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Netiva Ben-Yehuda

(1928 - 2011)

Netiva Ben-Yehuda was an Israeli military officer, author and scholar of spoken Hebrew. She embodied the heroic voluntarism and utter loyalty to the "Jewish national rebirth in its homeland" that was the hallmark of the Palmach.

Ben-Yehuda (born July 1928; died February 28, 2011) was born in Tel Aviv during the British Mandate. She was educated at the Herzlia Hebrew Gymnasium, where her father, Baruch (1894–1990), served as teacher and principal (he later became the first director general of Israel's Ministry of Education and Culture), Ben Yehuda volunteered for the Palmach at age 19 and later served as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces. Her fearlessness, physical prowess and total devotion were some of the features that distinguished this young officer, whose military specialties included topography, reconnaissance, and demolition.

In 1950, Ben-Yehuda married and gave birth to a daughter, Amal, in 1953. Ben Yehuda and her husband separated in 1962 and later divorced. She worked as an editor of the Encyclopedia Hebraica and as a spokeswoman in the Ministry of Labor.

Ben Yehuda's lifelong devotion to the cause of spoken Hebrew began a few years after independence. After study both at home and abroad (art, Hebrew language, linguistics, and philosophy), she became a freelance editor who mediated between the spoken Hebrew developed in the Palmach, marked by humorous slang and linguistic inventiveness, and the elevated, highly stylized standards then required by Hebrew belles lettres. Her dedication to this issue resulted in the 1972 publication of Millon Olami le-Ivrit Meduberet ("The World Dictionary of Hebrew Slang"; a second volume appeared in 1982), a hilariously irreverent book which she co-authored with another Palmach member, writer, and satirist Dahn Ben Amotz (1924–1990).

Traces of this early work can be found in her later Palmach Trilogy, which consists of Between the Calendars (1981); Through the Binding Ropes (1985); and When the State of Israel Broke Out (1991). Unique both stylistically and generically, the trilogy, which preserves slang and idiomatic Hebrew of days gone by, is a subversive revision of a major chapter in the Israeli national narrative. By reducing the myth of a glorious past to human and at times petty proportions, the Palmach Trilogy contributed to the "new historical" de-mythologization of the 1948 War of Independence. At the same time, the trilogy also coincided with Israeli feminist research of the 1980s that exposed the gap between the Palmach's promise of "sexual equality" and the sexist reality in its ranks. A personal trauma caused by this fissure emerges as the hidden motivation behind Ben Yehuda's narrative and explains the "writer's block" underlying the author's 30-year-long reticence. Ben Yehuda's other books include Autobiography in Shir va-Zemer (1990).

In 2005, Ben-Yehuda was voted the 96th-greatest Israeli of all time.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved; Wikipedia; Y.S. Feldman, No Room of Their Own: Gender and Nation in Israeli Women's Fiction (1989).