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Yohanan Elihay was born in 1926 as Jean Laraouh in a town near Paris and raised in a French Catholic family.
In 1945, with the liberation of Paris from the Nazi occupation, he witnessed harsh images from the extermination camps displayed at the front of the American embassy, which caused him a deep shock. Following his awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust, he became interested in the Jewish people and Zionism.
In 1946, he traveled to Lebanon as part of his mandatory military service, where he taught French and began studying Arabic. In 1947 he returned to France and studied at the Dominican Theological Seminary.
After completing his studies, he became a monk and was accepted as a member of the Order of the Little Brothers, whose members live modestly within the community and earn a living from manual labor. In 1956 he came to Israel, settled there, and began working as a ceramicist, among others as the assistant to the artist Aharon Kahana, in designing a memorial tent at the Yad Vashem site in Jerusalem. Later he worked at a printing house in Haifa. In 1960, he received Israeli citizenship and changed his name to Yohanan Elihay.
In addition to his work, Yohanan focused on his pioneering linguistic enterprise – the teaching of the Palestinian spoken Arabic. In rigorous and consistent fieldwork, he listened, recorded, transcribed and verified the words, sentences and phrases he heard: at work, on the street, on the bus, on the radio, and from friends, acquaintances and neighbors.
Hundreds of hours of recording, and material that has been documented over the years by many dozens of thick notebooks, served as the basis for systematic learning of spoken Arabic and as a primary raw material for textbooks and dictionaries he later composed.
From 1965 to 1967, he lived in the village of Tarshiha in the Galilee, where he composed a series of books for teaching spoken Arabic to French speakers. He copied and edited the books himself, for his friends and acquaintances.
From 1968 to 1981 he lived in Afula. In 1973, he completed the compilation of a French-Arabic dictionary published in Paris, and in 1977 published his Hebrew-Arabic dictionary, which to this day accompanies the learners and speakers of Arabic spoken in Israel.
In 1986 he moved to Jerusalem and since then he has devoted all his time to documenting, researching and compiling textbooks and dictionaries of the spoken Arabic language.
Although Yohanan’s linguistic work was done outside the academy, he received his enthusiastic support and cooperation with the great experts, led by the late Prof. Haim Blank of the Hebrew University, who accompanied and supported Yohanan’s work, from its inception.
In 2008 Yohanan Elihay was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Haifa in recognition of his many years of work in spoken Arabic research and teaching.