The ascent of Hebrew and Jewish literature in America review essay.
Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry, by Alan Mintz. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012. 520 pp. $65.00.
Members of the Tribe: Native America in the Jewish Imagination, by Rachel Rubinstein. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010. 252 pp. $27.95.
Beginning with the great Jewish migration of the 1880s, when pogroms, socioeconomic hardships, and the lure of a better life elsewhere beckoned, America became the preferred destination for millions of Jews over Old World lands and even Zion. Along with these immigrants, Hebraists and other Jewish intellectuals, thinkers, educators, poets, essayists, and novelists were swept to the Golden Land. They were later joined by those who were to grow up in America to give rise to an old-new corpus of literature in Hebrew, Yiddish and, soon enough, English.
These literary figures produced a significant body of writings--poetry, short-stories, plays, and novels, and also a wide range of essays--that were published in America's periodical literature. Many, in addition, also saw the light of day in journals that came out in pre-Holocaust Europe, in Eretz Israel, and in the State of Israel. Though a systematic survey is still waiting to be conducted, many were included in literary Hebrew and Yiddish anthologies published in America and Israel. This trend saw a decisive decline with the deaths of America's Hebrew followed later by Yiddish literati, while some migrated to Israel.
Critical studies of this literary output, moreover, were published in a host of sources--newspapers, journals or book-length studies. Many of these--and one must admit that they possessed a range in terms of quality, caliber and depth--that were written in Hebrew were directed at a postulated Hebrew-reading audience, one that, presumably, was also able to plumb the depths and nuances of the works discussed. Though a decreasing number in America, these readers remained a viable target for Hebraists whose works were also acquired, and reviewed, in Israel's Republic of Letters.
In light of the seeming dearth of scholarship examining the output of a whole literary center of Hebrew--including Yiddish and Jewish literature that may have received better treatment--what does one do first? The possibilities are many when such a vacuum has been formed over the decades of neglect. As any superficial examination would indicate, the field is ripe for the contribution of a host of approaches available in the discipline. It is against this reality that the last few years have witnessed the publication in America, with some even in Israel, of studies of American Hebraic belles lettres. These are setting a high standard for scholarship about American Hebrew literary studies. Most are in English, and though this trend seems to indicate a new wave characterized by its rising number, it is not a complete turnabout for the study of Hebrew literature. In fact, the English version of such scholarship traces its roots back to the Hebraic one, relying on seminal studies, paradigms, and interpretations to carve out ever-newer ground-breaking paths heretofore left unexamined, resulting in a tour de force in contemporary studies of American Hebrew and Jewish belles lettres.
Before us are three that draw attention to the literary activities of Jews in America--two devoted to Hebrew literature and the third to Yiddish and English--primarily during the first half of the twentieth century. Each in turn shares with the others a number of features, among them, for example, the curious matter of the interest exhibited by Jewish writers in Native Americans, the often ambivalent attitudes about acculturation, life in America's urban centers, and natural vistas. Each, to be sure, addresses these phenomena in accordance with its own predilection, giving rise to differing models of approaches as to what can be done in the study of American Jewish literature. So in place of recommending one of the three above the others--for each is unique in its own way--I will chart their approaches to enrich and enlarge our view about the story of Jewish civilization's encounter with the New World. The approaches of these three studies present the English reader with the gamut of American Hebrew letters. They represent a new stage in the study of this literature following earlier publication of studies in Hebrew, by American Hebraists such as Avraham Epstein (1934), Jacob Kabakoff (1966, 1978), J. Miklishansky (1967) Stanley Nash (1988) and Menahem Ribalow (1950), among others, and in English by Yael Feldman (1985), Alan Mintz (1993) and Eisig Silberschlag (1973, 1977), among others.
Michael Weingrad's American Hebrew Literature: Writing Jewish National Identity in the United States demonstrates some of the possibilities in approaching American Hebrew literature from a number of thematic perspectives. His study crosses generic boundaries to illustrate the wealth of possibilities inherent in the variety of prose and poetry produced by Hebraists over a period that spans over half a century. At the very same time, however, he strives to demonstrate the varieties of expression concerning Jewish identity that were inscribed in the selected works covered in this ground-breaking study concerning the promise of new life in a new literary and social center for Jews.
