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Dr. Lowin on the wonders of Hebrew.

Hebrew Talk. 101 Hebrew Roots and the Stories They Tell By Joseph Lowin. Oakland, California: EKS Publishing Company, 2004. 206 pages, $27.95. Paperback, $19.95.

Dr. Joseph Lowin is a learned impresario of the Hebrew language and Jewish culture. For many years his metier has been the energetic promotion of Jewish education in general, and Hebrew language in particular. He served as Director of Cultural Services at the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, Director of the Midrasha Institute of Jewish Studies, and Director of Jewish Education at Hadassah. He taught at Yale University, The University of Miami, Touro College, Yeshiva University and the State University of New York. He has been a Fulbright Fellow at the Sorbonne and a Jerusalem Fellow at the Hebrew University. In addition to the two books on Hebrew roots discussed here, he has published a work of literary criticism on Cynthia Ozick. Among the literary venues in which his articles have appeared are Jewish Book Annual, Midstream, Revue des Etudes juives, Jewish Quarterly, Religious Studies Review, and Journal of Psychology and Judaism.

In recent years Lowin has served as Executive Director of the National Center for the Hebrew Language (, the motto of which is "Building Unity Among Jews Through Hebrew". The Center offers a trove of information and encouragement for all interested in the Hebrew language at any level, along with valuable internet links. Among the most remarkable achievements of the Center recently is the ongoing course of study, Israeli Fiction and Israeli Reality, led by Lowin, in which 20 adults meet to discuss the insights afforded by contemporary Israeli fiction into life in Israel. The quarterly Newsletter of the Center, Ivrit Achshav, Hebrew Now, in print and online, provides much of substance and pedagogical value, including a discussion in English by Lowin of a well-known Hebrew poem.

The Hebrew language, then, is the heart and soul of Lowin's long project and career in Jewish education. Hebrew is for him the single most effective and efficient way to know Jews and Jewishness. In this view the discoveries of psycholinguistics would concur, demonstrating that the language of a culture, spoken and written, is not only shaped by, but actively shapes, its distinctive perception of reality, its understanding of itself, and its notion of its own role among other cultures.

For twenty years Lowin has written a column on Hebrew for Hadassah Magazine. As an Israeli acquaintance once said to him, the Hebrew language "invites and encourages you to come into the center of its essence." That is so largely because the language is structured upon three-letter, or triliteral, roots. The fundamental sense of the root usually remains evident in the superstructure of vocabulary and grammar built on the three-letter root. In Lowin's columns, the focus is a Hebrew root that reveals an essential notion of the language in its reflection of Jewish life and experience. From each root emerges a lush growth of words, phrases, notions, quotations, and commentaries, and an engaging richness of spoken, including slang, usages. The especial charm of Lowin's work is that its formidable learning, applied with a light, deft touch, and with abundant humor, appeals to the expert as well as the novice Hebraist. These columns, indeed, exemplify what Lowin, who holds a Ph.D in French language and literature from Yale University, might justifiably call haute vulgarisation, a popularization of the highest order that only one so learned in Hebrew as Lowin could accomplish with such seeming ease.

Lowin's treatment of roots, words, and phrases emphasizes the singular linguistic stratigraphy of Hebrew. Modern Hebrew enshrines within itself c. 3300 years of continuous usage, according to the classification of the late Professor Eduard Yechezkel Kutscher: Biblical: archaic, classical, and late, extending from circa the 13th century BCE up to, but not including, the Mishnah, c. 225 CE; Tannaitic-Mishnaic, Rabbinic, Medieval, Modern, and Israeli. Moreover, Hebrew survived mainly as a literary language, that is, not spoken, and therefore free of major linguistic change, for c. 1800 years, from c. 200 CE to the late 19th century and the famous work of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, "Reviver of the Hebrew Language."

Because of the dramatic history of Hebrew, a speaker and reader of the modern language may, with some effort, access the diachronic richness of Hebrew literature from the most archaic Song of the Sea (Exodus 15, 13th century BCE), to the songs composed by a current Israeli rock group, including along the way, for example, the prophecies of Isaiah (8th century BCE), the language of the Mishnah (3rd century CE), the Hebrew of the Babylonian Talmud (5th-6th centuries) a poem of Yehuda Halevi (11th-12th centuries), the great Hebrew treatises of Moses Maimonides (12th century) the Shulchan Arukh (16th century), Mesillat Yesharim (The Pathway of the Upright) by Moses Hayyim Luzzatto (18th century), and the poetry of Hayyim Nachman Bialik (d. 1934). T. Carmi's The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse (1981), a collection unique in its diachronic span, includes poems beginning with "Song of the Sea" and ending with the work of Dalia Ravikovitch (b. 1936). Even allowing for expected linguistic change, Hebrew is fundamentally one language. By contrast, the Greek of Homer (8th century BCE with earlier linguistic strata) or Plato (4th century BCE) is incomprehensible to the contemporary speaker of modern Greek unless he has studied its morphology, vocabulary, and syntax. Additionally, in its long linguistic peregrination, from the steppes of ancient Western Asia through the extent of the Diaspora to the streets of Tel Aviv, Hebrew has been enriched by interaction with many other languages, Semitic, Classical, and Modern.

In 1995, Lowin's Hebrewspeak. An Insider's Guide to the Way Jews Think appeared, (published by Jason Aronson), drawn from about ten years of Hadassah Magazine columns, revised, reorganized, and enhanced for the volume. There he described the approach he takes to Hebrew words. "... there is much pleasure to be derived--exquisite pleasure, the pleasure usually associated with romantic love--from looking at, and into, Hebrew words ... nothing less than the discovery that one can gain understanding, through one's language, of one's people and one's self, that by getting inside the Hebrew language one can trace the thought processes of the Jews." This work included 97 roots, beginning with aleph zayin nun, "ear" and "to hear", and concluding with tav Het tav, "beneath the bottom line", and as such, it formed "something like a dictionary of basic Jewish concepts."

