Tag Archives: Chabad

Jew of the Week: Eliezer Ben-Yehuda

The Man Behind Modern Hebrew

Eliezer Yitzhak ben Yehuda Leib Perlman (1858-1922) was born in what is now Belarus to a religious, Yiddish-speaking, Chabad family. Before his bar mitzvah he was already recognized as a genius in Torah and Talmud. While studying to become a rabbi, Ben-Yehuda was first exposed to some of the Hebrew works of the medieval Sephardic rabbis (such as Ibn Ezra) who wrote poems, stories, and even textbooks of Hebrew grammar. Meanwhile, he came across contemporary, secular (Haskalah) literature written in Hebrew, most notably a Hebrew-only Zionist newspaper called HaShahar. This sparked a passion for languages in general, and Hebrew in particular. Ben-Yehuda plunged into the study of the grammar, history, and development of Hebrew, and also started learning Russian, German, and French. He soon realized the tremendous power of language, and that the only thing truly uniting all Jews around the world—whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi, religious or secular—was Hebrew. In 1877, Ben-Yehuda moved to Paris to study medicine and Middle Eastern history at the famous Sorbonne University. While sitting at a café one day, he met a fellow Jew who started speaking to him in Hebrew. This was the moment that convinced Ben-Yehuda that it was possible to turn Hebrew into a common, spoken language. While some Zionists (like Herzl himself) initially sought to make Yiddish or even German the official language of what would be the Jewish State, Ben-Yehuda knew that it had to be Hebrew. Upon graduating in 1881, he made aliyah and settled in Jerusalem. Ben-Yehuda taught at the Torah and Avoda School, where he devised his immersive ivrit b’ivrit system of learning. He spent the rest of his time writing and developing the language. He founded the Hebrew Language Committee (still operating today) to dig up ancient Hebrew words and to coin new words for modern phenomena, based primarily on ancient Biblical, Aramaic (often Talmudic) terms, as well as from Arabic roots. Ben-Yehuda coined words like glida (“ice cream”), ofanaim (“bicycle”), magevet (“towel”), and rakevet (“train”) using Biblical roots for similar terms. Meanwhile, he wrote for the Havatzelet newspaper, edited the Hashkafa newspaper, then launched his own periodical, HaTzvi, where he would introduce his new words (such as iton, “newspaper”!) He published the first dictionary of Modern Hebrew, a whopping 11-volume tome (later expanded to 17 volumes). Ben-Yehuda raised his children strictly in Hebrew. His son, Ben-Zion, is considered the first native speaker of Modern Hebrew. Some people inaccurately state that Hebrew was a “dead” or “extinct” language before Ben-Yehuda and the Zionists. This is, of course, completely inaccurate since Hebrew has always been used by Jews throughout the centuries, particularly in prayer and for the writing and teaching of holy texts. What Ben-Yehuda did was systematize Hebrew, adapt it to modern times, and transform it into a commonly-spoken tongue, as historian Cecil Roth summed it up: “Before Ben-Yehuda, Jews could speak Hebrew; after him, they did.”

The Kabbalah of Yom Ha‘Atzmaut

Words of the Week

For everything there is needed only one wise, clever and active man, with the initiative to devote all his energies to it, and the matter will progress, all obstacles in the way notwithstanding… In every new event, every step, even the smallest in the path of progress, it is necessary that there be one pioneer who will lead the way without leaving any possibility of turning back.
– Eliezer Ben-Yehuda

Jew of the Week: Ed Koch

The Man Who Made New York Great Again

Ed Koch

Edward Irving Koch (1924-2013) was born to poor Polish-Jewish immigrants in The Bronx. He was drafted to the US Army in 1943 and sent to Europe as an infantryman, earning three medals of distinction. Because he could speak German, he remained in Europe after the war to help dismantle the Nazi government. Returning to New York, Koch studied at City College, then got his law degree from NYU. He worked as a lawyer for the next two decades, and during that time became an influential member of the Democratic Party. In 1967 he was appointed to the New York City Council, and two years later was elected to the US House of Representatives. Though he was originally “just a plan liberal”, he soon became a “liberal with sanity” (in his own words), realizing that at times liberal ideology was illogical and harms the very people it aims to help. He was renowned for his human rights efforts, as well as for combating communism and dictatorships. This drew the ire of various foreign governments (including Uruguay and Chile, who unsuccessfully plotted to assassinate him). Koch served in Congress until 1977, resigning only to take the post of New York City’s mayor under a platform of restoring “law and order”. He fulfilled his campaign promises, among them hiring 3500 new police officers to make New York safer. He ended the riots, and saved New York from its deep economic crisis. Koch was a beloved mayor, easily winning re-election in 1981 with 75% of the vote, and again in 1985 with 78% of the vote. When Chabad wanted to put up a public menorah for Chanukah, he readily agreed, and made sure it would be “the world’s largest”. In fact, he paved the way for other cities to do the same. (Amazingly, a lighting ceremony in Manhattan one Friday afternoon went behind schedule, so Koch summoned a helicopter to transport the rabbi back home to Brooklyn in time for Shabbat!) Despite a stroke in 1987, Koch recovered and continued faithfully serving his city. A year later, he took a strong stand against Jesse Jackson’s run for president (citing Jackson’s anti-Semitic comments). This lost him the support of most black voters, and Koch narrowly missed re-election in 1989. He returned to practicing law, and also became a professor at NYU. He spent more time writing, publishing a children’s book and contributing to a number of newspapers. Back in 1984 he had already published a memoir, Mayor, which became a bestseller and was later turned into a hit Broadway musical. Koch was a big movie buff, and his film reviews became legendary. Koch himself appeared in over 60 films and TV shows. He continued lecturing and going on speaking tours, often in support of human rights, and always in support of Israel. New York’s Queensboro Bridge was renamed after him, and there is a street named after him in Tel-Aviv, too. Koch’s funeral was attended by thousands, with the NYPD doing a fly-over, and eulogies by Bill Clinton and Michael Bloomberg. He asked his tombstone to simply state the Shema, along with the final words of journalist Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and brutally murdered by terrorists: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”

