Saturday, December 12, 2009

Dvorah and Hemda

Eliezer and Dvorah

In this picture is Eliezer Ben-Yehudah (see the link for his story, if you feel ambitious; he was an enormously important figure in Jewish history, notable for being instrumental in the formation of modern Hebrew), and his first wife, Dvorah. His second wife, Hemda, was Dvorah's sister. Yes, he married two sisters consecutively, and these two sisters were cousins of my Grandma Eva. Yet, cousins could mean anything at all really--and we wonder how exactly Dvorah and Hemda were related to us.

Eliezer and Hemda




Alas, this secret died with Grandma. Although she shared with us few specific details, it was an emotional topic for her. Apparently Eliezer, in his quest to rejuvenate Hebrew as a spoken language, was singleminded and harsh. My sister tells me that Grandma cried when she talked about it, describing how terribly abusive he became toward Dvorah when she continued to speak Yiddish, the language of her home. He demanded that his family speak only Hebrew.

But what strong connection made Grandma feel such empathy that she actually wept in the telling of a story that she could not have personally witnessed, as the Ben-Yehudah family settled in Jerusalem and she and her immediate family in Brooklyn? Had there been a closeness between her mother and this other branch of the family, had she overheard her mother's stories about the abusive tendencies of the charismatic Eliezer? Were there letters, now lost?

Although there is a great deal of information available about the famous Eliezer Ben-Yehudah, there isn't much told about the wives. I'm consumed with curiousity, and wish dearly that I could ask Grandma about Dvorah and Hemda.


photos from online archives

32 comments:

The Unbearable Banishment said...

Forcing someone to abandon their native tongue?! Can you imagine? When my grandparents immigrated from Italy (dad's side) and Poland (mom's side) they decided that they were American and only spoke English. It's a shame. I could be tri-lingual. Instead, I barely have a grasp of English.

Leah said...

Me too. I'm such a uni-lingual ass.

mapstew said...

This whole nation was forced to speak a foreign tongue. (Oops, getting political and nationlist!) My daughters though are almost fluent in our native language today!

xxx

Leah said...

map, it's wonderful that your daughters have learned it to that extent.

The question of modern Hebrew is a bit different, I suppose--the idea was to make a universal language for Jews, who up until then spoke all different languages, depending upon where they were from. But in many places Yiddish was the "Jewish" language. I think it began to be considered by some to be too "common," with modern Hebrew suggesting education and class. If that makes sense. It's complicated, so I'm probably not making sense...

Martin H. said...

Leah

It's rather bitter-sweet that our forebears leave us such puzzles, isn't it?

Even now, when I press my mother in the hope that she will remember some small clue to help unravel a mystery, she shrugs and says, "I don't know, people didn't speak so openly years ago."

My, how conventions have changed.

Alan Burnett said...

Leah, this is fascinating. I know practically nothing at all about the history of the Hebrew language - and very little about Jewish history - but you photograph and your excellent description opened a door. I followed the link you included and I learnt a little more. Is not this the true delights of the internet, of blogging and - in its own small way - of Sepia Saturday.

nick said...

Harsh indeed that Eliezer insisted on the family speaking Hebrew instead of Yiddish. That sort of strictness can surely only encourage people NOT to speak Hebrew? He would have done better to demonstrate the beauty and subtlety of the language that they were missing out on.

mago said...

From the perspective of the conform Jewish bourgeoise f.e. in Germany after 1871 or in France, Jiddish was the language of the Eastern poor uneducated immigrant.
It's difficult because there (at the end of the 19th century in Europe) run a lot of "border lines" (it's not the right word) through all social groups involved: Religious as Jews and Christians, but within these religions we have very different confessions; social as determined by class, possession, self-understanding - it's a difference between a German "Junker" of the North, a South-German "Bürger" and a Jiddish-speaking "Handwerker" who lives for generations in his franconian village; political and national, as there is no German, Polish or Italian "Nation", ask Mr. Herzl for details.
In the "Volkskunde" of the 19th century (especially Riehl) language is seen and understood as one of the key factors for "a nation" - please do me not nail to explain what he understood under nation, Volk, Stamm etc, that's difficult enough.
The own language, it's history, understanding, "Pflege", is seen as crucial part of the self-understanding of a "Volk", of identity - that's the magickal word.
The most influential book of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm was not that story-collection, the most important was the "Grammatik", then the "Mythologie" and "The Wörterbuch". everybody felt the need to have a "Nationalsprache", and if it had to be created ...

Did you ever search for other branches of the family? What happened with the "Nachlass" of Eliezer - where's the Archive?

Excuse my fat grinning ...

subby said...

Wishing I'd know my great-great-uncle Levi and all the family secrets he took to his grave. My Grandmother( on Pop's side )immigrated from the Ukraine back during the Bolshevik revolt of 1917. Imagine my surprise when I tried to learn her native tongue. My book has all the base stuff but not the dialect that her and her sister spoke! Alas, I never learned enough in time to converse...

Brian Miller said...

intriguing pic and tale. i have only one remaining grandparent...i miss those stories.

otin said...

Funny how when you have never met a person and people describe them, you build a mental picture that could be far from the truth. If my mother described me to relatives, it would be nothing like how I really am. I always take that in to consideration.

Madame DeFarge said...

I'd love to have known more about my grandparents, but just was too young to ask. Or too young to imagine that they'd never be here.

Dvorah and Hemda sound fascinating.

nick said...

Otin - "If my mother described me to relatives, it would be nothing like how I really am." Interesting thought. And in my mother's case, I'm sure absolutely true. Particularly since I hide so much of the scandalous stuff from her.

subby said...

@otin, My Mom would describe me exactly like how I am! Ahem...

MJ said...

Could someone please just tell a shiksa why there are at least two ways to spell Chanukah/Hanukkah?

