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Hemdah Ben-Yehuda

1873 – 1951

by Yaffah Berlovitz

For more than fifty years Hemdah Ben-Yehuda, a journalist and author, was involved with and supervised the publication of her husband Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s great work, an historical dictionary of Hebrew (The Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew, vol. 1: 1908; vol. 17: 1958).

Bella Jonas, the fifth of the seven children of Shelomo Naphtali Herz Jonas (1840–1896) and his wife Rivka Leah, was born in 1873 in Drissa (Vyerkhnyadzvinsk, Belarus). Her father was well versed in both Jewish and secular subjects and knew several languages, including Hebrew. He published poetry and essays in the Hebrew press of Eastern Europe (Ha-Meliz and Ha-Maggid). A member of the Hibbat Zion (Love of Zion) movement, he was also a founding member of the Bnei Zion Association, together with Jehiel Tschlenov (1863–1918), Menahem Ussishkin (1863–1941) and Jacob Mazeh (1859–1924).

In 1882 the family settled in Moscow. Here Bella Jonas attended Russian primary and high school before continuing to a women’s college of science to study chemistry. During her early years she underwent several name changes. When she was nine years old, her father renamed her Belle. Upon the family’s move to Moscow she became Paula. It was not until her marriage that her husband bestowed upon her the name Hemdah.

In 1891 tragedy struck the family when the eldest daughter Deborah (b. 1855), who was married to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858–1922) and had five children, died of tuberculosis in Jerusalem. Only a few weeks later Ben-Yehuda, who knew Hemdah from his visits to her family, hastened to ask her to marry him, claiming that this had been Deborah’s wish before her death. Hemdah agreed at once, but her father objected to the match, both because of the fifteen-year difference in age between the two and also because he feared that, like her sister, she would be infected by the tuberculosis from which Ben-Yehuda suffered.

In the winter of 1892 another tragedy befell the family: a diphtheria epidemic that broke out in Jerusalem caused the death of Avihayil, Shlomit and Atarah, the three youngest children of Deborah and Eliezer, leaving only the first born, Ben-Zion (Ithamar, 1882–1943), and Yemima. During the entire period Ben-Yehuda’s mother had been helping him run the household, but now, when all seemed lost, Shelomo Jonas relented. In any case, his permit to reside in Moscow had expired, so that he was compelled to leave the city. Accordingly it was decided that the entire family would emigrate to Palestine and Hemdah would marry Ben-Yehuda. Jonas, his wife, Hemdah and the two younger children departed for Istanbul where Hemdah and Eliezer were married on March 29, 1892. On this occasion Ben-Yehuda changed Paula’s name to Hemdah; the first Hebrew word he taught her was mafteah (key), a word which she perceived as symbolic, signifying her entrance not only into marriage but also into a new country, a new people and a new culture. Indeed, Hemdah, who was deeply involved in Russian culture, profoundly attracted to the theories of Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) and remote from Judaism and Zionism, abandoned everything—her studies at the college, her friends and the attractions of life in a great city. At the age of nineteen she came to develop herself in a desolate, distant land with a poverty-stricken, persecuted, consumptive widower fifteen years older than herself, and his two orphaned children.

The Jonases and Ben-Yehudas arrived in Palestine on April 15 and at once proceeded to Jerusalem. Here Hemdah soon learned that her role was not only that of wife and mother but also would be one of national-cultural dimensions: Hers would be the “first Hebrew (-speaking) family,” the first and only Zionist family in Erez Israel who communicated with each other only in Hebrew—at a time when Hebrew was not yet fit for everyday speech and communication and certainly not for use in intimate family discourse, child-rearing and education, for which it lacked a great many words essential to daily life.

Hemdah Ben-Yehuda committed herself to this impossible role as part of her marriage, and the marriage ceremony was indeed presented as her acceptance of a sacred mission that could never be abandoned. She wrote: “I was utterly shocked at the unbearably heavy burden which the reviver of language placed upon my shoulders. He did not ask for my consent but for a vow, which I gave. Ben-Yehuda’s personality was so compelling that I did not dare to doubt my own ability. And there was no way other than to submit and accept it all with surrender, and to go wherever he went.”

