[World Zionist Organization].”
Connecting biblical language to contemporary Hebrew speech is a classic move of Jewish nationalism. Hebrew’s successful revival at the turn of the 20th century depended in large part upon its historical appeal: the very same ancient language used to create the sacred Jewish canon has been reborn as a “language of today.” The implication is that you, too, can speak Hebrew, “tongue of the prophets,” the same language as Ezra and Isaiah, just with a few adjustments and words for newfangled things like ice cream (some of which were invented by Oz’s uncle, the scholar Joseph Klausner).
This attitude was a major plank in the “language war” of pre-state Israel that pitted Hebrew against its far more popular sister language, Yiddish. Hebraists claimed the upper hand based on aesthetic purity—the language of King David and the prophets!—and cast aspersions on Yiddish’s status as a mixed language used for popular, that is to say lower-quality, literary expression in the Jewish Diaspora. The denigration of the Yiddish language as jargon, a mongrel language unworthy of artistic endeavor, was ideologically widespread in the years preceding the establishment of the state. Underlying the cheerful poster’s command to “Learn Hebrew” is a complex, often hostile network of anti-Diaspora and anti-Yiddish sentiment.
I didn’t know any of that history, though, when I gazed at the Katz poster as a kid. I saw a language that looked fun.
I saw letters that danced.
The spaces we inhabit in childhood become mapped onto our memories. When I think about home, I think about my father’s study and its jumble of medical books, Judaica, and family memorabilia. In contrast to the overflow of texts on those bookshelves, the alef-bet poster on the wall was contained: a set sequence of letters that would always be the same. Even as our family’s parameters shifted, with spouses and grandchildren appearing, people moving away and returning, the alphabet in its silver frame in the den was beseder—the Hebrew expression that technically means “in order” but colloquially means “ok.”
Beseder is one of the most popular expressions in Hebrew, used on its own or in the phrase hakol beseder—“everything is ok,” or “relax, it’s cool.” In sociolinguistic terms this is a calque, a direct translation from the Yiddish expression altz iz in ordenung. The fact that a Germanic-sounding assertion of order has become, through Hebrew, one of the quintessential Israeli expressions of eased reassurance is one of the many ironic delights of learning the “tongue of the prophets” as a “language of today.”
This poster of the development of the alphabet was produced by the Israel Museum in 1981.
Now in my study in Seattle, I too have a poster of the Hebrew alphabet. I purchased it at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem during my college study abroad semester, a prequel to my graduate studies in modern Hebrew literature. The poster is an unassuming tan color, but the words on it are vividly red. The letters line up so that you can see what symbols are similar among a dozen streams of ancient languages—Phoenician, Samaritan, Classical Greek. Some of them really do look like pictures, reminding me of Bialik’s stork and Oz’s pitchfork. Near the poster, assorted texts reside together on my bookshelves: scholarly volumes by Anita Shapira and Hannan Hever, Itzik Manger’s Shtern afn dakh (Stars on the Roof), the Brown-Driver-Briggs biblical concordance, novels by David Shahar and Haim Be’er.
The red letters on the tan poster appear to me today as magical, mercurial shapes. They still capture my dimyon—the imagination depicted by the letter daled in Katz’s daydreamer cloud. The rows of red letters remind me that languages, like people, have parents, indeed entire families, that connect us to our past and obligate us to the future. Now, far from the Rehovot ulpan room and the dodgeball court where I first gained my identity as a Hebrew speaker, I craft a new identity as a writer, perpetually in dialogue with this language and its history.
And the letters dance on.
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