People of the Books


Reviews, recommendations, and other reasons to read. By Spertus Institute's Betsy Gomberg.

People of the Books

Graphic novels and serious subjects

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"Comics were once for superhero action stories," said cartoonist Alison Bechdel in an interview with HuffPostLive. "That was pretty much all they did, and then people started pushing the boundaries."

Bechel is a MacArthur Fellow (recipient of what's commonly referred to as a genius grant) who sees herself as a graphic memorist. Her bestselling graphic novel, Fun House, was nominated for a National Book Critics Award and is now a Broadway musical.


Bechel credits Art Spiegelman, who penned his father's haunting story of surviving the Holocaust as the groundbreaking graphic novel Maus, as having paved the way for her to tackle serious subjects.

"Spiegelman's 'Maus' changed comics forever," she said. "Comics now can be about anything — any topic that's as serious as you can come up with."

In fact, the influence of Maus, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, is so great that it's hard to quantify. It is credited with altering not only how we see comics, but also the wider worlds of literature and the way history is conveyed about the Holocaust. Schools use it to teach in fields ranging from history to psychology, and it has spawned an industry of academic research and literary criticism.

bintel brief

Today, a new generation of cartoonists are using graphic novels to tackle tough subjects. One of these artists is 27-year-old Liana Finck, whose first book,A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York, brings to life the trials and triumphs of Jewish immigrants on New York's Lower East Side.

On Thursday, May 7 at 6 pm, Liana Finck will be visiting Chicago to discuss her work in a free presentation at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, where her original drawings, etchings, and sketches for the book are on display in the first floor vestibule gallery through July 19.

Finck, a recipient of a Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists, was inspired by an advice column that ran in the Jewish Daily Forward beginning in 1906. Called A Bintel Brief(Yiddish for "A Bundle of Letters"), the column was a precursor to Dear Abby and all the advice columns that followed.

In discussing A Bintel Brief, Finck explains the importance of the letters she adapted for the book. She says, "The Forwardwas a lifeline for Jewish immigrants in New York during the first half of the 1900s. Its beloved advice column…introduced by the paper's legendary editor Abraham Cahan, [was] full of the kind of raw desperation and hopefulness we all feel, under everything."

In her adaptation, Finck imagines that Abraham Cahan climbs out of a notebook of collected letters, right into her New York apartment in the present day. As their friendship develops, Cahan shares letters from readers who seek relationship and career advice, solutions to complicated family problems, and strategies for dealing with the dark clouds of depression. Although from an earlier time, these letters — and the advice Cahan gave in return — still resonate.


Unterzakhan by Leela Corman from 2012, is another graphic novel that portrays the world of Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York in the early 1900s. Unterzakhn(Yiddish for "Underthings") tells the story of twin sisters, children when the book begins, who end up taking very different paths as they navigate the limited and sometimes seedy choices then available to young women and struggling immigrants. The book received rave reviews from an impressive array of publications, with Publishers Weekly calling it, "beautifully drawn and hard to forget," and Comic Book Reporter praising it as "fantastic, particularly when Corman infuses her female characters with a snarl or a sneer, conveying a lifetime of pent-up emotion in a single panel."

lena finkle

The search for answers that drives A Bintel Brief and Unterzakhn is also front and center in another graphic novel, one that also touches on immigration, but the in America of today. Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel is by Anya Ulinich, author of the award-winning Petropolis. In it, Ulinich, an alum of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, paints a painfully funny, shamelessly personal portrait of the post-divorce life of a young Russian immigrant (not unlike Ulinich herself) who seeks love and finds herself. (For a wonderful interview with Anya Ulinich, check out this column from — where else? — the Forward: Anya Ulinich Makes Her Graphic Debut.) For more recommendations of graphic novels about the Jewish experience, visit the website of the Jewish Book Council at and search for "Graphic Novel."

Real live authors

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Last November, Chicago Tribune reporter Christopher Borrelli wrote about seeing English novelist Martin Amis reflect on his book Zone of Interest as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. Borrelli quipped about assumptions made by those who would never dream of attending an author talk, stating "it needs saying. This is entertainment."

He continued, "Hear me out. Writers, themselves, are not fun to watch. The loneliest sight in the world is the relatively unloved writer behind a table in a bookstore, surrounded by stacks of the latest thing he spent years writing, waiting for the thinnest bit of small talk that might snowball into interest. The second-worst sight is the TV series or film about the writing life - aside from the stray gem (the new Jason Schwartzman movie Listen Up Philip, for instance), [these are] often focused on the epic self-involvement of the writer, the landscape is littered with under-shirted neurotics pecking away at their keyboards…And yet, watching a live writer gabbing, fretting, even bloviating in front of a live audience, is a durable, underrated way to spend an hour or two."