Hemdah made every effort to live up to her promises, though on her own terms. On all she did she imposed the dominant personality of a young, modern, secular woman whose principles of aesthetics, culture and enlightenment informed her choices and actions. Within six months she was fluent in basic Hebrew and from then on spoke only Hebrew in their home. She also made her home a model for modern life in Jerusalem; after a long day of hard work (the newspaper by which they made their living, together with its printing, was operated from their apartment) and caring for the children, she invited people of letters and culture from Erez Israel and abroad to their home, referring to this custom as creating a “meeting place for scholars” (Pirke Avot 1:4). Above all, she became involved in all Ben-Yehuda’s professional and political activities, especially the disputes with his opponents which led to bans, arrests and lawsuits that affected their livelihood and his status in the community. Hemdah’s role in these matters was to calm things down, mediate and mend ruptured relations, and this she did, using impressively manipulative tactics. At the end of 1893 she succeeded in securing Ben-Yehuda’s release when he and her father were imprisoned and Ha-Zevi, the newspaper on which their livelihood depended, ceased publication for fourteen months. (The circumstances of the incident were as follows: During the week of Hanukkah Hemdah gave birth to her first child, Deborah. Since Ben-Yehuda was occupied with caring for her, her father edited the festive issue and published an article praising the heroism of the Maccabees. This was mistakenly interpreted by the authorities as a call to rebellion against the Turkish regime.) In 1900 the paper was reestablished under a different name, Hashkafah, with Hemdah as its official owner, the “holder of the firman.” She used her connections to raise funds in Palestine and abroad to publish Ben-Yehuda’s dictionary and created comfortable working conditions in which Ben-Yehuda could carry on his research even when the house was full of children. (She bore six, two of whom—the oldest daughter, Deborah, and a son, Ehud—died in childhood. The four who survived were Ada, Ehud-Shelomo, Deborah-Dolah and Zilpah). She accompanied her husband on his travels to libraries and archives, met with American and European leaders, the rich and powerful, and appeared before Jewish audiences, Zionist and non-Zionist alike, with one sole slogan: “If we have a language, we shall become a nation.”

Hemdah Ben-Yehuda aided her husband devotedly, sharing his nationalist opinions and supporting particularly those which were unpopular and eccentric. Her own positions in other areas, which were sometimes the opposite of her husband’s, showed her independence and opinionated nature. The relationship between them was one of mutual love and admiration, as is evidenced in the hundreds of letters they wrote to each other during trips in Palestine and abroad, together with the enormous trust Ben-Yehuda placed in her. He placed all matters in her hands to carry out as she chose, always saying, “Everything as you wish.”

Ben-Yehuda’s colossal enterprise of reviving the Hebrew language by gathering into one volume all Hebrew words, especially the neologisms of recent years, was undoubtedly also Hemdah’s enterprise. During the thirty years of their life together, from 1892 to 1922, she furthered the dictionary volume by volume, seven in all (the first volume was published in 1908). Upon her husband’s death she felt increased responsibility, and during the decades that followed (1922 to 1951) she did everything in her power to complete the dictionary rapidly, to its last letter. In 1923 and 1933 she established committees of scholars from Palestine and abroad to take charge of completing the work, and mobilized the Jewish world and the yishuv in Palestine to contribute financial assistance. The last volume was published in 1958, seven years after her death.

Hemdah Ben-Yehuda was active in three additional areas on which she left her original mark: journalism, literature and the advancement of women’s status in Palestine. She began by working for Ben-Yehuda’s newspaper (known at various times as Ha-Zevi, Ha-Or and Hashkafah) about a year after her arrival. Although she had no writing experience and refused to write whenever Ben-Yehuda requested it, the fact that the newspaper did not pay its reporters and was based on information which volunteers sent from cities and settlements compelled her to contribute her own material. In 1897 Hemdah Ben-Yehuda began writing a column called “Letters from Jerusalem” under the pen name “Hiddah” (riddle). According to Galia Yardeni, these letters “were an innovation in Hebrew journalism” because of their “intimate pleasantness, lightness and warmth.” Unlike the average contemporary Hebrew newspaper, which used ornate, clumsy diction to discuss world affairs, Hemdah’s compositions, including her critical pieces, dealt with everyday human subjects. As she herself wrote, “I shall not write about great, weighty matters. … I shall simply write about scenes from life in Jerusalem, things we see in the marketplaces and the streets every day.” Indeed, her brief reports, whether about Jerusalem or about various places in Erez Israel and abroad which she visited, breathed a different spirit of reality, which distanced itself from the general and favored the specific, with the first-person voice at the center—especially the voice of a woman, a child, or a member of the ethnic communities.

