Sunday, December 15, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes

As you might imagine, I have quite a few books about Hebrew.

Dozens of dictionaries, books that discuss the history of Hebrew, books about etymology and linguistics, and more. I've often thought - if I wanted to make a book based on Balashon, what would it look like?

Well, thankfully, I don't have to ponder that question any more. I recently received the book Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes by Dr. Jeremy Benstein. This book does the two things that any book on Hebrew that I'd want to write would need to do: discuss the significance of Hebrew (both throughout history and in today's society), and present many stories of Hebrew roots and words.

Dr. Benstein, like me, is a immigrant from the United States, who was (according to the acknowledgements in the book), like me, influenced by Edward Horowitz's How the Hebrew Language Grew. Unlike me, he has BA in linguistics from Harvard, as well as advanced degrees in Judaic studies and cultural anthropology. (He's also the managing editor of 929 English, a very important project where a chapter of the Bible is studied daily, and I'm thrilled to have recently begun contributing). His expertise in these fields really shows, as he seamlessly navigates between Biblical texts, Jewish life throughout the millennia, and the heart and soul of Modern Israeli culture (amongst all the various populations and sub-cultures.)

He has chapters that talk about such topics as "Hebrew and Other Languages", "Ben Yehuda's Crusade for Spoken Hebrew", "God: Name, Names and 'The Name'", and "Hebrew Time: Sacred and Otherwise." Throughout these chapters, are interspersed what he calls "Wordshops" - a deep dive into a Hebrew root, from the beginning of its usage until today, with examples of the various verbs, nouns and other words that derive from that root. He explains how the development and meanings of those roots and words reflect the concepts and trends that have followed Hebrew and the Jews over the ages.

The book was a real pleasure to read. It somehow managed to enthrall a Hebrew word-nerd like me, and yet I could recommend it to anyone, even those with little or no background in Hebrew. And it was often laugh-out-loud funny, which is not what I usually get from my books about the history of Hebrew.

So if you like Balashon, get this book - you'll really enjoy it. And to Jeremy - thanks for all the hard work that must have gone into a project like this, and I sincerely thank you for writing it. Now I don't need to wonder and worry what my book on Hebrew will be. It really is a relief! (However, my books on Kohelet, and why Avraham was chosen, still need my attention...)

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