Though its title indicates a focus on American Hebrew Literature, Wein-grad's study incorporates works in Yiddish and English as well, a matter that enlarges its scope and contextualizes the Hebraic contribution within the larger fabric of Jewish literature. Significantly, his work aims to underscore the reality that the Hebrew literature produced in the New World bears within it the contradictory notions of an assimilationist and a nationalist (anti-American) language that has absorbed into itself an American identity in thematic and formal matters--and I may add also in terms of uniquely coined Hebrew words that render American literary Hebrew strange and unfamiliar to outside readers.
To be sure, the Hebraists producing these works were not all purists to begin with. More than a few were bi- and tri-lingual, composing works of belles lettres and scholarship in Hebrew, Yiddish, and English, and that despite the cultural divide that adherence to each of these meant. Moreover, many were closely engaged in the promotion of Hebrew education for the young generation, through which they attempted to perpetuate the steadily declining proficiency of America's Jews in the Hebrew language, in quality and quantity.
As if to illustrate the ambivalent stance adopted by American Jews about their regard for identifying themselves as Americans but also as non-Americans, Weingrad examines the representation of the figure of Mordecai Manuel Noah in literature (pp. xxiv, 143-85), a personage whose Ararat Project of 1825 intrigued Hebraists as "a compelling model" of proto-Zionism in the New World (p. 145). Yet the problem of self-definition, as well as the question about what constitutes American Hebrew literature, persists. The concern with the future of Jewish (and Hebraic) culture in America is still succinctly captured by the words of Robert Alter challenging the possibility of the survival of Jewish culture in America through works in translation (pp. xxvii--xxviii).
Michael Weingrad presents us with an arc of themes and topics that forms the core of Hebrew literature in the United States. His close reading of a good number of these works shares with the reader an insightful analysis of works--poetry and prose--that constituted the crux of what lay at the core of the Hebraic literary project in America. In addition, the study is embedded with an array of thought-provoking issues and useful themes characteristic of American Jewish cultural life, and not merely in the heyday of American Hebraic literary output, which Weingrad claims to be between 1915 and 1925.
One of the leading themes is the ambivalent regard for the big city, particularly New York--though one remains puzzled why this attitude is missing when other urban centers are presented in the works of Hebraists: New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit, or Cleveland. It is not only an expression of resentment at the alienating Big City, for some Hebraists lived in European metropolises before. So was it a particular dislike of New York, with its cauldron congested with populations of Jews, Italians, Poles, and other minorities that represented America and its threat to assimilate all newcomers?
Urban America, asserts Weingrad, is perceived as a cage, alienating its citizens, nurturing the basest beast-like qualities in them. For Hebraists, in particular, the Melting Pot phenomenon was anathema, presaging the unsavory message of an assimilated Jewry which would be held back from becoming the spearhead for an eventual wave of emigration to Zion. In this instance Weingrad illustrates the attitude represented in the poetry of Shimon Ginz-burg, particularly his long poem, "No-York," though he could have enhanced the theme by drawing on other examples, such as the poetry of A. Z. Halevi and the prose of R. Wallenrod and S. Halkin, among others.
In a linguistic discussion of the conservatism and classicism embraced by most Hebraists, Weingrad points to their regard for the preservation of maskilic language and literary forms, so that they "looked askance" at modernist developments in Hebrew verse "and remained largely indifferent to Anglo-American modernism as well" (p. 30), a sentiment that was apparently held also by M. Ribalow, who, as editor of Haddar, the Sefer Hashanah: The American Hebrew Yearbook series and numerous other publications, served as the chief gatekeeper for what constitutes proper Hebraic taste in belles lettres. In contradistinction, Yiddish strove to create a literature which, claimed its adherents, was a true American literature (p. 42).
Weingrad adds a fine and detailed discussion of what came to be called, americaniyut, Americanness (pp. 54ff.), a demand and exploration of American themes by Hebraists, a subject that became in the 1920s the source for intense debate among Hebraists--especially by Y. Rabinowitz and S. Halkin--about faithfully representing the American vista while retaining their apart-ness. By following up on this theme and showing America's diverse cultures, landscapes, and values, Hebrew was indeed becoming Americanized, often despite its separatist ideological stance.
