Remembering Netiva Ben-Yehuda
Many years ago I was sitting in a kibbutz dining hall in the north of Israel. One of the older members, a woman, was reminiscing about the equality of the sexes that supposedly existed when the kibbutz was founded.
“We had separate showers, but the men quickly added a hot water heater to theirs and never found time to heat the women’s showers—it was always something that they would do as soon as some other urgent task was completed. So, we women took action. We began using the men’s showers with the men. They were very uncomfortable and in no time we had heated showers.”
I remembered this woman’s face as I read the sad comment this morning at the end of our Encyclopedia article about Netiva Ben-Yehuda; “Netiva” passed away on February 28, 2011.
A well-known and feisty Israeli writer, Ben-Yehuda was also the only woman demolition and bomb expert in the Palmach, the elite pre-State army corps. She was headed for the Olympics as a discus thrower until a bullet wound to the arm ended her athletic career.
Like the woman I met on the kibbutz those many years ago, Ben-Yehuda was an early feminist, one who pointed out the gap between the founding myth of sexual equality and the reality. Indeed, according to the Encyclopedia article, “a close reading of [her Palmach trilogy, published between 1981 and 1991] uncovers a subversive exposure of the gap between the Palmach’s promise of ‘sexual equality’ and the reality in its ranks.”
She is also admired for her critical role in bringing Hebrew literature into the 20th century. At a time when Israeli writers were still using Biblical cadences in “proper literature,” she wrote and urged others to write in the language as it was spoken in the Palmach and on the streets. Her three-volume World Dictionary of Hebrew Slang (1982), written with the late Dan Ben-Amotz, has been a treasured set on my shelves since college. It had a strong influence on my own writing and theatre improv as I tried to capture the ferment I was hearing around me.
For most of the last decade and a half of her life, “Netiva” (nobody ever called her “Mrs. Ben-Yehuda”) also hosted a weekly radio show that featured call-ins and early Israeli (and pre-Israeli) music. When the Broadcasting Authority tried to cut the show as part of budget cutbacks three years ago, the public outcry was so great that the show continued.
As I write this, I find myself leafing through her dictionary again. The title page of Volume I reads, “An International Dictionary of Spoken Hebrew.” Volume II says “Milon Achul-Manyuki l’ivrit m’dubere”t—“A ‘crazy ass’ dictionary of spoken Hebrew.” At the end of the book are a couple of pages filled with words that came in at the last minute: “And this is everything so far. You have some more words? Send. Thanks. And thanks to everyone who has sent us stuff so far. Signed, Netiva, Dan.”