Very foundational to
the establishment of the modern State of Israel was the revival of Hebrew as
a spoken language. The person most noted for this was Eliezer Ben Yehudah.
He is called, “The Father of Modern Hebrew.” He had several children. We
were privileged to know some of them. Upon arriving in Jerusalem of late and
visiting with my friend, Irene Levi, I learned that the last of these
children, Dola Ben-Yehudah Wittmann, had just passed on at the age of 103.
Irene has written the following tribute.
By Irene (Shaloma) Levi
I loved her Hebrew
explanation of her name, originally Devorah – which as a child, she
pronounced, “Dola” – she later learned meant drawing out, that is, “from the
well”, from the work of her father, Eliezer Ben Yehudah, reviver of the
Hebrew Language and compiling a 16 volume dictionary.
Having lived with her
sister, Ada Reem, seven years before her decease, I often was with Dola who
would visit her. Also I would take Ada to visit Dola and Max Wittmann, her
husband, on Ehad HaAm St., enjoying the display of Ben Yehudah memorabilia:
books, photos, etc. along with talks, other guests, refreshments and their
favored cat. It was special to have a “cuppa” [cup of…tea] on their little
I sometimes had the
honor of taking the couple to their friends or to places in Israel: the
Jewish-Arab celebration with Yigal Alon at Ginossar, along with an Arab
couple; a trip to Hamat Hader, near Tiberias with my late husband; to
Talpiot, the Ben Yehudah home (now occupied by German youth in
“reconciliation”); to the Swedish Institute where they were honored
participants, often speaking.
Max became ill and
spent some time in a convalescent home where we often visited, though
thereafter they moved to the Sheraton Plaza hotel. There I had many pleasant
times with Dola, often bringing visitors from Israel and from abroad who
loved her charm, all happy to meet the daughter of Ben Yehudah. Often we
were together on Ben Yehudah street at a café or restaurants such as Customs
House. She especially loved being at the King David Hotel where she and Max
had often been. She loved going out in ”our” car.
Wittmann with Chris Josephson in 2000 at the King David Hotel coffee shop.
Picture by Irene Levi.
As for Hebrew, so often
we discussed its treasures in one word or root, frequently from the
Scriptures. She would give me many hints from her teaching experiences to
help me as I, with delight, taught Hebrew – often remarking to students,
“I’ll ask Dola”. Of course the 16 volume dictionary of Ben Yehudah was our
beacon, especially as she’d point out the riches in the introduction. How
thrilled she was to read to me of the many who praised the marvel of her
father’s work, and as we’d realize its significance in the rise and growth
of Israel in our day. Her beloved mother, Hemda, was always praised for her
Once the story of Ben
Yehudah by Robert St. John (who corresponded with Dola until his recent
“Tongue of the Prophets" was out of print. So Dola and I had them
re-printed. From then on we received them, sold or gave the books often to
ones whom we’d meet in the lobby of her hotel (where we’d have soup or
such). I often managed to convey, “This is the daughter of Ben Yehudah,”
etc. The books in English are still printed which I order and sell and
replenish also to Rina, Dola’s niece, daughter of Itamar, Ben Yehudah’s
first son. She often visited Dola – the three of us together – in her waning
years. Dola was delighted to know into how many languages the book had been
translated. Recently Rivka Gilboa had it put into Hebrew with St.John’s
approval, as I wrote to him for her.
The last years of Dola
were blessed by the gifted helper, Daisy Azulai from Mevasseret Zion. Often
Dola loved the drive taking her home, thrilled by the beauty of Jerusalem
hills, and extensive building. We three often ate together at the hotel
cafeteria where workers there would greet her, especially with her “hen-hen”
(grace) instead of the usual “todah” (thanks). Later Daisy prepared her
meals in the apartment. After Dola had a fall and was in the hospital, it
was felt that one should always be there with her. Phillipino girls, in
turn, stayed with her when Daisy was back home with her family.
Frequently I was able
to take Daisy to get medicine and supplies and often stay with Dola when she
went for them. We would sit by Dola’s table and review the family pictures
laid out in front of her as we’d reminisce, (since I knew most of them) and
she’d remark that I was the closest to her. Also we’d discuss news as she
kept up with her daily paper. At times we’d touch on God and Heaven, etc.
It was in my heart to
take to her a bouquet of flowers weekly, blessed by her welcoming smile.
What other gift could I bring her at her centennial age (nearly 104) and how
better to show my extreme gratitude for the revival of the Hebrew (language
of God’s revelation Truth) which I feel is the greatest factor toward the
renewal of Israel as ones return to the land from every language. Nothing
binds together the divided Israelis more than Hebrew in civil, religious,
army and cultural life.
Besides this, the
nations are being thus blessed, as often Hebrew is learned by songs and
Scriptures where the roots in Hebrew, its original language, are full of
blessing. Also Arabs being closest in their Semitic language, are blessed
seeing its similarities in “the tents of Shem”.
A beautiful memorial
service was held at Mt. Scopus Hebrew University where there is an Academy
of the Hebrew Language. A life-like photo I had made of Dola was at the
microphone before the speakers, reminding us of her and our mutual affection
for her. -