Reborn in Hebrew
by Ori Nir
I have never thought of my father as a revolutionary. But since his death last month, several of his colleagues depicted him as such and helped me better appreciate some of his professional accomplishments, which I had not fully appreciated before.
Shortly before he died, my father started writing a childhood memoir. “I was born twice,” he wrote: once in Hamburg, Germany, in 1930, and then again in 1936, when he arrived with his mother and three-year-old brother at the port of Haifa on a boat of halutzim, pioneers. The two children watched with admiration as the pioneers danced the hora on board and sang patriotic songs. He probably aspired to one day be just like them.
In Hamburg, my father was born into affluence. His father, a successful physician who was decorated several times for running an outstanding field hospital in the German army during World War I, was one of Hamburg’s leading Zionist activists. In 1935, he left for Palestine to prepare for his wife and children’s arrival several months later.
In Petah Tikva, where the family settled, my father’s rebirth was rough. An influx of gifted German Jewish doctors to the small town made it hard for my grandfather to find work. For years, he rode his bicycle through neighboring Arab villages in search of patients. The family struggled to make ends meet.
Life also was not easy for my father and his brother. They were viewed as foreigners from a despised land. Trying to fit in, Ralph became Raphael and his younger brother, Leo, became Arieh. But their white shirts, buttoned all the way up, were ridiculed by the sabras, as were their broken Hebrew and heavy German accents. Childhood friends, who came to Jerusalem to sit shiva with us last month, told us how they helped my father navigate through the eclectic spoken Hebrew of the 1930s.
The geeky yekke went on to serve in the pre-state Haganna, then in the IDF. He served for decades in the reserves, through a series of wars, as did others in the generation that built Israel. But my father was no soldier. His unique contribution to the Zionist enterprise was in the field that was so challenging for him when he came to the land of Israel.
He not only mastered Hebrew–biblical, medieval and modern–he developed a passion for it. My father became one of Israel’s leading scholars of Hebrew, rising to the rank of full professor at Hebrew University, where he taught for more than four decades. “Rafi loved Hebrew so much, it was impossible to listen to his lectures and read his works without falling in love with it again and again,” wrote his colleague, Prof. Elda Weitzman, after my father’s death.
He may have not become the sort of pioneer that he saw dancing on the deck of the Tel Aviv, the small ship that brought him from Trieste to Haifa, but he became an academic pioneer, a trail-blazer in his field, the study of the Hebrew language.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the academic establishment in Israel, particularly at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, focused on classical studies. The study of Hebrew was the study of classical texts–biblical and medieval–not the study of contemporary Hebrew. For the purists, the ancient language whose revival became one of the Zionist movement’s most outstanding achievements was too mundane and too messy to be worthy of research. Their study of Hebrew strongly adhered to the discipline of theoretical linguistics.
My father and a handful of colleagues thought differently. They fought to make Applied Linguistics, a relatively new field in the global academic arena, into a legitimate, recognized discipline. They researched the formation of neologisms in modern Hebrew, how the language is used by the media, how the IDF serves as a workshop for the creation of Hebrew slang, how Hebrew is taught and learned as a first language and as a second language, and much more.
One of my father’s colleagues, Dr. Ruth Burstein, recently described his 1974 book, The Teaching of Hebrew as a Mother Tongue, as “revolutionary.” All the suggestions in the book for revising the rigid methods of teaching Hebrew at the time were gradually adopted, including the recommendation to switch from teaching students to memorize nouns and verb conjugation to a more intelligent teaching of the fascinating way in which Hebrew words are formed.
My father never saw himself as a revolutionary. He was not much of an ideologue either. He was a pragmatist. A modest, measured man, who prized order, discipline, and restraint. I loved him for thse traits, and many others.
But I also admired him for playing an important role in the study and reinforcement of modern Hebrew and its amazing vibrancy. He celebrated the language’s raw energy and encouraged Hebrew purists to let the language spread its wings and remake itself–even when its organic growth did not follow the prescriptions of classic Hebrew grammar.
Professor Raphael Nir, born twice, was buried in Jerusalem last month after a bitter struggle with cancer. I eulogized him in Hebrew at the funeral home, then recited the Kaddish, in Aramaic, four times, as is the custom in Jerusalem. The Kaddish ends with the beautiful Hebrew phrase: “He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace upon us and upon all Israel, and say Amen.”
I raised my voice as I uttered these Hebrew words at the Jerusalem cemetery, thanking my father and saluting his life achievements.
Ori Nir, formerly a journalist with Haaretz and The Forward, is the spokesperson of the Washington-based Americans for Peace Now