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Fania Oz-Salzberger: How Jewish is Contemporary Hebrew?

Fania Oz-Salzberger

28/02/2013
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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.

This event was in Hebrew, with English translation.

In memory of Risa Domb

Sponsored by BI ARTS

Fania Oz-Salzberger

Fania Oz-Salzberger is an Israeli historian and writer, Professor of History at the University of Haifa, School of Law and Centre for German and European Studies Her books include Translating the EnlightenmentIsraelis in Berlinand, with her father Amos Oz, Jews and Words. She has written extensively on the history of ideas, the Enlightenment, Israeli-European relations, and Jewish origins of modern political thought.