Printer Friendly




DETROIT: WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2016 ISBN: 978-0-8143-4136-0, 232 pages, $34.99

Sokoloff and Berg intentionally name their edited volume to evoke Raymond Carver's "What We Talk about When We Talk about Love" and Nathan Englander's "What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank." Yet they only refer to these short stories in the afterword. While Englander 's New American Haggadah and translation of stories by Israeli author Etgar Keret make it perfectly reasonable to discuss him in a volume devoted to reflections on Hebrew's place in America and the American university, Carver's connection seems nonexistent.

As Berg and Sokoloff inform us, however, Carver joined his wife on a fellowship in Tel Aviv in 1968. His ignorance of the Hebrew language and his inability to find himself in a Jewish land made this sojourn a low point in his life. When confronted with his ignorance of the Hebrew language, Carver lost his sense of self in a manner evocative of what many Americans go through when brought face-to-face with the unfamiliar Hebrew alphabet.

The volumes contributors look to alert their English-language readers, whoever they may be, to Hebrew's beauty and the possibilities its offers. Hannah Pressman convincingly makes the case that scholars of Hebrew need to engage public scholarship and new media to accomplish this task. Indeed, if there is an expanded discussion of Hebrew language and culture on English-language social media, it will no doubt attract the attention of more Americans, but should the ultimate goal of Hebrew's proponents be providing a superficial understanding of Hebrew language to a wider American or American Jewish audience? Seeing this as a realistic and realizable goal, sociolinguist Sarah Benor advocates on its behalf. She asserts that the "infusion" of Hebrew into American Jewish life creates a shared cultural legacy through which American Jews can connect to each other.

In contrast with Benor, most of the collection's authors, American-born English speakers who gradually developed Hebrew language proficiency, envision Hebrew as more than just a medium for connecting American Jews one to another. They point to how Hebrew has enriched their lives and can enrich American Jews' lives. English-language novelist Dara Horn explains that she could not imagine her daily life without Hebrew and that her desire to "write Hebrew novels in English" drives her. Thus, she was overjoyed when she read her novel A Guide to the Perplexed in Hebrew, because it seemed so "ordinary, natural, and authentic." In her mind, the translation constituted the true original; it is easy to understand why. Hebrew possesses terms for almost everything about Jewishness that a Jew might want to convey, and the explanatory layer characteristic of American Jewish fiction falls away to yield liberated Jewish expression. Contrary to what contemporary Americans might think, Hebrew is not a provincial or one-dimensional medium. As the editors explain, Hebrew proves able to bridge the ancient and the contemporary, east and west, and the secular and the religious.

It was recognition of Hebrew's ability to bridge disparate elements of his identity that steered American Hebrew poet Robert Whitehill-Bashan away from English in the 1970s. Not only did it expand his spatial horizons by connecting him to Israeli culture, it opened new temporal horizons that connected him to three thousand plus years of Hebrew creativity. This caused him, like scholar Nancy Berg, to struggle with issues of authenticity and legitimacy. Yet his poem "The Muse of Minimalism Gazed into My Eyes and Said," presented in the volume and ably analyzed by Michael Weingrad, shows him pushing past previous inhibitions to create engaging Hebrew poetry both playful and profound.

Aware that Hebrew belles lettres has been composed in the United States for more than a century, Whitehill-Bashan rightly bristles at efforts to portray him as an oddity Adam Rovner's discussion of Shimon Ginzburg's poem "In Praise of the Hebraists in America" illuminates American Hebrew poetry's long history and the ways that it disrupts an English-only American identity and a Palestinocentric Hebrew identity. It is in the act of disrupting this English-only American identity that Wendy Zierler sees an opening for Hebrew culture in America. Rather than pushing American Jews to abandon their Americanness or secular elements of their identity, she points to ways in which connection to Hebrew culture's historic layers can enable liberal American Jews to draw on Hebrew and English to create more fulfilling forms of American Jewish identity. In contrast, Adriana Jacobs's discussion of the Hebrew poetry of Israeli Druse poet Salman Masalha stresses Hebrew culture's ability to serve a similar function for Israeli non-Jews whose native language is not Hebrew. It can allow them to temporarily leave behind presuppositions that come with the lives they lead in their primary language (Arabic in Masalha's case), to get lost in Hebrew, and to work towards more productive forms of identity that would have been unattainable had they viewed the world exclusively through the blinders of their mother tongue.