Other journalistic innovations of Hemdah Ben-Yehuda’s were the fashion column and the yarkaton (from the Hebrew yarekh—thigh, extremity), a lexical innovation of Ben-Yehuda’s for the feuilleton, which appeared on the margins of the page—a hybrid genre, part light fiction and part current events, often provocative, moving between journalism and belles-lettres, which she frequently wrote. The fashion column was a groundbreaking achievement and her own exclusive innovation. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda coined the word ofnah (fashion) especially for her, to enable her to discuss a subject that had never before appeared in the Hebrew press. She wrote these columns under the pen name Shoshanah Levanah (white rose) or Ayyah (buzzard).

Even before Hemdah became fluent in Hebrew, she frequently spoke to her husband about publishing a paper for children. When Yehuda Grazovski (Goor, 1862–1950) and David Idelovitch (1863–1953), representatives of the Hebrew Teachers’ Organization, came to request such a publication, she encouraged them in the project. Thus the country’s first children’s newspaper, Iton Katon, was published, albeit for a very brief period (1892–1893). Among the contributors were educators such as Izhac Epstein (1862–1943), Mordecai Lubman (1857–1895) and Eliyahu Sapir (1869–1911), as well as such writers as Nehamah Pukhachewsky, Nehama Gissin and Miriam Pfeffermeister-Peres. Hemdah translated children’s poetry from Russian into Hebrew for the publication.

When Ben-Yehuda’s newspapers ceased publication in 1915, Hemdah Ben-Yehuda continued to publish her essays and stories both in the Hebrew-language newspapers Ha-Toren and Ha-Ivri in the United States, where the couple lived during World War I, and during the 1920s and 1930s in Do’ar ha-Yom and Hed Yerushalayim. Her writing conformed to the “Ben-Yehuda style” the family used, which often served as a workshop for practicing and distributing among the public the new words that Ben-Yehuda invented or innovated. Jerusalemites had good reason for their joke about the Ben-Yehuda family: that for every new word Eliezer suggested, Hemdah wrote a new story.

Hemdah Ben-Yehuda also tried her hand at fiction, some of which was published in slim volumes (e.g. Farm of the Rechabites) by the Jerusalem publishing company of Shlomo Israel Shirizli. She collected most of her work in a book entitled Lives of the Pioneers in Erez Israel (1945). She wrote a great deal for children, including the series “Children’s Lives in Erez Israel,” which was published in the Hebrew children’s press in Europe (Olam Katan in Vienna and Cracow, Life and Nature in Vilna, and by the Tushiyyah Publishing House in Warsaw). Yet her major literary work was a family trilogy of which only two volumes were published, Ben-Yehuda: His Life and Work (1940) (in a 1932 version, The Happy Warrior) and Standard-Bearer (1944), the life of Ithamar Ben-Avi (1882–1943), the son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. The third volume, Devorah, Mother of the Hebrews, remained in manuscript form. These works were not only novels documenting the family’s dramatic and colorful life, but also provided a Zionist narrative in which the Ben- Yehudas, who were mythical figures for her, represented the nation’s founders, appearing in the three-fold character of the father (Eliezer, who performed “sacred service”), the mother (Deborah, the “family’s idol” and the first woman to revive Hebrew in the speech of her children), and the son (Ithamar Ben-Avi, the “standard-bearer,” the “guinea pig” in the fateful experiment of raising a child speaking only Hebrew). Like most of Hemdah Ben-Yehuda’s prose, these works proved controversial since their critics, particularly those who subscribed to the school of Realism of the time, maintained that her exaggerated treatment of real-life material swept her work to the borders of fantasy and cheapened it.

