yehuda himself is the author of a legacy which is also the object of Stavans’ search. While Stavans begins with the question of Ben-Yehuda’s place in modern Israeli society — “Ben-Yehuda? It’s a street,” one woman informs him — he also turns to larger issues of language politics. He gives us glimpses of the conflicts between Hebrew and Yiddish, Hebrew and Palestinian Arabic, Hebrew slang and official discourse.

Nor are religious tensions ignored. As Stavans relates, the haredi community views Hebrew as a sacred language, unfit for “profane” everyday use.

In the midst of his search, Stavans retreats to his Tel Aviv hotel room with a Hebrew translation of Borges’ story “The Aleph.” Modeled on Dante’s Divine Comedy, “The Aleph” tells the story of a mystical device that contains and reveals the entire universe at once. Stavans compares Israel to the Aleph as a space that contains multitudes, languages and diasporas, serving under the sign of a language reborn.

This section of the book, both poetic and profound, typifies the high points of Stavans’ narrative. “Resurrecting Hebrew” is more than a biography of Ben-Yehuda. It is a thought-provoking meditation on diaspora and language, and the connection between the two.

“Resurrecting Hebrew” by Ilan Stavans (240 pages, Nextbook/Shocken, $21)

Ilan Stavans will speak at 12:45 p.m. Nov. 2 as part of Bookfest 2008 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F.

Paging all readers: Bay Area JCCs celebrate Jewish Book Month