The attractive young lady says “shalom” and right away I know I’m in trouble. I’m just entering El Al’s special security screening, as much psychological as technological. And I can’t decide whether it’s polite or patronizing to respond with the only word of Hebrew I know (which is also “shalom”). It’s a very Canadian moment. In the face of elaborate precautions against international terrorism and anti-Semitism, I’m paralyzed by a language issue. And uneasily aware that standing speechless at El Al security with beads of sweat forming on your forehead is not a promising start to a trip.
Ultimately I settle for “Hi,” and after having my luggage passed through their special X-ray machine and my brain through their special psychological understanding I am cleared to fly to Tel Aviv (on a trip sponsored by the Canada-Israel Committee). I concluded that they had other things on their minds than whether it was dorky for a tourist to mispronounce their equivalent of “Hello” (and that my airplane seat bore no useful resemblance to a bed). I turned out to be right on both counts. The story of language in Israel is an amazing one not least, to a Canadian, because of how relaxed everyone seems to be about it.
Israel’s familiar language miracle is the resurrection of Hebrew as a vernacular rather than liturgical language. As Paul Johnson’ s History of the Jews notes, when Eliezer ben Yehuda went to Palestine in 1881 and insisted he and his wife, née Deborah Jonas, speak Hebrew to each other, “Theirs was the first Hebrew-speaking household in the country (indeed in the world) and Ben Yehuda’s first son, Ben Zion, was the first Hebrew-speaking child since antiquity.” For Israel to resurrect Hebrew was at least as improbable as if the United States had sought to revive Latin in 1776. Indeed more so, for there were more people capable of conversing in Latin in 1776 than in Hebrew in 1881, and it had been a living language more recently. But, my goodness, it has succeeded. Continue Reading →
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