I couldn't agree more. In recent years, I have heard authors speak about books I've loved (and some I haven't) in sold-out auditoriums, crowded book stores, outdoor festivals, and the back rooms of bars and cafés. I have laughed out loud and cried (sometimes in the same talk, Christopher Buckley talking about Losing Mum and Pup at the wonderful Politics and Prose, for example).  I have gained insight, had questions answered, seen characters and plot lines in new light, and, most fun for me, learned what books inspire the authors who inspire me.

Through a random confluence of good fortune, a number of impressive Jewish writers will be speaking around Chicago over the next couple of months. I recommend you take Christopher Borrelli's advice (and mine) and go out and hear them talk about their work.

Monday, March 23 
Pritzker Military Library at 6PM 
Eric Greitens on Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life


When I first heard about Eric Greitens from a colleague, I was awed not only by the number of truly impressive things this young man has done, but by utter audacity of having all of these things accomplished by a single individual. Here we go:  Jewish from Missouri, Master's degree from Duke, Rhodes Scholar with PhD in Politics from Oxford University, documentary photographer, Navy SEAL (I'm not making this up-he was deployed four times and served as the Commander of a Mark V Special Operations Craft Detachment, Commander of a Joint Special Operations Task Unit, and as Commander of an al Qaeda Targeting Cell, earning a Combat Action Ribbon, Purple Heart, and Bronze Star), humanitarian volunteer, nonprofit founder and CEO, and bestselling author. In 2012, he was recognized with The Charles Bronfman Prize for "young innovators whose Jewish values infuse their humanitarian accomplishments." In 2013, Time magazine named him to its list of the 100 most influential people in the world and, in 2014, Fortune recognized him as one of 50 greatest leaders in the world.  His newest book was inspired by a former SEAL colleague struggling with PTSD.

Wednesday, March 25 
Union League Club at noon 
Center on Halsted at 7PM 
Barney Frank on Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

Former Massachusetts Congressman Frank relates his journey from New York City to Boston and then to the Congress, where for more than 40 years he played a vital role in struggles for personal freedom and economic fairness. The Boston Globe calls the book, "Combative, unashamedly liberal, and acidly funny."

Wednesday, March 25 
Harold Washington Library at 6PM 
Robert Putman on Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis

The acclaimed Harvard professor and author of the best-selling Bowling Alone  continues his exploration of social connectedness, civic engagement, inequality, and opportunity. 

Thursday, April 2 
The Book Cellar at 7PM 
Dina Elenbogen on Drawn From Water: An American Poet, An Ethiopian Family, An Israeli Story

Award-winning local writer and educator Dina Elenbogen (who teaches at the University of Chicago Graham School and has taught writing at Spertus Institute) explores her 30-year friendship with Ethiopian Jewish immigrants in Israel.   

Thursday, April 9 
Union League Club at 11:30AM 
Scott Simon on Unforgettable: A Son, a Mother, and the Lessons of a Lifetime

In 2013, NPR host Scott Simon began tweeting from his mother's hospital room. His evocative 140-character updates about his mother's life and death spread virally, reaching 1.2 million Twitter followers and beyond. Unforgettable expands on those now-famous tweets to create a memoir of his mother and their time together.    

Thursday, April 16 
Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership at 7PM 
Martin Goldsmith on Alex's Wake: The Tragic Voyage of the St. Louis to Flee Nazi Germany, and a Grandson's Journey of Love and Remembrance


In 1939, the SS St. Louis sailed from Hamburg bound for Havana. On board were 900 Jews attempting to flee Nazi Germany. After being turned away by Cuba, the US, and Canada, the ship was forced to return to Europe. Among the passengers were Alex Goldschmidt and his 17-year-old son Helmut, who spent the next three years in one French camp after another before being shipped to Auschwitz. Sixty-nine years later, author and radio personality Martin Goldsmith, Alex's grandson and Helmut's nephew, retraced their journey, traveling more than 5,700 miles. To mark Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) Goldsmith will be at Spertus to discuss this compelling and personal story, called "powerful and evocative" by the New York Journal of Books.

