Hebrew Culture: An Introduction

Hebrew is a hybrid culture that draws on the influences that migrants brought with them to Israel. Over the course of several generations, their languages and cultures blended together. Explore various aspects of Hebrew culture, including Hebrew language, music and literature.


The history of the Hebrew language 1: Modern Hebrew is a language that was revived and in part created in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. The main impetus for the revival was the work of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a Russian Jew who moved to Jerusalem in 1881. This means that modern Hebrew did not exist in the form we know it now until the late nineteenth century. We will look at Ben-Yehuda’s life, his motives for attempting to revive a language that was not spoken in conversation for centuries, and the socio-political context in which the revival of Hebrew took place.

The history of the Hebrew language 2: A main cultural and linguistic tradition for European Jews was the Yiddish tradition. In the Arab world, the millions of Arab Jews mostly spoke Arabic. We will look at the way in which the revival of Hebrew fitted in with both these groups of Jews. Yiddish culture is much more well known in the West as compared to the Arab Jewish culture of countries like Morocco, Yemen, Egypt, and Iraq. The politics of language is important to understand in order to fully appreciate the difficulties, which many at the time believed to be insurmountable, of reviving the Hebrew language.

Hebrew then and now: We’ll look at the way in which Hebrew culture has changed from the late nineteenth century (Ben-Yehuda’s time), to the mid-twentieth century (following the establishment of Israel), to today. There are many ways in which the culture and the use of Hebrew in Israel has changed. We’ll look at some of the causes of this (immigration, more influence from the US from the 1980s, native speakers with different backgrounds).

Hebrew culture 1: Following on from the previous session in regard to the change in the use of Hebrew, we’ll discuss the claim by Israeli linguist Ghil’ad Zuckerman that modern Hebrew should not be thought of as simply a case of reviving biblical Hebrew into a spoken form. Zuckerman argues that the name of the language should be changed from Hebrew to Israeli because the spoken language in modern Israel is a hybrid language that draws on the influences that migrants brought with them to Israel from their native languages (Yiddish, Polish, Russian and Arabic). Over the course of several generations, these languages and cultures blended together to create a new hybrid language and a new hybrid culture. We’ll also discuss the differences between Hebrew culture and Jewish culture in general.

Hebrew culture 2: We’ll look at some examples of Hebrew music. We’ll look at translations of songs and use them to better understand the Hebrew language and give us insights into Hebrew culture. We’ll look at some Hebrew folk music, the tradition of military bands in Israel, and also the tradition of Arab Jews singing Middle-Eastern type songs in Hebrew. We’ll look at some examples of Hebrew literature. We’ll discuss the approach fiction writers take to their craft. We’ll discuss the way in which the Israel/Palestine conflict influences Hebrew literature, as well as the influence of the Arab Jews. We’ll also look at how the non-Jewish population of Israel (a significant minority) has used Hebrew as a medium for literature. There are many stories and viewpoints that are expressed in Hebrew by the various communities who live in Israel.

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