From the moment she arrived in Palestine Hemdah Ben-Yehuda was aware of women’s inferior status in the New Yishuv, which flew the flag of equality and enlightenment of national revival but did not allow women to vote or hold public office (to say nothing of the Orthodox Old Yishuv, which all but erased women from public life with its “Jerusalem amendments”). Nevertheless, Hemdah Ben-Yehuda fought for change, explaining her position in a manifesto she published only after World War I (“Our Time Has Come,” Do’ar ha-Yom, September 30, 1919). It reads in part: “The question of women in Erez Israel has been on my mind for some time. What is her nature? What should her role be in our national life? What is her place in relation to women’s general status throughout the world? … Fifteen years ago I chanced to meet in Paris one of the leaders of the movement for equal rights for women, Dr. Käthe Schirmacher, who asked us to establish a branch in Jerusalem for the general society but suggested we include Christian and Muslim women. We refused, saying to ourselves: Since our people is subjugated, humiliated and persecuted … by tyrannical rule in its own land, how shall we liberate women? At the time, we tried to awaken national feeling in women, and when the day comes, their time will come, too.” In other words, Hemdah Ben-Yehuda claimed that women’s liberation could not be demanded as long as the yishuv in Erez Israel was under oppression. Yet with the Balfour Declaration and the realization of the dream of a national homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine, the time finally came to devote attention to the advancement of women. In this manifesto, she also announced the founding of the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Erez Israel, inviting all women in Palestine to join. “Behold, the day has come … our time has come too! We call upon all Jewish women: awake from your sleep! … To raise women up from their lowly situation … to teach and educate them, to prepare them for life in society and bring them to awareness of equal rights with men in the same society.”

In 1919 Hemdah Ben-Yehuda’s feminist activity took on a more practical form, though she had spoken about the subject many times in previous years. In her essays, as in her stories, she explained to her readers, men and women alike, women’s place and role in the new society of the yishuv, while suggesting the model of the “new Jewish woman” as one to be emulated. Like her husband, Hemdah perceived women’s primary role as the builder and shaper of a people. As bearers and educators of children, women molded the nature and character of the nation that was to grow and develop in Palestine. Therefore, if she were a woman of a high quality, the children who grew up in her home would also be of a high quality. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda felt that woman’s character centered on her skill in speaking Hebrew and regarded Hebrew-speaking mothers as “our keren kayyemet.Hemdah Ben-Yehuda expanded the list of desirable qualities, speaking of the “new Jewish woman” as educated, possessing national awareness, awareness of herself and of her power and status. Such characters appear in her stories, for example “Under the Almond Tree” (1903), “A New Dress” (1907), “In the Homeland” (1917), and others. As early as 1903 she called upon the generation of young women in Palestine, urging them to participate in the public arena. “And do you know which of you can accomplish the most? The girls! You cannot guess … what a woman can achieve … a woman who leads a national movement, a woman who speaks from the podium.” Hemdah Ben-Yehuda certainly has a place among the women who heralded Zionist feminism at the beginning of the new yishuv with their attempt to form and educate the new woman in Palestine.

From the end of the 1940s Hemdah’s health steadily declined as a result of a fall that left her badly injured. She died on August 26, 1951.

Bibliography

Berlovitz, Yaffah. “Hemdah Ben-Yehuda: In the Service of Language.” Early Eretz Israel Literature as Literature of the First Settlers, Ph.D. diss., Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan: 1979, 302–368; Idem. “Our Time Has Come.” In Inventing a Land, Inventing a People. Tel Aviv: 1996, 47–70; Guvrin, Nurit. “Finding the Sons of Rechab: Hemdah Ben-Yehuda.” In Honey from the Rock, 45–52. Tel Aviv: 1989; Gertz-Ronen, Merav. “Hemdah Ben-Yehuda: Writer, Journalist and Publisher—Her First Years in the Land of Israel.” Master’s thesis, University of Haifa: 2000; Hanani, Yisrael. “The Beginning of Literature in Erez Israel.” Molad 19 (December 1961): 161–162; Lang, Joseph. “Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s Newspapers and Their Attitudes Regarding the Yishuv and the Jewish National Movement from 1884 to 1914.” Ph.D. diss., Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan: 1993; Yardeni, Galia. “The Letters of Hemdah Ben-Yehuda.” In Hebrew Press in Eretz Israel 1863–1904. Tel Aviv: 1969, 301–303.

How to cite this page

Berlovitz, Yaffah. "Hemdah Ben-Yehuda." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 23, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/ben-yehuda-hemdah>.

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