The influence of Anne Frank

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From Feb. 24 to June 28, Writers' Theatre (a Chicago-area treasure in suburban Glencoe) will present The Diary of Anne Frank in a newly adapted version by Wendy Kesselman. In an interview about the production, director Kimberly Senior spoke about "peeling back the layers of meaning" of Anne Frank's iconic testament to the years she spent hiding with her family during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.

Since almost immediately after its Dutch publication in 1947 - two years after Anne Frank died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen - Frank's diary has served as inspiration. This has been true for generations of readers, but it's also been true for an amazing array of other writers, right up to the present day.

Certainly there were screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, whose 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning play is the basis for the Writer's Theatre production and whose 1959 movie version was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. (It won three: Best Supporting Actress for Shelly Winter's performance as Mrs. Van Daan and Best Cinematography and Art Direction.) Much more recently, Francine Prose's 2010 Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, and the Afterlife  tackles the stories behind the diary's publication.


But far from these straightforward examples lie many surprises.

There is Nathan Englander's short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. In the title story (with the title alluding to Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love), two couples play "the Anne Frank game," speculating about who would hide their families in the event of another Holocaust.


Writer Shalom Auslander (known for his appearances on This American Life and his memoir Foreskin's Lament) explores this same idea in a series of short videos made to promote his first novel, Hope: A Tragedy. (In one, he calls Ira Glass to ask if Glass will hide him, never mind that Glass is also Jewish. He also calls John Hodgman and Sarah Vowell. All can be viewed on YouTube.) Ann Frank (and an attic) also appear in Auslander's novel, twisted through his signature caustic lens.


Alternate-history novels speculating about an Anne Frank who survived the Holocaust started way back in 1976 with Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer. Jillian Cantor's recent novel Margot, takes a different path, conjuring a version of Anne's older sister, Margot Frank, who survives the war and resurfaces in Philadelphia.


I haven't read the book yet (if you have, let me know what you think in the comment section), but Laura Moser, in a review for The Forward, says Margot, "doesn't take on a whole chain of historical events. [It] is small in scale: just one woman's life. Though, of course, no woman symbolizes the horrors of the Holocaust better than Anne Frank, and by extension, the studious older sister who gets so few mentions in her diary.  And because we know so little of the historical Margot Frank, Cantor can really run with her fictional Margie. And run she does."

You can hear audio from Shalom Auslander's 2012 talks at Spertus Institute (in conjunction with the publication of Hope: A Tragedy) at For information on the Writer's Theatre production of The Diary of Anne Frank, visit

Booking ahead

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Welcome to 2015!

As I write this, it's zero degrees in Chicago and my inbox is filled with emails about new books to look forward to reading in the year ahead. Seems like the second of these is urging me to make the best of the first.

Here are recommendations from knowledgeable insiders and reliable readers about upcoming Jewish books we should have on our reading lists.


The Last Flight of Poxl West is the first full-length novel by former Esquire editor Daniel Torday, whose novella The Sensualist won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for debut fiction. Selected among 2015's "Most Anticipated" by The Millions, it has been termed "a saga within a saga" that weaves together the voices of teenager Eli Goldstein with the first-person account of a young Czech Jew (his idealized uncle Poxl West) who flew missions for the RAF during World War II. Kirkus, in a starred review, says it "has two big things in common with Gone Girl - it's a story told in two voices, and it's almost impossible to discuss without revealing spoilers. A richly layered, beautifully told and somehow lovable story about war, revenge and loss." Due out March 17, 2015.

After Abel and Other Stories is a collection by Michal Lemberger, whose writing regularly appears in SlateSalon, and Tablet.  The nine stories are built around biblical women, leading to comparisons with Anita Diamant's The Red Tent. The collection is being praised for both for its creativity and its grounding, not surprising from an author who teaches Hebrew Bible as Literature at UCLA and the American Jewish University. A variety of early readers are saying it will be a great choice for book groups. Due out April 7, 2015.

The Book of Aron, by National Book Award finalist Jim Shepard, is another selection from The Millions "Most Anticipated" list. This child's-eye view of the Warsaw Ghetto is narrated by Aron, a quirky boy from the countryside. With other kids, Aron risks his life smuggling goods to Jews in more dire straits, all while hunted by blackmailers, the police, and the Gestapo.  Janusz Korczak, the real-life Jewish-Polish doctor and children's rights advocate also plays a role when he is put in charge of the ghetto orphanage. In an advance review, author John Irving says "The story of what happened to children in the Holocaust is not for the faint-hearted. And a heartbreaking historical novel that ends in Treblinka may not be what many readers are expecting from a novelist and short-story writer whose ironic touch is often comedic. But Jim Shepard has written a Holocaust novel that stands with the most powerful writing on that terrible subject." Due out May 12, 2015.


