Last Word

Moses Mendelssohn Street


Eliezer Ben Yehuda's lifelong efforts to refit the classical language of Jewish literature for everyday use helped to create a Hebrew-speaking society in which the memory of his own extraordinary labors would grow dim. Suspecting that the ordinary Israeli in the street could no longer identify the hero of his recent book, Resurrecting Hebrew, Ilan Stavans asked a Tel Aviv shop clerk who Ben Yehuda was.

        She was an artificial blonde, wearing an Adidas tracksuit that emphasized
        her hips and protruding belly.  Her initial response was a smile, followed by
        a silence, behind which I detected hesitation. "Ben Yehuda? It's a street," she replied.
            "But who is it named after?"
            "How should I know? Am I an encyclopedia?"

This did not lead Stavans to any sweeping conclusions, but it did make me wonder. Has Ben Yehuda really been forgotten after only a century? And what about other more or less famous Jews who also have streets named after them in Israel? Sa'adia Gaon or Yehuda Halevi, for instance, or Leon Pinsker, or Menachem Ussishkin? Have Israelis walking down Moses Mendelssohn Street in, say, Jerusalem, forgotten who Moses Mendelssohn was?

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About the Author

Allan Arkush is professor of Judaic studies and history at Bighamton University. He is the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books.

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