A subject that became nearly unique to American Hebrew literature is the representation of Native Americans (and, I might add, African Americans). Hebrew literature has produced a sizeable corpus of works dedicated to the subject, either telling of Indians or using folktales to compose versions inspired by the originals. Weingrad treats the three major works on the topic, though somewhat inconsistently, and also misses out on a number of lesser-known writers--among them Avraham Regelson. In attempting to explain them, Weingrad asserts that through these works their writers express a sense of being "highly anxious and deeply ambivalent about their own American-ness" (p. 97). So, for instance, Weingrad observes that the long poems, Mul ohel Timmura [Before the tent of Timmura; 1910) by Silkiner and Lisitzky's Medurot doakbot [Dying campfires; 1937], are the poets' struggles with Jewish issues either as the notion of America-for-the-Jews in case of the former (p. 81) or as an indirect expression on the Jewish-Arab conflict in Mandate Palestine for the latter (p. 98). The last is a cogent suggestion also in light of Lisitzky's first journey of the Land of Israel in 1934.
Hebraists' interest in the American landscape extended beyond urban and native domains to include what they perceived as the ultimate authenticity of rural folks. To that effect, poets and authors could give expression to their love of nature as a reflection of their romantic literary tendencies and anti-urban sentiments. Here, too, Weingrad exhibits a familiarity with the literature on the subject, offering close readings of a number of works, among them the poetry of Lisitzky, Bavli's "Mrs. Woods," the poetry of Preil, and Wallen rod's prose. His reading of Bernard Isaacs' "Amos the Orange-Seller" (pp. 119-22) is an accomplished example of close reading and innovative illustration of the value of this short-story toward an appreciation of the conflicted views held by Hebraists as regarding Americanness.
Another excellent segment of this chapter is Weingrad's examination of Harry Sackler's novel, Bein eretz veshamayim [Between heaven and earth; 1964] as an expression of its Jewish protagonist's attempts to fit into American society and culture while retaining his identity (pp. 133-42). While detailed, the discussion on rural America omits a number of contributions, among them Schwartz's poem on Kentucky, the poetry of R. Avinoam, and the novels of S. L. Blank.
Weingrad devotes one chapter to a comparative study of the works of Shimon Halkin and Gabriel Preil as models of an imagined America, though the pairing of these two seems puzzling. His close reading of Halkin's novel 'Ad mashber [Until the crash] is persuasive as "the finest achievement of American Hebrew fiction" (p. 192). Preil, however, receives but scant attention as the discussion slips into a discourse on some of Halkin's Holocaust poetry.
"The Last Mohicans." the book's seventh and last chapter, dwells on the diminution of Hebrew literature produced in America due in part to some literati's leaving for Israel and the death of others, without leaving a critical mass of homegrown writers to reinvigorate the center. Those who remained, Eisig Silberschlag, G. Preil, Robert Whitehill-Bashan, and even a number of female writers, among them Ghana Formelant and Ghana Kleiman, were joined by known scholars of Hebrew, Robert Alter and Arnold Band, though the Hebrew literary project became a Jewish one instead, populated by the likes of Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, and the coterie of other Americanized Jews writing in English.
This is an enlightening study whose strength is in the author's close readings and cutting-edge interpretation of a mix of literary genres. Weingrad successfully contextualizes these works into the larger body of American English (and Yiddish) literary tastes while delving into the ramifications behind the loss of another Hebrew literary center to the flourishing of an Americanized, primarily English-only corpus of Jewish literature. The book is written in a lucid and eloquent style with little jargon, making it accessible by all read-ers--and teachers wishing to develop courses on the subject--intrigued by this most fascinating of chapters in the long history of Hebrew literature.
