quarta-feira, 16 de maio de 2012

Zionism and the Rebirth of Hebrew - The Sephardic Pronunciation

Eliezer ben Yehuda is considered the father of “Modern Hebrew”.
Ben Yehuda left his native Lithuania and sailed to Palestine in 1881 where he settled in the Jewish quarter of old Jerusalem. In 1890 he helped create the Hebrew Language Council (ועד הלשון העברית / va3ad halashon ha3ivrit) whose stated purpose was to disseminate works in Hebrew and establish Hebrew as the official language of the Yishuv.

Although Ben-Yehuda was not a religious Jew, he dressed as a traditional Sephardic Jew, sported a long untrimmed beard and regularly attended the local synagogue. It wasn’t long however until he managed to arouse the ire of the Jerusalem Sephardic Rabbinate who responded with 3 separate bans against his and his newspaper “Hatsvi”.
Ben-Yehuda particularly disliked the Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ya'akov Shaul Elyashar and considered him be from the old generation of Jews who were hopelessly stuck in the “galut [exile] mentality”. He did however form close ties with Elyashar’s successor, Rabbi Ya'akov Meir who was highly sympathetic to Ben-Yehuda’s ambitions and the former was instrumental in introducing the modern Hebrew language into the schools of the Sephardic community in Jerusalem.

Ben-Yehuda, although displaying an attitude of contempt for the older generation of traditional Sephardic Rabbis, harbored a strong admiration for the traditions of Sephardic Jewry; the “golden age in Spain”, was especially cherished by Ben-Yehuda who called it “this most fruitful period”.

As Jack Fellman put it:

"... the Sephardim as a whole were less inclined to religious fanaticism and more receptive to new ideas from the outside world. This fact can be attributed to various sources. First, unlike the Ashkenazim, the Sephardim had never been directly exposed to the new climate of thought as expressed in the ideas of the enlightenment which were sweeping across Europe during the 19th century and therefore did not recognize as deeply the possible anti-traditional, anti-religious consequences of these beliefs."

It is known from historical records and had also been clear to Ben Yehuda before his arrival in Palestine that the various Jewish groups in the city, while speaking their own languages among themselves, used Hebrew as a lingua franca when it became necessary to meet together, for example in the market place, or to work together, as in the collection of taxes for the government authorities. This situation was particularly applicable to the 2 major sections of the community- Ashkenazim and Sephardim- when they met together, but was also the case when groups consisting only of Sephardic Jews gathered, as these people had no other common means of communication but Hebrew, since Ladino was restricted in use and Arabic was splintered into several dialects. As Ben-Yehuda observed: “When for example a Sephardi from Aleppo would meet a Sephardi from Salonika or a Sephardi from Morocco would come into the company of a Jew from Bukhara, they were obliged to speak in the holy tongue… of all the centers of Jewish population in the world only Jerusalem could boast a spoken Hebrew tradition which had been preserved until Ben Yehuda’s time.

As Ben-Yehuda noted: “for me the matter was a little easier, because the Sephardim who knew I was not a Sephardi were already used to the fact that with an Ashkenazi they must speak in Hebrew. As for the Ashkenazim, some of them did not know who I was, and the question whether I might not be a Sephardi made it acceptable to them to speak with me in Hebrew.

This Hebrew was not, of course, the Ashkenazic (European) Hebrew that Ben Yehuda had learned in his youth. In the first place, it was a Hebrew spoken with the Sephardic accent, inasmuch as the Sephardim were numerically and culturally superior to the other groups in Jerusalem and had enjoyed this status for over 300 years and therefore their accent too had become dominant... It should also be borne in mind as a factor initially aiding Ben Yehuda and his ideal that certain groups of Jews in Palestine already spoke only Hebrew, in particular Kabbalists and Hassidim especially in Safed, at least on Sabbaths, but also, it would seem, on weekdays.

Adopting Hebrew as the Official Language
After much discussion and debate, a meeting of the Hebrew Teachers Association in 1895 adopted Hebrew as the language of instruction, with Sephardic pronunciation to be used (but Ashkenazic pronunciation was allowed in the first year in Ashkenazic schools, and for prayer and ritual). The next meeting of the association was not until 1903, at the close of a major convention of Jews of the Yishuv called in Zikhron Yaakov by Ussishkin, the Russian Zionist leader. The 59 members present accepted Hebrew as the medium of instruction…and there was general agreement also on the use of Ashkenazi script and Sephardic pronunciation.
On the question of why Ben-Yehuda and the Language Council decided to adopt the Sephardic pronunciation, Jack Follman quotes the noted linguist Dr. Haim Blanc: “for various reasons, they decided to adopt the pronunciation in vogue among Mediterranean and Middle Eastern (Sephardic) communities, but which one of the several Sephardic varieties was actually used as a model is obscure…”

Blanc offered the following reasons among others for this change:

1. The Sephardic variety was already in use as the pronunciation of the Market Hebrew lingua franca of Palestine, and was used even by the Ashkenazim in their face to face dealings with the Sephardim for almost 4 centuries prior to Ben-Yehuda.

2. The Sephardic variety was considered the more ancient of the two, as testified in particular by various transliterations and translations of Hebrew into Latin and Greek, and therefore was considered closer to the original ancient biblical Hebrew of the homeland. A further point was the fact that the Sephardi variant was considered closer to the historical dialect of Judah, the home of Judaism, whereas the Ashkenazic form was thought to be similar to that of secessionist Samaria.

3. The Ashkenazic variety of Hebrew reminded the council too much of Yiddish, the despised language of the exile in the opinion of most of the council’s members, which, in particular contained the same set of vowel phonemes. Conversely, the Sephardic form resembled the sound pattern of Arabic more closely and Arabic was the sister language in the Semitic family which already existed in the locale.

4. The Sephardic variant reproduced the consonantal text of Hebrew more accurate that did the Ashkenazic, as it included at least four more graphemic-phonemic renditions. Therefore it was considered the more correct of the two by the council, who still conceived of Hebrew more in its written image than in its spoken form.

5. It was the council’s opinion that children who knew the Sephardic system would be equipped to read and write Hebrew texts with greater facility since the Sephardic system resembled the consonantal text more closely. Since children were to be the chief carriers of the language revival, this was an important factor.

6. The Sephardic system is closer to the internal grammatical structure (morpho phonemics) of Hebrew than the Ashkenazic system, and had been the system already in use among the European Hebraists as well as in Hebrew grammars. In this sense, it may be said that the Sephardic variety had more codification and thus more prestige than the Ashkenazi variety.


The Jewish History Channel

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