The Story of Hebrew

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Lewis Glinert
Library of Jewish Ideas
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , February
     2017.
     296 pages.
     $27.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691153292.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Would Moses be capable of understanding a Rabbi Akiva lecture or reading a modern Israeli newspaper? Over the millennia, Hebrew has displayed a “zest for change amid constancy” (248); just how this ancient tongue has evolved yet remained the same is the subject matter of Lewis Glinert’s The Story of Hebrew. It’s a fascinating story, to be sure, and Glinert tells it with all the mystique that this enduring language deserves.

No factor that has affected Hebrew over the ages escapes Glinert’s attention. Cultural, historical, religious, political, philosophical, literary, and linguistic angles are all considered. He even addresses the different scripts and fonts of written Hebrew throughout the ages. Glinert effortlessly weaves in and out of any subject even remotely relating to the Hebrew language. Pronunciations, translations, reformations, persecutions: it’s all here.

Glinert uses an engaging writing style with analogies (reading the Talmud is like “consuming a linguistic layer cake,” 57); an aptitude for alliteration (“buzzed bilingually,” [57], and “sciences, sonnets, and the sacred,” [102]); and memorable turns of phrase (“resultant linguistic acuity,” [14], and “Kabbalah-mania,” [3]). On any given page he knows how much detail to include, being either very specific or painting with broad strokes, whichever is more suitable to the topic at hand. Glinert possesses and exercises the rare gift of making lengthy and detailed discussions about even grammar and poetry interesting. And his own original translations of Hebrew scriptures, prayers, inscriptions, letters, scientific texts, medieval fables, song and hymn lyrics, portions of novels, and modern poetry reveal just how thoroughly he is acquainted with its variety, nuances, and development.

When introducing major Jewish figures like Shimon Bar-Kokhba, Moses Maimonides, Aharon ben Asher, Rashi, and Eliezar Ben-Yehuda, Glinert concisely presents their contributions to the preservation and development of the Hebrew language, including the right amount of information to make their biographical details interesting and relevant. Major Jewish works like the Mishnah, Midrash, and Talmud are also introduced, as well as the relationships that Hebrew has had over the centuries with other languages, such as Aramaic, Arabic, Greek, Latin, Yiddish, and diaspora Gentilic languages. The author also explains Christianity’s peculiar penchant to both adore and revere Hebrew yet neglect and marginalize it.

In the opening chapters Glinert holds the unity yet diversity of Hebrew in balance by staying closely tethered to the Torah and the religious customs that flowed from it. In the final two chapters Glinert turns to Modern Hebrew’s forerunners of the 18th to 19th centuries, and the preserved written texts that had kept it refrigerated (the author’s analogy) until Zionism and the formation of the Israeli nation-state in 1948 brought one million Jewish immigrants back to the Levant, and their ancestral tongue with them. Glinert also gives attention to David Ben-Gurion’s efforts to resuscitate Hebrew through official dictionaries, immersion education, and repressing Americanization in Israel. In the book’s final sentence, Glinert expresses both admiration and a healthy concern for the state’s influence on Hebrew; the epilogue then discusses several key factors that will determine the future of the Hebrew language.

The thirty-four figures throughout the book (photographs and illustrations of everything from ancient coins and calendars to religious and scientific texts to modern-day street signs) are relevant and interesting in their own right. Endnotes are sparse, and the “Further Reading” appendix is also abbreviated. But that’s because Glinert’s focus is on the primary sources, which is why the Index is so thorough in comparison. Many, if not most, who read The Story of Hebrew will probably want to follow up by seeking out Jewish literature: the Book of Tahkemoni (Liverpool University Press, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2003), perhaps, or portions of the Zohar (Stanford University Press, 2016).

This book is worth coming back to for at least one reread, and probably more. It could be read as an introduction to Hebrew, but would probably be more enjoyable as a more substantial survey for those who have already had some exposure to the Hebrew language. I certainly didn’t expect a book about the Hebrew language to be a page-turner, but that’s exactly what Glinert has provided.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dave Massa is a graduate of Shepherds Theological Seminary and an associate pastor at Trinity Bible Church.

Date of Review: 
July 3, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lewis Glinert is Professor of Hebrew Studies at Dartmouth College, where he is also affiliated with the Program in Linguistics. His books include The Grammar of Modern Hebrew and The Joys of Hebrew.

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