Alan Mintz's study, as its title attests, is devoted to Hebrew poetry composed in America. Written in his inimitable style, the book is a pleasure to read and ponder and represents a treasure-trove of examples of close reading and appreciation of the quality that Hebrew poetry has reached in America. This is a remarkable work in its ambition and accomplishment, although one must not mistake this collection as covering all those who may be deemed frontline poets. Either out of consideration of economy in this large volume or for other reasons, a number of poets were left out who would require remedial studies to fill the gap. Poets such as Aaron Zeitln, also overlooked by Weingrad, Eliezer D. Fridland, Reuven Avinoam (Grossman), and even I. J. Schwartz, who translated his own Yiddish long poem, Kentucky, into Hebrew, merit recognition. However, Mintz achieves his goal of bringing attention to the quality of works by a coterie of poets whose contributions, in lyrical and other poetic genres, possess high literary caliber that makes them the core of an American Hebrew literary tradition. And while the second section of this tripartite volume--the first being a solid historical background followed by an examination of A. Regelson's ode to Hebrew as the quintessential language of poetry--is devoted principally to the analysis of lyrical poems, Mintz supplements his interest in the third part by highlighting a number of leading themes that characterize American Hebrew poetry of the non-lyrical sort.
By concentrating on poetry, Mintz isolates the genre from other literary creations, primarily the varieties of prose fiction. However, as he also demonstrates, the risk is well worth taking in that the riches of poetry are revealed in this meticulous attention--for the Hebraists themselves deemed poetry to be the highest of literary forms, and the lyrical poem as primus inter pares.
American Hebrew literature is founded on a contradictory set of goals and values that have contributed to its growth. For most of its participants--pro-ducers and consumers alike--the Hebrew language and its literature bore the identification marks of the Zionist movement soon after its inception when, in December of 1906 at the Zionist conference in Helsingfors (Helsinki), the Hebrew language was recognized as the language of the Jewish national movement (as opposed to the later 1908 Czernowitz conference, in which Yiddish was declared the cultural language of the Jews). However, the Jewish national agenda soon became complicated in the American arena, leading to a significant literary corpus that is extra-territorial, whether by its lyrical character or its engagement with local and regional concerns more than the national.
Alan Mintz's massive volume fully means what its title declares: to introduce the reader to the corpus of American Hebrew poetry and its rich variety. He opens with a useful survey of the rise of Hebraism in Europe and its move to America, where its setting became a crucial factor in the themes treated in its literature. And though the Hebrew language was widely identified with the Zionist program, not all Hebraists in America subscribed to its message, rendering the medium--as it was in Europe, and more so before the rise of political Zionism--merely a medium in their art. Yet Hebrew, like Yiddish, was used as a means of an attempted forestalling of assimilation that by the 1930s was a lost cause (p. 40). Nevertheless, some native-born intellectuals served as the nucleus around a number of periodicals, of which Niv aimed, in Ahad-Hiam fashion, to "express the totality of the modern Jew's creativity: and not only in literature (p. 42). Yet the waning of the American Hebrew center was prompted by external forces as well, among them the ascendency of Eretz Yisra'el and the closing of the gates to the flow of fresh immigration from Europe.
As he narrates, Mintz points out issues and problems for further study, at times even formulating the subject, as "how these 'prophets without honor' understood their place as time went on" in America (p. 41). His discussion also treats the near-invisibility of American Hebrew literary contribution to the collective Hebraic tradition, a marginalization that has made the study of this center seem exotic and superfluous in the eyes of Israeli literary scholarship. Also of significance is the new direction taken by American Hebraists who, rather than follow German and Russian poetic conventions and innovations, became Americanized in reflecting U.S. and English literary forms and themes while retaining, for most part, the Ashkenazi penultimate accentuation of words.
That is not to say, however, that they shed all aspects of their European, or Jewish, labels. Each chapter in this study presents a condensed and content-filled biography to make every poet distinct, familiar, and close, to highlight particular traits that set him apart from the rest. Halkin, for one, by his presence in Israel since the 1950s, brought Israeli scholarly attention onto the American Hebraic literary scene. His affinity for American Romanticism and also Habad Hasidism drew attention to the American literary milieu. Mintz also foregrounds Halkin's spiritual quest of the divine in his poetry, a theme also evident, one might add, in his prose (pp. 274-78). Unlike Halkin, for example, A. Regelson had an affinity for Lurianic Kabbalah to stand against the pantheism of American worship of Transcendentalism (p. 316).
