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.


  1. Really quite charming. I would’ve loved to have met Dola. Max? Ah, well, I guess.

  2. Max sounds like a crank after out own hearts.

  3. Yeah, I can see myself getting into a good satisfying argument with Max. Hey, Max! Maxele! Drop by the comment thread, OK? I’ve got Hebrew Unicode enabled, you can kvetch to your heart’s content about how the bastards have mucked up the old guy’s language.

  4. While I don’t know if Ms. Wittman is still alive, Sam Orbaum died about 2 or 3 years ago. He was rather young – 40s or early 50s, I believe.

  5. Sounds like that was a marriage made in heaven. Could any other woman, not so lighthearted, stand that stubborn gloomy fool for all those years?
    He’s a case of what Russians call “Заставь дурака Богу молиться, он себе лоб расшибёт”.
    A charming story, I agree.

  6. According to the Jerusalem Rotary Club’s Bulletin dated January 26, 2005, Dola Wittmann died at the age of 103. Since there was also a Bulletin dated January 12, 2005, that means she lived until January 2005.

  7. Olehasholem. Thanks for letting us know.

  8. Dagdegan is probably not so much whimsical as yekke; cf. German Kitzler ‘tickler’. The resemblance of this to Greek kleitoris is probably accidental.

  9. It turns out that it wasn’t Ben Yehuda who came up with dagdegan. It was Aharon Meir Mazya, a Russian-born physician and later a member of the nascent Hebrew Language Academy. The word first appeared in his dictionary of medical terms, revised by the poet and physician Tchernikhovsky and published in 1935.

  10. The Polish term (anatomical, not colloquial) is łechtaczka, from łechtać ‘tickle’. Given that Aharon Meir Mazia came from Mogilev (Belarus), which had a sizeable Polish-speaking population, I would consider Polish as a possible source of inspiration.

    While we are on it, there are traces of an interesting word meaning ‘clitoris’, *sěkylь, with reflexes found here and there in East Slavic (dialectal Russ. се́киль, Ukr. си́кель). Unlike the Russian synonym похотник (from похоть ‘lust’), it doesn’t have a self-evident etymology. By an incredible stroke of luck, we have this word (or its close relative) attested in a recently (2005) discovered Novgorodian birch-bark letter from the 12th century (from a woman, presumably a matchmaker, writing to another woman regarding marriage negotiations): Marenko, pei pizda i sěkyle. It has been interpreted as ‘clitoris’ also in this case (as though ‘Marenka, let the vagina drink, and the clitoris’), but a careful analysis by Collins (2011) makes it more probable that the word should be reconstructed as *sěkyla (ultimately from *seikʷ- ‘piss’), and that it means ‘penis’ in the letter.

  11. Huh. I saw that Piotr was able to post some Cyrillic, so I tried to post a random Pushkin poem, but still no luck.

  12. Let’s see if I can just get the title in: Узник, it was.

    Update: It works. The theme of liberation seemed appropriate.

    Second update: The idea of ‘tickler’ may have been pan-Central-European.

  13. Incidentally, the name Mazya/Mazia is an acronym: מזי“א, for מזרע ישראל איסרלן mizera Yisrael ʔisserlen ‘from the seed of Israel Isserlein’. Isserlein was a famous 15th century rabbinical commentator.

  14. David Marjanović says

    “Since then, I never left the country for any reason,” Max said proudly, “and never spoke anything but Hebrew.”

    Putting German thoroughness (deutsche Gründlichkeit) to a whole new level!

    Only the Ben-Yehuda family ever used the word badura for tomato; milav, for “sport,” was taken from the Arabic

    A shibboleth in the Arabic of the region is whether tomato is [banduːra] or [banadoːra]. Does badura, without the [n], count as having 3 consonants plus a feminine/singulative ending?

  15. Does badura, without the [n], count as having 3 consonants plus a feminine/singulative ending?

    בַּדּוּרָה can be read as such, especially if it is pronounced as the Ben Yehudas did, with a final stress, which makes it sound like a native Hebrew word. It can be easily declined as such: badurot pl., badurat construct sg., etc. There is a root bdr, with the meanings ‘to fly apart’, like hair flying in the wind, and ‘to entertain’, neither of which would be associated with tomatoes.

    The template C₁aC₂:ūC₃ā is rare, but exists elsewhere, e.g. חַבּוּרָה xabura ‘bruise’, from the obsolete root xbr.

    Ben Yehuda came up with badura as a substitute for עַגְבָנִיָּה agvaniya, which had been coined by Yehiel Pines, another early Hebrew enthusiast and friend of Ben Yehuda. Pines derived agvaniya from the root ʕgb, signifying ‘carnal love’, after the French pomme d’amour (is that calqued in any other languages?) Ben Yehuda found ʕgb too racy to use in an everyday word. Ultimately agvaniya won, and no one thinks of that root (which is anyway restricted to archaic or high language) when discussing tomatoes.

  16. David Marjanović says

    pomme d’amour (is that calqued in any other languages?)

    It was in German at some point, long forgotten; the French themselves have been saying tomate for a long time.

  17. marie-lucie says

    David M: pomme d’amour : I think I have seen this in print, a long time ago, probably in 16C or 17C literature. Perhaps the red colour suggested “carnal passion”! La tomate is indeed the only word used in France. But la pomme, now only ‘apple’, but deriving from Latin pomum ‘fruit’ is still used for other roundish things, edible or not: pomme de terre ‘potato’ (“earth apple”), pomme de douche ‘shower head’.

  18. bandūra is itself a loanword from pomodoro.

  19. marie-lucie says

    Thanks MMcM, it makes sense now!

  20. As does the alternate version [banadoːra].

  21. Love apple originally meant ‘eggplant’, later ‘tomato’ (they are closely related plants), and now is archaic in English. In the 19C the term was used for ornamental rather than eating tomatoes, and I think I recall my mother (1919-1991) using it so, though she may have been independently calquing Liebesapfel.

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