Hunter said...

Entirely fascinating to learn of your history!

I really know precious little of my own. My wife even less so. Her father is Cambodian and since the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, he doesn't even speak of her (presumably lost) family. I suppose it's too much for him.

Leah said...

MJ: the English spellings are just phonetic transliterations of the proper Hebrew word. Since the real word is written out in Hebrew characters, the English way is really just made up, however you like. Though there are commonly accepted English transliterations of Hebrew words. Hence, it is coventionally spelled either "Chanukah" or "Hanukkah" in English. But the real word is Hebrew.


I'll be back!

Jimmy Bastard said...

You wrote this latest post with a clear sense of aged mildew, and with yellowing paper at hand. A timeless period piece of which invites the mind's eye to explore each twist and turn of a sadness abound.

Exquisite as ever, and one that should be looked upon closely by those who wish to understand how to write.

Betsy said...

Leah, I almost missed this! I'm glad I checked back to see if there were any more posts added! This was quite interesting...the history and stern husband of the two sisters! The pictures are great!

Ronda Laveen said...

Yes, it would be so nice to solve the Mystery of Dvorah and Hemda. A time machine would be so nice.

Pat said...

It is quite difficult to quiz one's older relatives. I had a taped chat with my mother before she died - unexpectedly - and it has taken 10 years for me to be able to watch it and I'm delaying watching it again although I need to.
She did say at one stage: 'I don't think we should be talking about that Pat.'

Leah said...

Martin: it does amaze me sometimes how open we all are in comparison to our forbears...not always a good thing, but in general transparency is the better way I suppose...I wonder how my grandmother would feel about my airing her private moments here for folks.

Alan: I'm so glad you're finding these things of interest! Jewish history is funny as it runs parallel, in some ways, to general history, Jews in other countries being rather insular (although not always, of course, and now less and less so most places).

mago: of course I knew you'd get all the nuances--perhaps better than I do! Yes, the need for a language to define and in a circular way support self-definition. And Yiddish came to be reviled, but is now enjoying a resurgence amongst Jewish people of my generation, who heard it spoken at their grandparent's house but never learned it...still, it will never again be a common language of Jews, except in some Orthodox communities...fascinating.

I really don't know about the letters and papers of Eliezer--but they must certainly exist. I have to figure out how to do more delving so I can know exactly what our relationship to his wives is.

Leah said...

nick: in the end, I suppose his hardline stance did have an effect, for in not insignificant part due to his efforts, modern Hebrew is now the language of Jews in Israel! Sad he had to be so abusive to his wives, however.

subby: those dialects by the thousands, what a stumbling block but intriguing nonetheless! I learned a little Russian to speak with my grandpa, when I was a girl, but it's gone now.

Brian: it is intriguing, and I'm going to pursue it further.

otin: you raise a good point, really. All the different filters through which we're viewed...in the case of Eliezer, I was interested to find that histories and archival info backed up my grandmother's assertions of his abusiveness, though. Still, I am certain he was incredibly charismatic...I'm sure he had several sides to his persona.

Mme: they were fascinating women, apparently quite dynamic and bright and intellectual in their own right. They grew up in a Hasidic household, and yet seemed to have become remarkably liberated.

Hunter: what you describe, about your wife's dad, is precisely where my frustration lies! The very things from our history that we are so desperate to know about are the things that the previous generations seem so reluctant to discuss! And of course, it can't be pressed as no one wants to upset anyone...

Leah said...

Jimmy: I wanted to say James...now I'm fixated on that, just a little. But I digress as usual...I like your compliment tremendously, and will now harbor a delusion that I preside over the crumbling, yellowing pages of my own family history...

Betsy: it's kind of crazy, though, I think. Both sisters! Really really odd...

Ronda: you don't know how often I've wished for a time machine! One that wouldn't make me dizzy and wouldn't be dangerous...but still, a time machine.

Pat: I can fully understand how hard it must be to watch that! But how compelling...

mapstew said...

On the contrary my friend, what you said made complete sense!

xxx

Leah said...

Oh good! Sometimes I rattle on and I'm not sure whether I'm talking kooky talk or not.

I do find the whole topic of language and self-definition so fascinating.

I often mourn the fact that I don't speak Yiddish. But I have no one to blame but myself--I could certainly learn!

subby said...

Leah, as one who lived in Germany, I can say the closer border towns could get confusing. One town I lived in had at least 3 dialects!

Karen ^..^ said...

This was so poignant, so sad, in a way.

I remember Gran and Grandpa being so saddened by the loss of Gaelic as their native spoken language in Ireland. I wish it hadn't been banished as a language, it was so beautiful and poetic sounding, and I'd love to learn it.

It was mostly political, the reasons they tore Gaelic away from the Irish, at least from what I understand from them. They held quite a bit of disdain for the Englishmen for that and many other transgressions.

Walker said...

Some people are stern in their beliefs and drown out what others might wish to have.
It;s a different world today and don't think he wouldn't have been able to succeed.
It's interesting looking back at your roots and how they affected history and our lives today

Leah said...

Karen--Map's daughters study Gaelic in school! (I guess you read his comment) It is interesting that this new generation is becoming in some cases, as he says, actually fluent in a language that was becoming lost.

It is a bit like Yiddish, actually--I commented to mago above about the renewed interest in learning the Yiddish that had died out over a couple of generations. Still, I'm not sure it's taking hold again as much as Gaelic is.

Leah said...

Walker, I really wonder about where he would be in today's culture and climate. I guess it's impossible to tell, as he shaped things to such a degree that without him, everything might be completely different. No Butterfly Effect, Eliezer--he had a Diplodocus Effect!

Karen ^..^ said...

No, I hadn't read Map's comment, but I'm on the way to do that now!