The most interesting, fascinating, and penetrating insight in this treasury of poetic readings is the second chapter, "Apotheosis of Hebrew," which presents a close reading and interpretation of Abraham Regelson's 1946 long poem, "Haquqot otiyyotayikh" ["Engraved are thy letters"]. The poem is an ode to a feminized and eroticized Hebrew by a narrator who is enthralled by it and its possibilities. It is "a theological treatise on the divinity of Hebrew" (p. 68), in which language is "elevated into a deified female form" (p. 97), asserts Mintz about this exuberant and long discourse on the merits of the language. It must be added that the language is not only allusive but also highly literary, an impenetrability that underscores its challenge to the contemporary reader. It is the first poem on Hebrew reflexively looking at itself, and which will be followed by Wallach's "Hebrew," Amichai's "Binyanim sonnet," "Conferences, Conferences, Malignant Words Benign Speech," Pagis' "Exercises in Useful Hebrew," and others, though this remains the most penetrating and complex of them all. Mintz's exploration of its obscure terms and references is a tour de force underscoring the sophistication of American Hebrew poetry. He persuasively argues for the poet's virtuosity in use of the language to exhibit its plasticity and the resources it furnishes poets for intertextual allusiveness. As the poem, so the analysis speaks for an erudition that is one of the highlights of this study. Mintz presents a detailed analysis in his lucid and elegant style that is impressive if not inspired in clarity and depth.
The following eleven chapters which comprise the largest portion of Part Two are focused each in turn on one poet, accompanied by a brief biography introducing the poet and his place in American Hebrew literature, followed by an overview of his oeuvre. In each case Mintz dwells on the poet's particular strengths, weaknesses, themes, and accomplishments. Each essay is then devoted to a close reading, analysis, and discussion of a representative poem or two, mostly of the lyrical kind. The theme that appears to run through this collection, and its unifying thesis, is the diversity, complexity, and quality of the American Hebrew poem.
Mintz evaluates the poems in terms of the language used, whether heavily biblical and allusive, florid and complex, or possessed of a simple, direct, and lucid expression. The poems rely on the Ashkenazic stresses and rhythms which only gradually succumbed to the Hebrew of Eretz Yisra'el, at times labeled as the "correct" one. In examining the poetry of Israel Efros, for example, we read how he, whose literary "rebirth" and acceptance in Israel is credited, in part, to his clarity and simplicity, is an outcome of a parallel development in Israeli Hebrew literature's departure from its "ancestors." It would have been useful, one supposes, had the essay also addressed Efros' numerous essays, reminiscent of those by Henry James, dwelling on matters of poetry and poetics.
Each of these chapters constitutes a little gem, modeling the poet's strengths and accomplishments. The themes of these poems include love, nature, impressionistic and expressionistic imprints in the poetry, Americanism in theme or form as opposed to a look back toward the old country, and the like. Such an approach cannot but encourage further study of each and every poet under discussion.
S. Ginzburg's long poem of New York City is among the most penetrating works concerning the encounter of the Jew with the metropolis. Mintz compares this work with Bialik's "Be'ir HaHaregah" ("In the City of Slaughter"), observing that the former adopts the oracular identity of Jonah against a condemned Nineveh as opposed to Bialik's evocation of the prophet Ezekiel in his survey of the devastations during the 1903 Kishinev pogrom.
One sore flaw in this instance is Mintz's misreading of the title of Ginz-burg's poem, "No York" which is erroneously read as "New York." In so doing, Mintz misses out on making a stronger case for his observations concerning the poet's sense of alienation in the Big City and its destabilized representation in title as well as in theme, as Mintz points out (p. 192). In the manner of Mendele's, Agnon's and Sholom Aleichem's renaming of East European Jewish communities, Ginzburg corrupts the Big Apple's name as an expression of his aversion to its hideous and inhumane treatment of residents. The distorted name of the city is also evident in Halkin's calling it "Jew York," which gives rise to a new genus of humans, the "homo Americanus," or in R. Avinoam's hyphenation as "New York-Nineveh." The title is no erroneous typo in Ginz-burg's poem either, but represents a negative perception of "No York," evolving into a message of acceptance of "New York" upon recognizing the radiance of grace that emanates from its lit Williamsburg Bridge, leading the poem to its denouement on a redemptive note.