Among the books featured in the Jewish Book Council 2015 Preview is The Pinch by Steve Stern, who won a National Jewish Book Award for The Wedding Jester. Set in a  once-thriving Memphis Jewish community in the 1960s, the novel revolves around a lackluster character named Lenny Sklarew who works in a secondhand bookstore where he finds an old book that features him as a character. Advance reports suggest we can expect an imaginative and intricate ride through decades of American and European history, as well as through myth and folklore. Due out June 2, 2015. (If you aren't familiar with Stern's work, check out the serialized version of his novel The Frozen Rabbi, online at Tablet.)

Jami Attenberg, author of Chicago Jewish One Book 2013 selection The Middlesteins, has a new book on the way and it sounds great. Saint Mazie: A Novel begins in Jazz Age New York where Mazie Phillips is the party-loving, truth-telling proprietress of a famed movie theater. The book follows Mazie (and her diary) through the challenging years ahead, as she becomes ever more critical to life on the Lower East Side. If you've read any of Attenberg's earlier work, you know she creates characters who are fascinating, complicated, and very real. I suspect we're in for a wonderful journey in Mazie's company. Due out June 2, 2015.

Do you know of other books we should be watching and waiting for? Let me know in the comments section or at

Books for Hanukkah

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This year Hanukkah begins at sundown on Tuesday, December 16.

Do you, like me, dream of seeing a friend or family member unplug whatever glowing device they are usually staring into long enough to get lost in a good story or be wowed by exploring something longer than a BuzzFeed list? With Hanukkah gift-giving just ahead, here are some suggestions that might do the trick.

Many of these are available at the Spertus Shop, where purchases support programming relating to Jewish learning and leadership.

In a review full of praise, The New York Times called Lev Golinkin's A Backpack, a Bear and Eight Crates of Vodka, a "hilarious and heartbreaking story of a Jewish family's escape from oppression." With biting humor and a sly take on international politics, family relations, and human nature, Golinkin's memoir tackles two trips, his 1989 childhood emigration from Kharkov, Ukraine to West Lafayette, Indiana, and his 2011 journey back on a quest to find and thank the people who'd provided his family with love, support, and the means to escape.

Another view of Jewish life in the region from which Golinkin's family fled, albeit a couple of centuries earlier, is provided in the Pulitzer-nominated The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe  by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern. In it, Petrovsky-Shtern, the Crown Family Professor of Jewish Studies at Northwestern University and a member of the Spertus faculty, draws on a wealth of never-before-used archival material to challenge the popular notion of the shtetl as a ramshackle Jewish village stricken by poverty and pogroms. Instead, this colorful and pathbreaking social history argues,  in its heyday (a period from the 1790s to the 1840s), the shtel provided a bustling economic, intellectual, and religious community where Jews thrived.

Where did the image of the poor, backward, tradition-bound shtetl come from? One obvious answer is Fiddler on the Roof, this year marking its 50th anniversary. Adapted from the tales of Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem and set in Tsarist Russia in 1905, Fiddler turns the fictional village of Anatevka into the setting of one of the greatest American musicals, a theater piece that resonates around the world. Give the theater-lover in your life collectors' hardcover edition of the script by Joseph Stein, complete with the lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Or give a gift pack of Fiddler and the The Golden Age Shtetel for a yin and yang look at Jewish history.

A totally different entrée into Jewish history is offered up in On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals, and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao. In it, Rabbi Deborah Prinz combines her love of chocolate with her passion for travel and talent for archival sleuthing, sharing a journey that begins when she reads that Jews brought chocolate to France. Is it true? Read to find out.

Two other great gifts this year have to do with food.

My favorite gift book last year was Jerusalem: A Cookbook (recently awarded Best International Cookbook by the James Beard Foundation and still a great gift choice). Jerusalem-born, London-based chef and restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi is back with gorgeous vegetarian cookbook called Plenty More. Recipes range from Apple and Celery Root Salad to Fig and Goat Cheese Tart.

Eating Delancey, by Aaron Rezney and Jordan Schaps with an introduction by Joan Rivers, is a photo-filled compilation of classic Jewish food with profiles and recipes from classic Lower East Side eateries such as Sammy's Roumanian Steakhouse, Russ & Daughters Appetizers, Katz's Delicatessen, Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery, and Ratner's. Bette Midler, Jackie Mason, Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, Don Rickles, Fyvush Finkel, Isaac Mizrahi, Lou Reed, Arthur Schwartz, and Milton Glaser wax nostalgic throughout the book.

