Tongue of the Prophets

At the behest of my friend and colleague, Rabbi Dr. Stuart Dauermann, I finally read Tongue of the Prophets by Robert St. John.

Let me tell you … I could not put it down, and even got Monique reading it. So if you are looking for some great Summer reading … here you go.

Tongue of the Prophets is the riveting biography of Eliezer Ben-Yehudah, the father of Modern Hebrew, who single handedly resurrected Hebrew into a living, spoken modern language. And he did this in spite of constant opposition and ridicule during his lifetime. As with so many great individuals in history, he was only truly appreciated after his death.

But in addition to his efforts at reviving Hebrew as a spoken language, what many people are not aware of is his constant struggle for the establishment of a Jewish homeland. Long before Herzl wrote his famous Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), Ben-Yehudah had written two appeals in Hebrew for the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel.

He immigrated to Jerusalem in 1881, and following his lead, many young idealists also began moving to Israel to establish kibbutzim and moshavim. He personally was a driving force for these early waves of settlement. In addition to his being the Father of Modern Hebrew, he may well have been the true Father of Zionism.

The book sat on my bookshelf for many years, and I have always intended to read it, but just never got around to it. Thanks to Rabbi Dauermann, I am so glad I read it. The book is anything but boring and gives a fascinating look at not only the personal life and struggles of Ben-Yehudah, but what life was like in Jerusalem under the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate, the early Zionist Movement in Europe, and the settlement of Israel in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

In the epilogue to the book, the author writes of Ben-Yehudah:

“In life he had been fought, denounced, vilified by Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazic Jews, by Zionists and non-Zionists, by haters of Hebrew and lovers of Hebrew, the Orthodox and the un-Orthodox, Jews in Palestine and Jews out in the Diaspora.

In death thirty thousand Jews followed his body to the grave. School children with black-draped flags. Ultra-religious Jews with long side curls  and garments reminiscent of the ghettos of Europe. Jewish businessmen, very Western-looking, from Tel Aviv and Haifa. Healthy young pioneers who had been streaming in for two days from remote colonies. Jewish soldiers, Jewish scholars, Jewish statesmen. There were Christians and Arabs in the procession, and British High officials. Dominican monks and Franciscan monks and Moslem leaders.

Palestine was ordered to observe three days of national mourning. Palestine wept, knowing a man had died who had all the qualifications of greatness (p. 364).”

This book is fascinating and reads like a novel, full of suspense, love, heartache, joy, and suffering. For those who love history or desire to be inspired by a great figure, I highly recommend this book. You will not be sorry.

The book is available online through Amazon and other book sellers.


About Rabbi Joshua

I'm a Rabbi, writer, thinker, mountain biker, father and husband ... not necessarily in that order. According to my wife, however, I'm just a big nerd. I have degrees in dead languages and ancient stuff. I have studied in various Jewish institutions, including an Orthodox yeshiva in Europe. I get in trouble for making friends with perfect strangers, and for standing on chairs to sing during Shabbos dinner. In addition to being the Senior Rabbi of Simchat Yisrael Messianic Synagogue in West Haven, CT, I write regularly for several publications and speak widely in congregations and conferences. My wife is a Southern-fried Jewish Beltway bandit and a smokin' hot human rights attorney... and please don’t take offense if I dump Tabasco sauce on your cooking.
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9 Responses to Tongue of the Prophets

  1. James says:

    Oy. Another book for my reading list. Thanks.

  2. Rabbi Joshua says:

    LOL! I completely understand.

  3. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a great man, and a fellow Russian Jew!

  4. zayin says:

    “And he did this in spite of constant opposition and ridicule during his lifetime.”

    NPR just had a broadcast a few weeks back talking about the large group of Charedi (and a few other smaller sects) who still ridicule the man for “putting the holy tongue into common usage”.

    I’ve heard the arguments and I think I will ride the fence with that one. I can understand both sides of it.

    Regardless though, I do respect him greatly for what he did and the great task he undertook. Truly amazing. I may pick up the book for a good read. Thanks for the recommendation.

  5. “I’ve heard the arguments and I think I will ride the fence with that one. I can understand both sides of it.”

    Yes, according to at least one site (but an obviously biased secular Zionist one) Ben-Yehudah turned “actively anti-religious” when he encountered opposition to his work from the Orthodox community. Whether or not this is true (or accusations that he actually “beat his wife” when he was angry with her speaking Russian to their son), he was a great man regardless – history is filled with flawed people who achieve great things, and most great people have great flaws.

  6. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Zayin & Gene,

    You guys should really read the book instead of assuming and passing on bogus information. Ben-Yehudah did not beat his wife over her speaking Russian with their children, etc.

    It’s all in the book.

  7. So glad you read the book, Joshua.

    I just spent time in Israel with a woman who was best friends with one of Ben Yehuda’s daughters. This woman is herself in her 90’s and has every marble she ever had, and a few I’ve lost. Yes, “Tongue of the Prophets” is an indelible read.

    Anyone inspired as I am by a focused life would do well to read it. Few have lived such focused and effective live as Ben Yehuda. May he be bound up in the bond of eternal life.

  8. “You guys should really read the book instead of assuming and passing on bogus information. ”

    Joshua… reading this book is fine and when I get a chance, I will, but I like my information from multiple sources before I draw conclusions on anything. What I am sure of, though, is that this book or any book is not the first or final word on this man. Over the years I’ve read countless materials on Eliezer Ben-Yehudah – I still view him as a great man whose accomplishments and dedication I greatly admire.

  9. zayin says:

    I wasn’t trying to pass on bogus information, just wanted to add the article that (unfortunately) there are still a few sects, mainly anti-Zionist, within orthodoxy (*not all sects*) that still don’t think the best of them man for making a holy tongue a common one. This was also stated on an unusually balanced (in regards to Israel) NPR special a few weeks ago.

    I understand where both sides are making their arguments which is why I choose to ride the fence on the topic. Hearing vulgar language in Hebrew is a travesty — much more so than even in English or other languages for sure.

    I personally think the best of the man for doing what he did. It was truly an amazing thing and I do plan to read the book.

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