If the previous parts were primarily devoted to the discussion of individual writers and their relatively short poems, Part Three, "American Vistas," is a demonstration of what can be done when thematic issues bring attention to collective projects in poems that are significantly longer. The first of these is the rather curious preoccupation of American Hebrew poetry with the world and myths of Native Americans. The three "flagship curiosities of American Hebrew literature" (p. 362), are the long poems by Silkiner, Efros, and Lisitzky--although at least one more, by A. Regelson, should have been in-cluded--each of whom addressed the theme from a unique perspective. These works are indicative of Hebrew poets' attempt "to connect with the bedrock of originary Americanness" (p. 363) and to expose the tragic fate of Indians and their culture at the hands of Europeans as a warning for fellow Jews. This is Silkiner's accomplishment in his Mul ohel Timmura [Before the tent of Timurah; 1910], the first long Hebrew composition to seriously confront America.
Israel Efros, writing some two decades later, demonstrated the advances in Hebrew that enabled his composition, Vigvamim shoteqim [Silent wigwams] to exhibit a lively flexibility while demonstrating a nearly novelistic tendency in representing Native American life and culture. His long poem is marked by a higher degree of realism and a decided distancing from the mythically enshrouded world of Timurah. This departure has less to do with linguistic advances and more with a personal predisposition of each poet. And as if to underscore the latter assertion, E. E. Lisitzky's huge poem, Medurot do'akhot [Dying campfires; 1937] marks a return swing of the pendulum to the mythic as the poem tells of a world eclipsed by the arrival of the white man, his weapons and all-consuming culture.
Some years later, Efros composed his second long poem, Zahav [Gold; 1942] which tells of the California gold rush. It is the most American of his works, one lacking in any Jewish presence though richly populated with distinct characters, among them the mysterious Lola. Not to be outdone, Lisitzky contributed his major composition on black folk culture in his Be'oholei Khush [In the tents of Cush; 1953). It is a work inspired by first-hand acquaintance with black society in New Orleans, where the poet made his residence. Lisitzky's composition is an expression of his attraction to the primitivism and authentic faith and fervor he perceived in African-American folk life. Moreover, asserts Mintz, the story of black experience in America becomes a paradigm for Lisitzky's own ordeals as a Hebrew teacher, identifying his anxieties mirrored in the sufferings of Southern blacks (p.434). Yet his composition is not only about the ordeals of Blacks in America, it is also a mirror of a culture in which the stories of the Hebrew Bible are retold through the prism of the experiences of others. In it America's blacks use the Hebrew Bible as a paradigm of their own experiences. Beoholei Khush is a multifaceted treasure trove of poems which are an "impersonation" of black voices rather than his putting on "black face (p. 443).
A second subject that expresses Hebraists' immersion in the American scene is the representation of the world of nature, the countryside as opposed to the urban experiences of Jews in the Golden Land. Poets were drawn to nature not merely because of its romantic settings but also out of a conviction that in it one can discover the authentic (white) American whose rural existence also defines the idealized, imagined America. Such a subject is the heroine of Hillel Bavli's "Mrs. Woods," a poem that presents the post-Indian "classic simplicity" (p. 393) of white society in nature, wherein Mrs. Woods takes on the native visage by her openness to all faiths in the form of "homegrown pantheism" (p. 396) that is a mark of American pluralism over the narrowness of Europeans' religious particularism. This is why Mintz presents Gavriel Preil's reading of the Bavli poem as representative of Jewish values rather than of Americanness.
Preil's own poetry of New England is highlighted as it examines belongingness of Hebraists' values and those of the landscape of America. Mintz observes the analogous features of these poems with Robert Frost's poetics as idylls about life in the American context, until the Holocaust breaks the analogy (pp. 408-409).
In his erudite survey, Mintz opens windows onto works and poets long neglected by the canon. He draws the reader's curiosity about the attainments of poets of a caliber equal to if not exceeding those composed anywhere else. To that effect, the modernist minimalism of the likes of Gabriel Preil is brought to bear as a sign of "the culmination of the enterprise of American Hebrew poetry" by a poet who seldom made it to Israel, though he died in Jerusalem in 1993.
