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July 31: The Only Hebrew-Speaking Child

July 31, 2014
itamarBen-Zion Ben-Yehuda, the son of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who almost singlehandedly turned Hebrew from a religious language into a modern language for everyday life, was born in Palestine on this date in 1882. His lexicographer father and his mother, Devora Jonas, spoke only Hebrew to him, which made him the first native Hebrew speaker on the planet in more than a thousand years. Itamar was denied friendships with children so as not to expose him to any other languages, and lost several siblings to diphtheria when it ravaged Jerusalem. His family was also ostracized by the Orthodox community in which they lived, due to their blasphemous usage of the loshen kodesh as a daily language. Notwithstanding his isolation, he grew up to be a Zionist activist, journalist, and publisher — as well as an advocate of the international language of Esperanto. Ben-Yehuda eventually took the name Itamar Ben-Avi (son of the father), and wrote a Hebrew biography of his father in a Latin script that he had long campaigned to see adopted for modern Hebrew. Itamar Ben-Avi also campaigned to marry Lea Abushded, whose family scorned his lack of wealth, by writing love poems to her in his newspaper (including one threatening suicide). These mobilized all of Jerusalem in favor of the couple, who married two years later. “Ever since I loved her and my heart aches/My pistol will never leave my sight...” —Itamar Ben-Avi