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Itamar Ben-Avi (Also Ittamar, Hebrew: איתמר בן אב"י; born Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda, בן-ציון בן-יהודה on 31 July 1882, died 8 April 1943) was the son of Deborah and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, and the stepchild of writer Hemda Ben-Yehuda (née Beila Jonas). Eliezer is credited with reviving the Hebrew language; he and Hemda brought up Itamar to be the first native speaker of Hebrew in the modern era. Ben-Avi worked as a journalist (starting with his father's newspaper HaZvi), and as a Zionist activist.
Ben-Zion grew up speaking modern Hebrew with his parents, making him the first native speaker of the Hebrew language in over a thousand years. When he was very young, Itamar always wanted someone to play with, but his parents did not want him to speak with the other children who spoke different languages. He made friends with a dog which he called Maher, meaning "fast" in Hebrew. Ben-Zion grew up without any friends, as he was the only child who spoke Hebrew. Growing up, Ben Zion experienced many troubling situations, including the death of three of his siblings from diphtheria (which spread through Jerusalem and killed many children), and the death of his mother Deborah in 1891 from tuberculosis. He and his family were also ostracized from the ultra-orthodox community, due to their usage of Hebrew as a day-to-day language. The religious community saw this as sacrilege because they viewed it as the language of the Torah and prayers, and not for use in "idle chatter."
After his mother's death, his father married his late wife's younger sister Hemda, so Itamar's aunt became his stepmother. After his mother's death, he changed his name to Itamar, as that was the name his parents originally intended to give him. The name Itamar means "Island of Dates" and derives from the Hebrew root t-m-r (date or palm tree), which is a symbol of Zionism. As his last name, he used Ben-Avi. Avi (אב"י) is an acronym for Eliezer Ben Yehuda (as written in Hebrew) and also means "my father", so Ben-Avi means "my father's son".
At the age of 19, Ben-Avi left Jaffa port and set sail for Europe, where he studied at universities in Paris and Berlin. He returned to Palestine as a journalist, and published many successful newspapers. He was also an ardent Zionist and often took many roles in supporting and spreading the idea of the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.
He was the chief editor and journalist of Doar HaYom, the then Hebrew style-twin of the British Daily Mail, from 1920-1933. In his numerous opinion and commentary articles in Doar HaYom he also advocated the widespread use of the International language Esperanto.
He died in 1943 in NYC, doing a posting for the Zionist movement, five years before the establishment of Israel. He had two daughters who went on in their careers to be national radio news readers. He was buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
Efforts towards Latinization of Hebrew script
Ben Avi was a fervent and ardent advocate for the usage of a new Latin script system, a full alphabet with vowel letters, rather than the current consonantal orthography of Hebrew (with limited matres lectionis) using "squared Assyrian letters". The current Hebrew writing system dates back to the time of Ezra the scribe, 500 BCE.
He wrote a Hebrew biography of his father. This biography was titled Avi ("My Father") and was printed in his own made-up version of Hebrew script, using Latin letters and some variations thereof, to fit the needs of the Hebrew language. He pioneered and was chief editor of two short lived Hebrew weeklies in reformed Latin script. The first was ha Savuja ha Palestini (The Palestinian Week, 1928) and the second was Deror (Liberty, 1934). Each of the weeklies was published in 17 numbers in total before closing.
- The personal papers of Ben-Avi are kept at the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem. The notation of the record group is A43.