The final poet to be introduced also closes the study, which began so euphorically with Regelson's praise of Hebrew, on a dour note. The tone and poetical oeuvre of Abraham Zvi Halevi closes the study with a finality that can only match this poet's fatalistic and hopeless view of life and the fate it meets out. Composed in what can best be depicted as a naturalism that exceeds S. Ginzburg's sanguine perception of existence in the Big City, Halevi's works bring no redemptive message with them. He is the ultimate poet of despair, whose representation of the narrator's raw existence against the backdrop of New York merely exacerbates his turn to the basest of human instincts that confirm his humanity, and that despite the self-loathing and self-abasement that arise out of the baring of man's base sexual urges. It is as if the exposure of the lowest in man is also a metonym for the underworld and low-life in the city where human existence persists at its basest, yet this low life is expressed in an elegant, eloquent, and stylized language that is at odds with the subject matter. His is the proper tone with which to close this study, a pessimism that also applies to the message concerning the finality of the Hebraic enterprise in the New World.
Taking the issue of American Jewish writing beyond the limits of the Hebraic sphere, Rachel Rubinstein illuminates the accomplishments of Jewish literature in Yiddish and English with a particular focus on their engagement with the Jewish-Indian encounter and its ensuing ramifications. Her study of the socio-political ramifications of the Jew-Indian analogy is a new approach that should encourage similar as well as diverse studies in the broader sphere of general Jewish literary representations of the other.
Rubinstein's interest is in the imperative of giving recognition to marginalized minorities, such as Native and African Americans, as a leading channel in the understanding of America (p. 7). She probes the anxieties of new immigrants in the drive to be recognized and accepted as American by those who were immigrants before them, some of who considered themselves "natives" while conveniently ignoring their Indian predecessors. In this contest of "inside" vs. "outside," the inscribing of Jews as analogues to Indians, whether as related to them as by the legend of the Lost Tribes of Israel or as sharing a common fate at the hands of Europeans, has often served as a key to legitimize and provide them with entrance to the American social landscape.
Yet aside from being identified somehow as "related" to American Indians, Jews themselves were also active on the American scene in producing images of Native Americans for mass consumption, whether through commerce, anthropological studies, literary criticism, entertainment, or mass culture (p. 18). In so doing they were the disseminators of the image of Indians in contradictory and varied guises, while lending a legitimacy to themselves as "belonging" to the scene.
Jews' identity with Native Americans, in the minds of some Jews and non-Jews, complicated America's possession of land. As a substitute "Indian," the Jew's presence within American society challenged the pretense that a vanishing Indian legitimizes possession of territories. Jews in mid-nineteenth-century America were part of the Great Awakening in capitalizing on Christians' expectations of the Second Coming and anticipation of the End Days by repatriating Jews, and even Native Americans, to the Land of Israel. Mordecai Manuel Noah's project of "Ararat" manifests this idea by advocating that Jews settle in an American haven, a project executed by Noah in concert with the Jews' Indian "brethren" (p. 31).
Jews' activities in America were motivated by a desire to blend in and be accepted by a pluralistic society. Their activities to fight particularism and anti-immigrant sentiments included the dissemination of a positive image of Native Americans by presenting themselves as intermediaries with them or even by masquerading as Indians (pp. 27-29).
Rubinstein discusses the role of Solomon Nunes de Carvalho, whose journal of Fremont's expedition becomes a record of his effaced identity as Jew. To "pass," he offered an ambiguous image of himself to his comrades, as one speaking with different voices and identities among members of the expedition as healer, technology maven (he was the expedition's photographer), interpreter, and linguist (pp. 36-38). Capping the chapter, Rubinstein offers a number of texts, in addition to de Carvalho's, to "give a sense of the way in which Jewish writers and performers could use travels 'among Indians' to the-atricalize, disguise, and Americanize themselves all at once" (p. 58). Among the works cited, all in English, are the play She Would Be a Soldier by Noah, and I. Zangwill's story, "Noah's Ark."
In the early twentieth century, Yiddish writers identified with Native Americans as well, which "made it possible for the Yiddish writer to imaginatively inhabit the bodies both of Indians and aspires to Indianness ... and in the process to both imitate and critique the racism and elitism of Anglo-American modernist practices" (p. 62). Preoccupation with Indianness, writes Rubinstein, was a means for Yiddish writers to demonstrate their participation in the American project as well as becoming modern, as in the Indian tales of Sheen Dayksel and others whose poetry was in imitation of Native American songs.
