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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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.