Where in the Torah is Chanukah?

Words of the Week

A small hole in the body is a big hole in the soul.
– Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch (1704-1772)

American-Israeli astronaut Jessica Meir tweets her Chanukah wishes from the International Space Station, with a photo of her Chanukah socks.

Jews of the Week: the Genius of Rogatchov and Joseph Trumpeldor

An Unparalleled Genius and a Zionist Icon

Joseph Trumpeldor

Joseph Volfovich Trumpeldor (1880-1920) was born in Russia, the son of a cantonist (young Jews forcefully conscripted into the Russian army). He became a dentist, but in 1902 enlisted in the Russian army. Trumpeldor lost his left arm in one battle of the Russo-Japanese War, yet wanted to continue serving, reportedly saying “I still have another arm to give to the motherland.” He returned to the battlefield and was captured by the Japanese. Trumpeldor spent most of his captivity studying, learning more about Judaism, Jewish history, and the Zionist cause. He even started writing on Jewish topics and found fellow Jewish prisoners who dreamed of settling in the Promised Land. Upon his release, he received four medals, and was later made an officer, making him the most decorated Jew in the Russian army, and its first Jewish officer. Unable to return to the military, he became a lawyer. In 1911, Trumpeldor made aliyah and settled in Kibbutz Degania. With the outbreak of World War I, he went to Egypt to establish the Jewish Legion (which fought for Britain) alongside Ze’ev Jabotinsky. The legion, also known as the Zion Mule Corps, is considered the first entirely Jewish military unit in two thousand years, and a precursor to the IDF. It helped the British conquer the land of Israel from the Ottoman Turks. Trumpeldor was a key soldier in that effort, and was wounded in the Battle of Gallipoli. After the war, he returned to Russia to gather more young Jews to settle in Israel. In 1920, while working to build the new town of Tel Hai, a band of Arabs attacked the Jewish community. Trumpeldor was shot twice, and succumbed to his injuries. According to legend, his last words were “Never mind, it is good to die for our country.” Trumpeldor immediately became a symbol of Jewish strength, self-defense, and resilience, and an inspiration for a new generation of Zionists. The day of his death, the 11th of Adar (this coming Monday), is a minor holiday in Israel.

Rabbi Yosef Rosen, the Rogatchover Gaon

That same date is also the yahrzeit of Rabbi Yosef Rosen (1858-1936). He was born in the town of Rogatchov (in modern Belarus) to a Chabad family. By the age of 13, he was recognized as a genius and was sent to study with some of the great rabbis of the day in the town of Slutzk. At 31, he was appointed one of two chief rabbis of Dvinsk (in modern Latvia), and served in that role for nearly five decades, until his last days. Rabbi Rosen ensured the survival and flourishing of Jewish life under Russian Imperial, and then Communist, rule, often with great sacrifice to himself. Meanwhile, he published several important works of Jewish commentary and Jewish law. Some of his best writings were published only after his death, under the title Tzafnat Paneach, “Decipherer of Secrets”. Rabbi Rosen was known as the Rogatchover Gaon, the “Genius of Rogatchov”, and was famous for his unbelievable breadth of knowledge on just about any subject. After once meeting him for a lengthy discussion, the renowned poet Bialik said that “from the mind of the Rogatchover could be carved out two Einsteins” and that he is “a great spiritual national treasure.” Rabbi Rosen had many students, including Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who also received his rabbinic ordination from the Gaon. The Rebbe once said that Rabbi Rosen was able to simplify all of Judaism into ten ideas, and quoted him as saying: “Were I a little bit smarter, it would be only one idea!”

Did You Know These Famous People Converted to Judaism?

Words of the Week

Love and work are the two things you have to do in life.
– Sigmund Freud