Favorite Hanukkah book for kids this year? Woody Guthrie: Honeyky Hanukah, in which joyful pictures by Dave Horowitz bring to life a little-known Guthrie tune inspired by his mother-in-law, Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt.  It comes with its own CD of the Grammy-winning Klezmatics performing the featured song.

Uncovering Jewish Family History

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Books about Jewish family histories - like the Jewish families they portray - come in all shapes and sizes. Some chronicle life in situations and places very much like your own family's experiences, while others share stories of Jewish families in circumstances and corners of the world entirely unlike your own.  

In The Family, this year's One Book | One Community selection, author David Laskin traces his own remarkable family across five generations and three continents. He sleuths out past locations, uncovers long unread correspondences, and interviews historians, close friends, and newly discovered distant cousins.

With Laskin's family memoir as inspiration, the books listed here are recommendations from the One Book team at Spertus Institute. Like The Family, each unearths the history of one Jewish family, often with surprises discovered along the way.

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance 
by Edmund de Waal 

When he inherits a collection of tiny Japanese sculptures, renowned ceramicist Edmund de Waal seeks to find out where they came from and how they survived. In doing so, he uncovers the rise and fall of an incredible nineteenth-century Jewish banking dynasty.

Everything is Illuminated 
by Jonathan Safran Foer

In this novel based on real life, a young man sets out on a quixotic journey to find the woman who may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. A film adapted from the novel starred Elijah Wood.

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street 
by Susan Jane Gilman

A dark comedy novel about the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, raised by Italians on New York's Lower East Side.

They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland before the Holocaust 
by Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

A remarkable record-in both words and images-of Jewish life in a pre-WWII Polish town, as seen through the eyes of one inquisitive boy.

The Red Leather Diary
by Lily Kopel

A discarded diary rescued from a Manhattan dumpster compels a young writer working at The New York Times to find its owner and tell her story.

The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million 
by Daniel Mendelsohn

Mendelsohn, an award-winning author and critic, searches for the truth behind his family's tragic past. 

A Tale of Love and Darkness
by Amos Oz

A family memoir that takes place against the backdrop of the birth of Israel, written by one of Israel's most important writers. A National Jewish Book Award winner. Soon to be released as a movie starring Natalie Portman.

My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Family's Past
by Ariel Sabar

The author and his father travel to find what's left of his father's birthplace, a tiny Jewish enclave that existed for 3,000 years in what is now the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography.

My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir
by Meir Shalev

From one of Israel's most celebrated novelists, a charming memoir about his pioneer grandmother.

Little Failure: A Memoir
by Gary Shteyngart 

The acclaimed novelist writes with humor about his own American immigrant experience.

One Book | One Community is the Chicago Jewish community's celebration of Jewish Book Month. Each year, a single book is chosen for a series of activities and resources in Chicago and the suburbs. This year's winning book is David Laskin's The Family, named a best book of the year by the Seattle Times, Kirkus Review, and the New York Public Library. Visit for information.

One Book | One Community is supported, in part, by the Robert & Toni Bader Charitable Foundation. JUF News is the media sponsor. We are pleased to be working with synagogue partners Congregation Etz Chaim and North Suburban Synagogue Beth El as well as our colleagues at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center-and we hope to see you at one of the many events.

Tongue tied

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This month marked the convening of the 99th World Esperanto Congress in Buenos Aires. At this global event, Esperanto speakers from all over the world come together to sing songs, read poetry, and produce plays entirely in Esperanto, an artificially constructed language based on various Slavic, Romance, and Germanic dialects. With only 2 million speakers worldwide, and without an official country to call home, Esperantists often joke that the World Congress is the closest they get to feeling like part of a community. In this vein, they lovingly refer to the convention as Esperantoland.

If the idea of a Diasporic people uniting over a shared language strikes you as familiar, you're not alone. In her book In the Land of Invented Languages, linguist Arika Okrent makes the case that the creation and continued practice of Esperanto bares a strong resemblance to the revival of Modern Hebrew in Israel. Both languages, she says, were formed in part to unite people around a common culture. And in doing so, both lent a voice to a people who only wanted a land to call their own.

