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Here is the stirring story of how Hebrew was rescued from the fate of a dead language to become the living tongue of a modern nation. Ilan Stavans’s quest begins with a dream featuring a beautiful woman speaking an unknown language. When the language turns out to be Hebrew, a friend diagnoses “language withdrawal,” and Stavans sets out in search of his own forgotten Hebrew as well as the man who helped revive the language at the end of the nineteenth century, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.
The search for Ben-Yehuda, who raised his eldest son in linguistic isolation–not even allowing him to hear the songs of birds–so that he would be “the first Hebrew-speaking child,” becomes a journey full of paradox. It was Orthodox anti-Zionists who had Ben-Yehuda arrested for sedition, and, although Ben-Yehuda was devoted to Jewish life in Palestine, it was in Manhattan that he worked on his great dictionary of the Hebrew language.
The resurrection of Hebrew raises urgent questions about the role language plays in Jewish survival, questions that lead Stavans not merely into the roots of modern Hebrew but into the origins of Israel itself. All the tensions between the Diaspora and the idea of a promised land pulse beneath the surface of Stavans’s story, which is a fascinating biography as well as a moving personal journey.
“There are fewer than 8,000 distinct words in the Hebrew bible, yet a lone zealot and ragged refugees from every corner of the globe transformed the ancient Jewish tongue into the spoken language of millions. A story too fantastic for fiction, Ilan Stavans tells it with erudition, charm and a barely contained sense of astonishment.”
—Aaron Lansky, Author of Outwitting History, and President of the National Yiddish Book Center
“Exciting and penetrating—this story will be read with deep interest by all those who are fascinated by the renaissance of an ancient language.”—Elie Wiesel
“Triggered by a mysterious, haunting dream, Ilan Stavans sets out to discover his relationship with Hebrew. His personal search leads him to explore the unlikely quest of Eliezer ben Yehuda to revive Hebrew, the language of the Bible, a language not spoken outside of the synagogue for 2000 years, as a spoken language. This quixotic, Borgesian undertaking, as unlikely as reviving Latin as the language of everyday Italians, somehow miraculously succeeded. Resurrecting Hebrew, the report of Stavans' own quest, reveals, in a fascinating and informative way, how this impossibility became a reality, not only in the state of Israel, but even in the classrooms of Mexico, where Stavans studied as a child. Written with commendable clarity and vitality, Resurrecting Hebrew is a brief, unforgettable masterpiece.”—Howard Schwartz, Author of Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism
“Resurrecting Hebrew by Ilan Stavans is a remarkably original and appealing book. Oscar Wilde, as always, was right; Stavans also shows that criticism is the only civilized form of autobiography. Reading his new book makes me want to meet him as I know I will read it several more times because of its uniqueness.”—Harold Bloom