His neighbors thought he was crazy. "You fool!" they shouted. "Hebrew is for prayer only. Do you really think our ancient tongue will ever be spoken on the streets?"
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda didn't flinch. "Kayn (yes)," he replied.
From the day he settled in Jerusalem in 1881, Ben-Yehuda believed that reviving spoken Hebrew would unify the diverse Jewish community in the Holy Land. Unmoved by his neighbors' doubts, he launched his ambitious plan at home, forcing his wife, Devorah, to speak only Hebrew in the house.
She tried her best, but when their son Ben-Zion was 4 years old and had not spoken a single word, Devorah worried that he might never speak; after all, his father constantly invented new words and spent all day recording them in his dictionary. Moreover, when guests visited, Ben-Yehuda sent the boy to his bedroom, "to keep his ears free of 'foreign' tongues," his father insisted.
One day, Ben-Yehuda berated his wife for singing a Russian lullaby to their son. "How dare you betray me like this!" he shouted. "Don't you realize how important Hebrew is?" He slumped into a chair, and then, unable to contain himself, he leapt up, a clenched fist raised in the air. Devorah burst into tears. Overwhelmed by his parents' argument, Ben-Zion opened his mouth to protest, and Hebrew came out.
Soon, Hebrew poured out of Ben-Yehuda's home into the streets, the schools, and the entire nation.
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda untiringly pioneered the revival of spoken Hebrew. He wrote in 1908 that every new event requires "a pioneer who will lead the way without leaving any possibility of turning back."