Esperanto was invented in 1887 by Dr. Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, a Jewish optometrist from Poland. A staunch pacifist, Dr. Zamenhof believed that most of the world's conflicts stemmed from misunderstandings between cultures, and felt a universal language had the power to put an end to all world wars. Esperanto came about through his desire to create the simplest, most comprehensible language possible. Though its early speakers were limited primarily to the Russian Empire and Central Europe, it took less than a decade for the language to spread to the Americas, China, and Japan. For a time, there were even plans to establish Neutral Moresnet, a small territory in Belgian-Prussia, as the world's first Esperanto state. But the plan never materialized, and to this day Esperanto remains a language without a country.

Unlike Esperanto, Modern Hebrew had no L.L. Zamenhof, an inventor to create its vocabulary, grammar, and syntax from scratch. But it did have an Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a Lithuanian-born lexicographer widely credited for instituting Hebrew as the national language of Israel.   

Though it has long been the language of Jewish liturgy and prayer, Hebrew had died as a spoken language by 200 BCE. It wasn't until the early 1880s, when Ben-Yehuda immigrated to Palestine with his family, that Hebrew received a second chance at life. "Hebrew…served as a sort of lingua franca of the marketplace for Jews from various language backgrounds, but it was nobody's mother tongue," writes Okrent. Most Jews at the time could read and understand Hebrew, but being a dead language, it lacked a vocabulary expansive enough to describe objects in the contemporary world. Think what it would be like to describe how to start your car in Old English, and you'd get an idea of how difficult the early Jewish settlers had it.

In the mid-1880s, just as talk about the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine began to percolate, so too did the debate over what its national language should be. "Yiddish was the language of the European Ashkenazi Jews," writes Okrent, "and many of them argued that Yiddish should be the language of Jewish nationhood." But at that time, Palestine was populated by speakers of many different languages, including Arabic-speaking African Jews and Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews, and German-speaking Western Jews. 

It wasn't just linguistic differences that divided these groups. They also ate different foods, recited different prayers, and followed different kosher laws. It was here that Ben-Yehuda felt that Hebrew could do the most good. Like Zamenhof, he believed that a shared language had the power to make people put aside their differences - linguistic and otherwise - in the name of something bigger. And for Ben-Yehuda, there was nothing bigger than a national Jewish homeland.

Putting his ideals into practice, Ben-Yehuda declared that he would make his home to be a Hebrew-only household. A prominent journalist, he frequently published articles about his family's efforts to learn the new language, and in turn inspired families across the region to adopt Hebrew as their language for daily interaction. Hebrew speakers remained sparse at first, but that all changed during the First Aliya, when over 20,000 Jews from Eastern Europe immigrated to the Land of Israel. "Many of them were receptive to new language habits," writes Okrent. "Some teachers began to teach Hebrew…through the direct method-just jumping in and speaking the language, without commentary or explanation in Yiddish, Russian, or any other better-known language."

The Second Aliya in 1904 brought thousands more Jews to Palestine, many of them from Russia, which was then on the verge of another violent pogrom. With their socialistic zeal and optimistic energy, these new immigrants were inspired to change their lives in dramatic ways. "Office clerks and doctors learned to plow soil and shovel manure on the newly established collective farms," writes Okrent. "Teachers and accountants built roads and laid foundations for new Jewish towns." Many of them were willing to change their language, too. As Hebrew grew in popularity, speakers began to add newer words, and the language's vocabulary grew in accordance.

1914 marked another major milestone for Hebrew. That was the year teachers at Technion University, a major science and engineering school, went on strike in protest of the university's decision to adopt German as the language of instruction. Eventually, the decision was overturned, and today Hebrew remains the official language of the university, as well as of the State of Israel. But how, you ask, did Hebrew spread from the university classroom to the farms, fields, and households of daily life? The answer is simple: the kids started playing with it.

"As modern studies…have shown," writes Okrent, "a generation of children can turn the effortfully produced, inconsistent input of the adults around them into a fully-fledged, effortless native vernacular." Put another way, because children of the Second Aliya were exposed to Hebrew early on, they were better able to do adopt it as their native language. This, in the end, is the true beauty of Ben-Yehuda's push to make Hebrew the national language of Israel. What he knew deep down was that he wasn't just creating a language for a limited people in a specific period of time, but rather, a medium through which generations of Jews could express their hopes, fears, aspirations, and dreams for a better future.

If the story of Modern Hebrew has anything to teach us, it's that all languages - no matter how antiquated or seemingly out of date - have the power to evolve. So, too, do the people who speak them.

I hope you enjoyed reading my article. Thank you, Dankon, and Toda Rabah.