A comment by Ghil’ad Zuckermann on my post about his views on Israeli (Hebrew) sent me looking for more information about Dola Wittmann, the oldest native Israeli-speaker (in April 2000; I’m afraid she’s probably passed on by now). I found a very interesting column by Sam Orbaum, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, called “Daughter of the mother tongue”:
Dola learned the language from her father [Eliezer Ben-Yehuda], who reinvented it… During my first of numerous chats with Dola, about 15 years ago, our hours-long interview was interjected by occasional “harumphs.” Every time she dipped into another language for a bon mot, her husband Max voiced his displeasure. “You can say that very well in Hebrew too,” he grumbled.
Max, who passed away a few years ago, was actually more stalwart a devotee of Ben-Yehuda than even Dola. Worldly and cosmopolitan, Dola readily spoke other languages as well. Max adamantly refused.
When Max asked for Ben-Yehuda’s permission to marry his daughter, his answer, she recalled, was: “I will grant permission dependent on your answer to two questions: Will you live in Eretz Yisrael, and will you only speak Hebrew?” Max promised to do both—and true yekke that he was, never, ever compromised his promise.
It did not even concern Ben-Yehuda that Max was Christian—and German to boot. He pointedly did not ask Max to convert (he never did). “Speaking Hebrew, and speaking it here, was all that mattered,” Dola explained.
“Since then, I never left the country for any reason,” Max said proudly, “and never spoke anything but Hebrew.”
Max devoted his life to the study, advancement and usage of pure Ben-Yehuda Hebrew, and he was certainly one of the world’s top authorities on the subject. Whereas Dola would merge foreign elements into her speech, and adapted, to an extent, to the language’s evolution, Max would not. A telefon was still a sach-rachok, just as Ben-Yehuda decided it should be.
Dola lit up when I asked her if Ben-Yehuda had a sense of humor when he created the modern language. “Oh, yes, definitely! There are many examples of whimsy in his choice of words.” For example? She laughed. “Clitoris. He decided on dagdegan, from the root l’dagdeg, to tickle.”…
Some of Ben-Yehuda’s coinages never became popular, consigned to linguistic curiosity (and to the vocabulary of Max). Only the Ben-Yehuda family ever used the word badura for tomato; milav, for “sport,” was taken from the Arabic, but swiftly became defunct. The oddly foreign-sounding petrozilia prevailed over Ben-Yehuda’s netz halav for parsley. The delightful chen-chen (thank you) was perhaps too genteel for the clamorous nation-in-the-making, but it survived among a few “old-fashioned” speakers, by now winning some popularity as a hip colloquialism—an ironic revival.
Max was able to recount Dola’s childhood just as vividly as she could, because as a member of the Ben-Yehuda “language army,” even as a little girl, she was responsible for helping entrench Hebrew as the local lingo. Dola’s early years, and the language’s, were one and the same.
“Ben-Yehuda would gather the children each evening, and tell them all the new words he had created, or rediscovered. The children were required to pass them on.” Max, a tall, white-haired, coolly Teutonic gentleman, warmed only when speaking about Ben-Yehuda and his language. “Dola was younger, so this was already more established by the time she learned to speak. A child would be sent to the grocer to buy rice. He would ask for orez, and the [Yiddish-speaking] grocer would say ‘vus?’ (what?) The child would then point to the rice and repeat ‘orez‘—that’s how the language, word by word, was first spread.”
A charming story, and I like the fact that the creator of the modern language was unable to impose words the people didn’t want to use.