Is it Hebrew or “Israelit”?

By Noga Shavit, Minneapolis Community Shlicha

This entry is dedicated to my mother, who taught me the love of Hebrew.

Hebrew is a fantastic, vivid and dynamic language. It is my mother tongue in which I do most of my thinking and the only language I can calculate in. More significantly, I dream only in Hebrew.  I find it very important to speak Hebrew “properly” and am considered a great Nudnik in Israel for constantly correcting other peoples’ “mistakes”. I can’t help it, though; I grew up in a house where saying “kisa’ot” instead of the proper “kis’ot” (plural for kisseh=chair) was considered a major felony. I am constantly horrified when listening to many of our politicians and prominent spokespeople, appearing on TV, mispronouncing Hebrew words and making endless grammatical errors. I swear to G-D, it gives me the chills. Language is one of the things that define us, therefore, in my opinion, it should be treated with the utmost respect.

Not everyone shares this “purist” opinion of mine. In a provocative, yet fascinating, book, published recently in Hebrew by the Israeli born linguist, Ghil‘ad Zuckermann, under the title “Israelit Safa Yafa” (Israelit, a Beautiful Language), a claim is made, that the language spoken today in Israel is not “Hebrew”, rather “Israelit” and therefore, Hebrew grammar shouldn’t be imposed on it.

According to the author’s theory, there is no such thing as “mistakes” in a spoken language therefore it is simply impossible for a native of “Israelit” to speak it incorrectly. Furthermore, Zuckermann goes on to blame those relating to Modern Hebrew as a continuation of Biblical Hebrew, of being politically and ideologically driven, acting to reinforce the Zionist concepts of returning to our ancient land and to our ancestors’ language.  This is one of the many reasons his book was received very emotionally, often with some anger. Others perceived it as legitimizing a trend that accepts, even worships, ineloquence as representing authenticity.  How we speak, the aesthetics of our language, say many of his critics, reflects our culture, our manners, our respect for ourselves and for others, and therefore should be safeguarded.

Whatever your stand on it may be, the fact that Hebrew today is the spoken language of at least 75% of all Israelis cannot be taken for granted. It is actually almost a miracle. With new words entering the language every day, adapted from Yiddish, Arabic, Russian, English, the world of the internet, military jargon and many other sources, Hebrew is juicy, witty and often surprising. 

As part of my attempt to convey my love of Hebrew, I recently launched the “Hebrew Shmibrew” informal class, taking place once every third Sunday. If you have a good basis in Hebrew and would like to expand your vocabulary in a friendly non-judgmental environment, feel free to join us. For more details please contact me at nshavit@mplsfed.org

If your interest  in the Hebrew language goes further to modern Hebrew literature, I am also starting a book club, in which Israeli books will be read (in either English or Hebrew) and discussed (in English) over coffee. 

It is only appropriate to conclude this column with “Yalla, Bye,” the most popular farewell greeting in Hebrew (yet, “Yalla” is Arabic and “Bye”is English).

Remember to check in next week for my next "Hebrew word of the week!"

 

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