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.

 

 With Dola

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 porch.

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.

Dola Ben-Yehudah 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 contribution.

Once the story of Ben Yehudah by Robert St. John (who corresponded with Dola until his recent death), “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.  -