JYAN Blog

Language in Lieu of Religion: The First Hebrew City

This semester, I am living and studying in Jerusalem, a city whose religiosity needs no explanation. Jerusalem is among the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities; it was founded by biblical Israelites in roughly 2,800 BCE. The holy city holds special importance for all three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and there is no doubt that the city’s culture and history are among the richest in the world. However, before I moved into my apartment at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I spent several days in another unexpected “holy” city in Israel: Tel Aviv.

My abroad fellowship program, the Nachshon Project, spent a week on a kibbutz near Tel Aviv before we dove into Ulpan (a five-hour-a-day, five-day-a-week intensive Hebrew class). The goal of the opening conference was to learn about innovation as it relates to Jewish American leadership. To this end, we spent several days touring Tel Aviv, a hot spot for startups in the modern world, and also innovative in the fact that it was the first city to be founded in the last 2,000 years with Hebrew as its official language.

A community of Jewish immigrants founded the first Hebrew city in 1909, setting out to realize Theodor Herzl’s vision of “the new Jew” in the land of Israel. The residents of the original neighborhood emphasized arts and athletics, aiming to distance themselves from the shtetl and clichéd ideas of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, turning instead to the values found in the secular, metropolitan culture of Western Europe. As a result, these founders were not explicitly interested in cultivating religious life in their new city, as they were more interested in strengthening the secular culture of a Jewish nation.

Of course, this might seem like a semantic contradiction—secular and Jewish? I was certainly skeptical of any piety or traditional Jewish features as we strolled the sun-drenched streets of Tel Aviv, watching modern Israelis go by on motorcycles or lounge on the shores of the Mediterranean. Before this trip, I had come to understand that Tel Aviv was the antithesis of Jerusalem, a thriving modern metropolis as opposed to a conflict-ridden, traditionalist, and religious city. However, our tour guide challenged us to look for what made Tel Aviv residents uniquely Jewish, so over the days we spent wandering the neighborhoods, visiting Google headquarters, and shopping in malls, I paid attention.

After a couple of days, the answer finally stood out to me: Tel Aviv is inherently Jewish because of the Hebrew language. Hebrew is the language of the Torah, the Jewish holy book, but it fell out of use outside of religious ceremonies sometime between the year 200 CE and 500 CE. However, despite remaining dormant as an everyday spoken language for thousands of years, it was revived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Scholars, most famously Russian Jew Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, set out to update the language for the modern world, and, once Jews built their own cities such as Tel Aviv, Modern Hebrew began to flourish. Today, over 5 million people speak Hebrew fluently worldwide, making it the only language in modern history to be revived from the dead.

I realized, as I walked through the streets of the first Hebrew city, that despite its proud secular identity, Tel Aviv is an inherently Jewish and holy city. By reviving the ancient language spoken by their biblical ancestors with everyday interactions and greetings, the residents of Tel Aviv are implicitly passing down Jewish knowledge that has existed for thousands of years. The speech of everyday citizens in Tel Aviv is holy, simultaneously realizing the dream of the “new Jew” and the religious hopes of Jews around the world. I saw that in Israel, the secular is religious, and that there's something holy in ordering a cup of fresh pomegranate juice in Hebrew on the street. My eyes were opened to the implicit Judaism in the land of Israel, and I know that I am only at the beginning of my journey here. There is so much more to discover.

 
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