Hebrew Talk. 101 Hebrew Roots and the Stories They Tell is the second collection of root-studies, drawn mainly from the last ten years of columns in Hadassah Magazine, and partly from those of Jewish Heritage Online Magazine ( Lowin succinctly explains his approach to Hebrew in general and to its roots in particular: "What I am interested in learning--and teaching--is how Hebrew makes its way, through the three-letter roots that are at the origin of the language, to the creation of the various worlds that make up Jewish civilization through the ages (p. ix)." Learning and teaching are indeed what Lowin does with great aplomb in this book. Like the earlier Hebrewspeak, Hebrew Talk is an enchanting work. The 101 articles are, as the author explains, really "talks," their charm deriving from the easy combination of deep Hebraic learning with wit and humor. The talks begin with the root aleph bet dalet 'Lost and Found" and end with tav lamed heh, "Hanging Out with Hebrew". Along the way is an argosy of 99 articles, each one decked out in the stylistic finery that is the hallmark of Lowin's approach. The title of each article wittily betokens its treatment, e.g., aleph kaf lamed, "Food for Thought"; dalet yod nun, "Res Ipsa Loquitur;" heh peh kaf "au contraire"; nun heh gimmel, "The Custom is Always Right;" tsadi dalet kof "Doing What Comes Judicially;" shin kaf het, "Fuhgehdahboudit." As Blu Greenberg observes on the book jacket, "This is a book for scholars of Leshon HaKodesh [The Holy Tongue], for amateur linguists, and for ordinary folk who simply like a good read."

Each entry in Hebrew Talk is a miniature treatise, elegant and witty, on the root in question. The title sets the tone, whether scholarly and serious or whimsical and witty, often both. Lowin's discussion often opens with notable uses of the root in the Hebrew Bible, whereupon it divagates, but with clear purpose, into occurrences in rabbinic literature, including the two Talmuds, and thence onward into proverbial expressions, occasionally compounded with Aramaic usages, and piquant expressions common in Israeli speech. Along the way, Lowin may expound delightfully the etymology of the root, and, as Aharon Megged notes on the book jacket, "its poetic and proverbial facets, its biblical and post-biblical connotations, and its colloquial usages in contemporary spoken Hebrew in Israel." At all points Lowin distinguishes solid, objective philology and etymology from the homiletic insights that Hebrew roots provide, and he frequently combines the two modes.

How can one effectively illustrate the charm of these entries without writing a review many times the length of this one? Perhaps the best way is to quote selectively from one representative entry, lamed het mem, "Bread and War," which is particularly sound in philology as well as in imaginative insight, as follows (pp. 105-106):
 What can you say about a culture
 that uses the same root--lamed het
 mem--for both bread (lehem, accent
 on the first syllable) and war (milhamah)
 ... Do lehem and milhamah really
 come from the same root? It's a
 good question and to answer it one
 must invoke a third use of the root ...
 laham means not only "he did battle"
 and "he ate bread," but also "he
 joined together "... In war ... [as Ludwig
 Koehler suggests] soldiers often
 engage in hand-to-hand combat in
 close quarters. Voila for milhamah.
 Bread ... is "compact food". Voila for
 lehem ... medieval Hebrew grammarian
 Rabbi David Kimhi (the Radak) offers
 a metaphorical explanation for the
 coincidence of bread and war in one
 root: War is called milhamah, he says,
 because "the sword eats up the belligerents
 on both sides."

 As interesting as these conjectures
 may be, they do not begin to
 exhaust the fascinating developments
 of the Hebrew word for bread,
 lehem. Adam is banished from the
 Garden of Eden with the malediction,
 be-ze'at apekha tokhal lehem, "You
 will eat lehem by the sweat of your
 brow." Obviously, since bread does
 not grow on trees (either of Life or of
 Knowledge), our word is used here
 in a general sense to mean "food."

 Our word is found in a number
 of Biblical contexts, like the lehem
 bikkurim, bread of first fruits,
 brought to the Temple on Shavuot,
 and the lehem atslut, bread of laziness
 that the proverbial Woman of
 Valor does not eat. The expression
 describing the double portion of
 manna provided on Fridays for the
 Israelites in the desert, lehem mishneh,
 accounts for the custom of
 putting two loaves of hallah on the
 table for Shabbat and holidays,

 Not surprisingly, bread is a central
 theme of Jewish folk wisdom.
 The Book of Numbers reminds us
 that lo al ha-lehem le-vaddo yihyeh haadam,
 "Man does not live by bread
 alone" [in the interest of accuracy
 and not of pedantry, the quotation
 comes not from Numbers, but from
 Deuteronomy 8.3]. The Book of
 Ecclesiastes observes that lo lahakhamim
 lehem, "Don't expect to get
 rich if you're going to be a scholar."

 Perhaps the greatest piece of
 Jewish wisdom having to do with
 bread is also the most poetic: shelah
 lahmekha al penei ha-mayim, "Cast
 your bread upon the waters." If you
 do good deeds randomly, you'll
 receive a reward ...

Dr. Lowin has done us all a good deed in providing tasty linguistic and cultural "meat" (also an occasional meaning of lehem, especially in other Semitic languages) to feast on. His reward should be the grateful appreciation of his readers, who will find in this book valuable information and insight provided in the most delightful manner.

HOWARD MARBLESTONE got his Ph.D in Mediterranean Studies at Brandeis University, whereupon he taught Classical Studies at the University of Illinois, CUNY, and, since 1974, at Lafayette College, where he is the Charles Elliott Professor of Creek and Latin.
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Author:Marblestone, Howard
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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