Q: Is it true that quotation marks in Modern Hebrew must always be ‘straight’ (“”) and never ‘curly’/‘smart’ (“”)?

That is correct: curly quotes look too much like the Hebrew letter yod (י), so they are avoided, lest people confuse the two.

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In-At-On

One of the recurring problems for ESL (English as a Second Language) learners and other non-native English speakers is what preposition to use with regard to location—specifically, in, at, or on.

This varies seemingly unpredictably, so that one says:

  • in the room, but at the house, and on the street
  • in Parliament, but at the Legislature.

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Q: Why is Israeli currency called New Israeli Shekel? Why not just call it shekel?

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The bigger question is why is it called a shekel at all?

Only someone supremely tone deaf to the negative associations attached to the word shekel for any Christian—since the New Testament story (Matthew 26:15) that Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus for ‘thirty shekels of silver’—would even consider naming the currency of the modern-day Jewish state by that name.

Unfortunately, since Jewish Israelis are not taught anything about Christianity or the New Testament, the powers that be in Israel are probably still utterly unaware of this.

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Q: Would using the pronouns they, them, and their, along with an individual’s name, eliminate the need for alternative pronouns?

The lack of a neutral pronoun in English is a persistent thorn in the side of academic writing—especially given that, with the growing demands for gender equality, the old-fashioned use of the masculine form for generic descriptions is increasingly frowned upon.

220px-hen_-_the_swedish_pronoun-svgAs a translator and editor, I frequently witness what a serious headache this problem is for my academic clients. It would be good if we could do what Swedish has done, which is adopt a new word for the purpose (hen—which is between hon [she] and han [he]). But as far as I know, there is nothing like that on the horizon (perhaps se—pron. /si/—a blend of she and he?).

So we are forced to improvise.

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Q: Has anyone ever tried translating Shakespeare into old Hebrew, so its speakers get the same sense of antiquity as they read it as English speakers do?

Shakespeare in Israeli Theatre

“As You Like It”, Cameri Theatre, Feb. 2017 (Photo: Reddi Rubinstein)

Yes—in fact, translating Shakespeare into biblical Hebrew was the default approach in the early days of Hebrew theatre (end of 19th, early 20th century)—since Shakespeare’s English is roughly the contemporary of that of King James translation of the Hebrew Bible.

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Q: Why is the original Hebrew called “the Holy Tongue”?

Prior to the First Exile of the Judean aristocracy to Babylon in 586 BCE, Israelites referred to themselves as ‘Hebrews’ (ivrim – עברים)—e.g.:

  • And there came one that had escaped, and told Abram the Hebrew [Gen. 14:13]
  • And there was there with us a young man, an Hebrew [Gen. 41:23]

    when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew [Exodus 2:7]

  • And if thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee [Deut. 15:12]
  • That every man should let his manservant, and every man his maidservant, being an Hebrew or an Hebrewess, go free [Jer. 34:9]
  • And he said unto them, I am an Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land [Jonah 1:9]

It stands to reason, therefore, that their language was known as ivrit (Hebrew)—although, in the century and a half after the fall of the Israel (northern) kingdom, since Judea was the sole remaining sovereign Israelite entity, the notion of a ‘Hebrew’ nationality lost its meaning, and its inhabitants began to refer to themselves as yehudim (Judeans), and their language as yehudit (Judean):

  • Speak, I pray thee, to thy servants in Assyrian—for we understand it— and talk not with us in Judean in the ears of the people that are on the wall [II Kings 18:26]

After two or three generations in Babylon, the exiled Judeans naturally acquired Aramaic as their native language, and Hebrew might have been forgotten entirely, were it not so critical to preserving their cherished history and traditions.

It was clear that Hebrew would the language in which the written record of the oral traditions—which we now know as the Hebrew Bible—would be recorded. However, the notion of a Hebrew nationality had long been lost, and referring to the language as yehudit suggested that, as good Judeans, they should speak it as their native tongue—which they were loathe to do, because by this time, they felt more at home in Aramaic, which was also a more prestigious language, since it was the lingua franca of the region.

So to reflect Hebrew’s new special status, and to ‘compensate’ it for losing its status as the native everyday language, it was now referred to as leshon haqodesh (‘the holy tongue’). This state of affairs continued until the arrival of the first Zionists in Palestine in the late nineteenth century, who—as avowedly secular Jews intent on resurrecting the notion of a Jewish nationality, rather than religion—revived the concept of Hebrew as a nationality and as a language.

This mindset continued throughout the first half of the twentieth century: the Zionist Jewish community in Palestine referred to itself, its autonomous institutions and enterprises, and even the future independent state, as ‘Hebrew’.

In his declaration of independence of the newborn State of Israel in 1948, however, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion inadvertently referred to the new country as a medinah yehudit (‘Jewish state’). Although he meant it in the nationalist/Zionist sense of a ‘state of the Jews’, religious political parties were quick to seize upon this expression to mean a ‘Jewish state’ in the religious sense—whose agenda, therefore, was therefore implicitly theirs to dictate.