The Final Journey of the First Hebrew Mother in Modern Jewish History
“God, You alone are just and we feel only humiliation. What complaints can we present, what can we say, what can we utter, how can we justify ourselves?” (from the Jewish liturgy)
Devora Ben Yehuda’s tombstone reads:
Devora Ben Yehuda, the first mother in modern Jewish history to speak Hebrew to her children from the moment of their birth. And a new generation of Hebrew speakers would arise.
She died at the age of 36 of tuberculosis. She sacrificed her life and her son’s childhood for the sake of the renewal of the Hebrew language.
She was a victim of the zealotry, rabbinical bans and disputes of which her husband Eliezer was also a victim in his battle for the revival of the Hebrew language.
Her eldest son Itamar, who was only nine years old at the time of the funeral, describes that horrifying night in his article, “At the Dawn of Our Independence”:
No friend walked with us as we accompanied my mother to her final resting place, except for one friend, Nissim Becher, founder and director of the Alliance Israélite Universelle institutions…In our solitude, the three of us walked like shadows behind the cot on which my mother lay, as we climbed the path leading to the cemetery along the Ha’ofel hill that crosses the Kidron Valley….When we reached the top of the hill, a fourth person whose name I do not know joined our grim trio….When we had circled the wall and the Mount of Olives appeared before us, we suddenly encountered a rowdy group of Ashkenazi Jerusalemite Jews. One of them approached the gravediggers and demanded that they put down the cot bearing my mother’s body….They would not allow her to be buried in the Ashkenazi cemetery. The gravediggers put down the cot and did not know what to do. My father stood there for a few moments, dumbfounded; then he asked the gravediggers to wait for a little while until his return. My father rushed to the city and quickly came back, bringing with him a group from the Sephardi sect whose leaders had not joined the zealots who had persecuted my father with such determination. A battle developed between the gravediggers of the two sects – the Ashkenazi and Sephardi sects – beside the dead body of my dear, beloved mother, which was lying there on the rocky ground. Then, as if by magic, the Ashkenazis gave up. Their spokesperson left the scene because of his injuries and the gravediggers who had carried my mother’s body up until now, again lifted her body and placed it on their shoulders as they brought her to the Mount of Olives to her place of eternal rest….
This is how the first Hebrew mother in our era, who had journeyed to Zion to share with her husband the toil and effort needed for the revival of our nation on the soil of its native homeland, was brought to her place of eternal rest. The first Hebrew mother was not privileged to see with her very own eyes the dawn of our liberty or to even hear with her own ears the Messiah’s footsteps. A black fence today surrounds the burial plot of the Ben Yehuda family, which is located in the Saints’ Section facing the site of the Temple.
Eliezer Ben Yehuda and his second wife Hemda, his son Itamar and his wife Leah Abushadid, and Hemda’s son Ehud and his wife Dora are buried in this section.
But Devora is not there; she was not privileged to be buried in the section of those who revived the Hebrew language. Following Devora’s funeral, Eliezer Ben Yehuda promised his son Itamar, “There will come a day when above the grave of your good mother, the mother of all the Hebrews who will come after you in this our third return to life, a large headstone will be erected, a headstone that will be seen from afar and which will tell future generations the magical legend, the story of Devora, the first Hebrew mother.”
The promise was profound, as was the disappointment; Devora’s story has been forgotten, her tombstone is located far from the members of her family, and no one visits her grave.
“And for all our sins, dear God, forgive us, absolve us, grant us penitence” (from the Jewish