The Magazine

Come to Life

The Hebrew revival in modern literature.

May 18, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 33 • By BENJAMIN BALINT
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Hebrew Writers on Writing

Edited by Peter Cole

Trinity University, 320 pp., $45

The contemporary Israeli novelist Amos Oz likes to say that, as a boy in Jerusalem, he noticed that everyone over 45 spoke in another language, and so he feared that when he would grow up and turn 45, he himself would start speaking Yiddish just as surely as his hair would go gray.

Before the year 1900 or so, no modern Jewish community spoke Hebrew; the language slept in hibernation. The Bible itself had to be translated into languages that Jews spoke: Aramaic (the Targum), Greek (the Septuagint), and Yiddish.

Modern Hebrew writers, then, had to refashion a 3,000-year-old sacred language--a language without a vernacular--into a lithe idiom. They had to stretch a traditional language until it became supple enough to seize a world that had moved beyond tradition. These writers sought, as the critic
Robert Alter has said,

to achieve in Hebrew what Gogol and Turgenev had achieved in Russian, Balzac in French, Scott and Dickens in English; and how was one to do this in a language nobody spoke .  .  . in which there was no word for 'potato'?

The dreamers who wrought this miracle were ex-yeshiva students who left the confines of the shtetl for vibrant cultural centers like Odessa, Warsaw, Vilna, Königsberg, and Berlin, and then for Palestine. Bonded by a fierce (and quixotic) commitment to Hebrew as the language of national renewal, they succeeded in coaxing this ancient language to act as the vehicle by which the Jewish past was brought to bear on the present. And they gave it a vitality the likes of which had not been seen since the poets of the Hebrew Renaissance in medieval Spain.

This invaluable new anthology, Hebrew Writers on Writing, takes this episode in literary history as its subject. Editor Peter Cole, a poet, translator, and publisher who lives in Jerusalem, introduces modern Hebrew writers by way of collecting their comments on craft, and their reflections on Hebrew's distinguishing virtues. Cole deftly draws excerpts from about 50 writers--letters, notebooks, diaries, essays, poems, interviews, memoirs, and aphorisms, many of which appear here in English for the first time. And he supplies judicious biographical introductions to each.

Cole arranges this collection more or less chronologically, from the 19th century to the present day, but as he explains in his preface, he does not intend to make Hebrew literature stand for an official portrait. He leaves out many worthy writers (Ahad Ha'am, Y. L. Peretz, M. Y. Berdichevski, Haim Hazaz, and M. Z. Feierberg). But Cole's portrait, if not comprehensive, is well-proportioned.

His brush falls first on the pioneering generation--men like Haim
Nahman Bialik and Saul Tchernichowsky who essentially belonged to the 19th century. He then sketches in the second, "Palestinian," generation, which sought to emulate the European modernists--writers like Uri Zvi Greenberg, Natan Alterman, Avraham
Shlonsky, and Yonatan Ratosh, who were born around the turn of the century. Finally, he turns to the "Israeli" generation--writers like A. B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, and David Grossman--who were born into Hebrew, and who completed the alchemy by which the affected turgidity of the pioneers was turned into a colloquial naturalness.

The first virtue of this book is that it lets Hebrew writers speak for themselves, for they discuss their art artfully. Some depict the entanglements and responsibilities of writing in a land where politics and poetics intersect with unusual intensity. Speaking once to a group of American students, the Tel Aviv poet Meir Wieseltier was asked why he wrote about politics in his poems: "That's like asking a Greek poet who lives on an island why he writes about the wind," he replied.

Others talk about their craft by addressing the matter of literary influence, not all of which streamed from Hebraic sources. Some Hebrew poets, like Tchernichowsky, joined Hebraic with Hellenic, and brought Greek meters into Hebrew verse. Others looked toward modernists writing in English.

But as Cole's album shows, most of these writers reserved their deepest reverence for their Hebrew predecessors. Yaakov Fichman remarks here on how Hasidism's spirit of renewal dug channels through which Hebrew's "hidden vitality" could course once more. S. Y. Agnon, the greatest writer of Hebrew fiction, in his 1966 Nobel address included here, acknowledges with pleasure his profound debt to the Bible, Mishna, Talmud, and Midrash. And Amos Oz tells of taking pleasure from the "juicy ripples of Hasidic tales" that undulate through Agnon's fiction.

Many of the writers here, in fact, attest to the uniqueness of Hebrew. The ardent secularist Y. H. Brenner, murdered in the Arab riots of 1921, suggests that only Hebrew captures the divine spark. "We write in Hebrew," he declares, "because we must, because the divine spark within us emerges only within that flame." "To write, but not in Hebrew," the poet and translator Lea Goldberg adds, "for me, that would be the same as not writing at all." "Writing in Hebrew," the Levantine writer Shulamit Hareven remarks, "means first and foremost that the writer is using tools--words, structures, and norms--that have been in existence for between four and five thousand years."

The reason for this devotion has much to do with the keen ways Hebrew writers sensed--and sometimes feared--the power of the ancient language they belatedly employed. For its modern practitioners, Hebrew encodes knowledge, but it also hides immense religious power. It is the primal language of eternal truths, the sublime tongue by which the world was created and in which the voice of the Lord was heard.

Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Kabbalah, warns here of Hebrew's latent redemptive force, "its apocalyptic sting." Hebrew is "pregnant with catastrophe," he writes. The lyric poet Bialik points out the ways language contains that catastrophe by acting as concealment, as a barrier fashioned of "words, crowded and consecutive like the links in a suit of armor."

Several of the writers assembled here--Abraham Isaac Kook, Israel's first chief rabbi, the maverick poet Zelda, and Agnon, for example--remained pious Jews. The great majority, however, did not. Which brings us to the second of this volume's virtues: It lays bare modern Hebrew writing not only as a literature of awakening and of salvation--individual and national--but of revolt.

The revivers of Hebrew revolted, first, against those who thought it disgraceful to try to summon a dead language, let alone to untame it once summoned. The masters of the Hebrew renaissance revolted, too, against Hebrew's sacred past; they sought to rid the language of the disfigurements of religious orthodoxy--to make the sacred profane. Although critical of the impulse toward assimilation, they insisted that Hebrew literature, like Zionism itself, must free the Jew. As they inched toward Jewish cultural confidence, they yoked the revival of Hebrew letters together with the modernizing movement known as the Haskala.

Still other writers, who thought of themselves as "new Hebrews," revolted against Judaism itself. Disdaining the Diaspora, they sought to emancipate Hebrew literature from a Jewish literature they regarded as stuck in the narrow byways of provincial ethnicity. Preeminent among them was Yonatan Ratosh, leader of the so-called Canaanite school, who ruthlessly wished to sever Hebrew from Jewishness.

Taken together, as Cole's group portrait illustrates to brilliant effect, these writers of revolt didn't create a literature ex nihilo. The language held too many associations and allusions for that. They could not help mining Hebrew's rich repository of cultural meanings, preserved in its many linguistic layers.

But if resurrection is not creation from nothing, it is nearly as wondrous. In animating a language unspoken for generations--"a tongue that has no great-great-grandfathers," the poet Avraham Shlonsky said--and in teaching the "holy tongue" to speak in modern accents, modern Hebrew writers became ventriloquists; only their dummy was the language itself. Without their power to breathe life into a dormant language, Hebrew would have remained mute. Instead, it speaks today in all the resonances and registers of an old-new language.

Benjamin Balint, who lives in Jerusalem, is the Herman Kahn fellow at the Hudson Institute.