In addition to twentieth-century Yiddish literature, Rubinstein demonstrates how literature by Jews writing in English was motivated by political, leftist considerations. These inscribe the Indians, real or make-believe, into their works in sympathy with the lot of the downtrodden, the Indian being "as a site in which the discourses of high and low culture, Left and Right politics, problematically converged" (p. 89). For such a literature she draws on writers' political sentiments that are also outside the sphere of their literary oeuvre to demonstrate the extent to which fiction served as a vehicle for politicized sentiments concerning racism in America.
Henry Roth, in his 1934 novel Call it Sleep, is a subject in Rubinstein's discussion of an author's left-leaning sentiments, his engagement with the subject of Indians, Jews, and Zionism. Moreover, Roth's liaisons with Indian culture--and relations with Eda Lou Walton--draw attention to the debates raging between authentic natives and the "one hundred percent Americans, fourth- or fifth-generation super-patriots" (p. 123) as well as to his perceptions of the Jews attaining the status of belonging and a home.
Finally, the study focuses on the analogy between Native Amerians' lot and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as each side competed for the recognition as the indigenous, "first nation" status (p. 148). Claims for legitimacy and power were being made through literary works also with regard to the Holocaust as a model for the lot of not just Jews but Indians as well.
Rubinstein's study concerns itself with Jewish literary contributions in Yiddish and English as reflections on analogies with the experiences of their people with those of Indians. Though not focused on the Hebraic contribution in terms of literary engagement with Native and African Americans, her study is a fitting model for future studies of this most fascinating and ongoing process. In fact, one wonders whether her observations concerning Jewish literature cannot be seen as driving Hebraists who were so determined to dwell on Native Americans in their forward move toward immersion into the New World and also back toward an imagined past of Jewish primitivism and tribalism (p. 9).
By way of summary, we might take note of the cover design of each study as signifying its message. The one by Mintz is an apt one and encapsulates the story of American Hebrew literature. It is a portrait of Abraham Soyer, the Hebrew writer of stories and children's literature (not addressed in the study). Soyer is shown holding an open Hebrew book bearing the title Dor holekh ["A generation passes"], the title of a two-volume anthology of his stories published in Eretz Yisra'el in 1928. Its message of the waning of the immigrant generation in America with its (often nostalgic) memories of the Old World is an apt analogue to Mintz's own title, since both appear to have in mind a generation that found a sanctuary, merely a stopping place, on the American landscape, though most never reached the Promised Land.
By contrast, Weingrad's study bears a cover illustration from a Hebrew-learning book, by Zvi Scharfstein, underscoring the optimism of inculcating America's Jewish generation of youngsters with the Hebrew that would preserve their identities against the assimilatory forces. Yet the images are of very American children, neat and well-dressed girls and a neck-tie-wearing man with a pipe in his mouth and a young boy whose favorite puppy characterizes him more than the absence of any head-covering or a missing book--Talmud or other.
Rubinstein's study bears a cover of a photograph entitled "Spiritual Gathering of Navajos and Jews," taken of a side-view mirror of an automobile. In the mirror, as on the background beyond it, one sees arrayed a group of people, Native Americans and Jews, presumably, against the backdrop of Monument Valley, Arizona. The fact that the vehicle is supposedly passing by them leaves much for analysis, as does the fact that a the mirror image harbors a host of possibilities signifying reflection, distortion, displacement, inversion, and illusion.
The studies by Weingrad, Mintz, and Rubinstein are a welcome addition to the study of the gamut of the Hebrew and the Jewish literary canon as affected by the American experience. They should serve as beacons and models for additional studies to foster further examinations of the contribution of American Hebrew literature and its integration with the greater corpus of the Hebraic literary accomplishments in the twentieth century.
Indiana University, Bloomington
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|Title Annotation:||'American Hebrew Literature: Writing Jewish National Identity in the United States', 'Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry' and 'Members of the Tribe: Native America in the Jewish Imagination'|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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