Fania Oz-Salzberger: How Jewish is Contemporary Hebrew?
Modern Hebrew is a unique, self-conscious, man-made hybrid that became a living, biting, and rather unruly language, happily cavorting with foreign tongues, these days mainly English, and toying with colloquialism and slang. Nevertheless, Israeli children are still able to read the Bible today, with some help. It may not be the same language, but it is by no means a foreign language, either. Most words spring from the page with a familiar ping.
Intellectual historian Fania Oz-Salzberger returned to the festival to discuss the modern Hebrew language, the greatest linguistic start-up in modern times. During the 20th century the count of Hebrew speakers grew from near zero to more than 10 million. There are now, by conservative estimates, six to seven million native speakers and well over three million non-native speakers, including Israeli Arabs and diaspora Jews.
But the revival of Hebrew would have mattered far less had it not produced, from its earliest modern infancy, worthy literature. Also scholarship, essay, drama, and cinema, all of which speak and echo well beyond the Hebrew sphere.
Agnon and Bialik and Brenner, alongside a great many others, were able to climb aboard this old-new platform to write and say valuable things about the human condition, not only the Jewish one. Modern Hebrew culture speaks to the wide world. Conversely, from the very start, it translated and quoted, borrowed and adopted texts and words from numerous other languages.
Of all the accomplishments of the Zionist movement, Modern Hebrew is the most creative, the most dialogical, the most global—and by far the least controversial. It is also, arguably, the most Jewish of all Zionist feats.
Fania Oz-Salzberger is a writer and history professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Haifa. She recently held the Leon Liberman Chair in Modern Israel Studies at Monash University, and a Visiting Laurance S. Rockefeller Professorship for Distinguished Teaching at Princeton University. She is author most recently, with her father the novelist Amos Oz, of Jews and Words which she discusses at Jewish Book Week on 26 February 2013.
This event was in Hebrew, with English translation.
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