In traditional Jewish society, Hebrew was almost exclusively employed by men whose masculine status was enhanced through knowledge of Hebrew texts and their Aramaic counterparts. Yet Zionism's emergence and concerted efforts to make Hebrew the spoken Jewish language in Ottoman Palestine enabled significant numbers of Jewish women writers to open the male dominated arena of Hebrew letters to women. For their role in this process, important trailblazers such as Dvorah Baron (1887-1956), Esther Raab (1894-1981), and Lea Goldberg (1911-1970) have garnered substantial scholarly consideration in the last few decades.

Despite the attention given to pioneering Hebrew women poets who wrote in pre-state and state-period Israel, a widespread impression long existed that only men composed American Hebrew poetry and prose. Shachar Pinsker's edited volume thoroughly dispels this notion. After Pinsker offers a highly accessible introduction to women's Hebrew poetry composed in the United States, this volume presents the Hebrew poetry of Ann Kleiman (1909-2011) and Annabelle Farmelant (1926-) alongside skillful English translations rendered by Yosefa Raz and Adriana Jacobs.

Educated in Jewish educational institutions stressing Hebrew literacy and opening their doors equally to both men and women, these American-born women were part of a generation of native English-speaking American Jews who turned to Hebrew. Beginning in 1936, these young people published in Niv (Idiom), a journal affiliated with Histadrut ha-Noar ha-Ivri (the Hebrew Youth Organization). With a few breaks in publication, Niv appeared regularly into the 1960s. Unlike their immigrant Hebraist predecessors who found publishing in English a challenge, the Hebrew writers who published in Niv, like the bulk of authors in the Sokoloff and Berg collection, turned to Hebrew out of choice. They viewed it as a more expansive medium for Jewish self-expression than English. In Hebrew, denominational boundaries did not restrict them; fear of what other Americans, both Gentiles and Jews, might think did not inhibit them from voicing what attracted and repulsed them about America and its dominant culture; limitations imposed on their thinking by the English language fell away to allow them to more profoundly contemplate American Jewish identity.

For women like Kleiman and Farmelant, Hebrew poetry also offered a way to connect with other Jewish women poets writing in Palestine and carve out a space for women within the world of poetry and society more broadly. Thus, one finds Kleiman alluding to the work of Palestine-based poet Rachel Blowstein (1890-1931) in her poem "What Can I Give to You?" and penning an essay on the Palestine-based poet Anda Amir-Pinkerfeld (1902-1981). Like Kleiman, Blowstein and Amir-Pinkerfeld looked to poetry as a way to voice diverse subjective experiences and moods. They also turned to human encounter with the natural world as a way to express frequently contradictory moments of experience. These two stylistic features attest to Hebrew poetry's ability to connect geographically dispersed Jewish women.

A distinctly modernist poet, Farmelant embraces a fractured sense of identity that she finds preferable to arid forms of collective Jewish identity she finds around her. Thus, in "American Trip," she excoriates American Jewish identity as vacuous and materialistic; in "The Israeli Parrot," she critiques Israelis' ceaseless effort to imitate the latest fashions and technologies without consideration of their adoption's cost. Farmelant's poetry frequently eschews regular stanzaic form and simple sentence structure to create elusive poems that push readers to analyze textual repetitions, allusions to Hebrew and Greek culture, and European poetry to get at her underlying views. For example, as Adriana Jacobs has shown, Farmelant's "Unwed Maiden" engages Fragment 105a of Sappho to protest the position assigned to women within society and the disregard for women's poetry that led to assignment of a tertiary position within the Hebrew literary world to women.

In 1954, American Jewish poet Karl Shapiro (1913-2000) employed the Hebrew alphabet as an extended metaphor for Jews as others who are hated for their difference. While much has changed since he wrote "Alphabet," some Americans may still believe that "the letters of the Jews are dancing knives." These books point to the aesthetic pleasure and increased self-understanding that can be achieved by Americans, especially American Jews, prepared to put aside their fears and engage with Hebrew language and culture in a way that Raymond Carver proved unable to do. While one need not agree with Horn's assertion that American Jewish literature reaches its apex through its proximation to a mythic Hebrew original, authors such as Nathan Englander show how direct engagement with the Hebrew textual tradition can enable this literatures temporal and spatial deepening. Finally, as scholars Stephen Katz, Alan Mintz, and Michael Weingrad have previously shown, language choice matters. Consideration of Americans moving beyond English to further develop their intellectual lives, and the Hebrew (and Yiddish) belles lettres such individuals produced, alerts us to the limitations to Jewish expression imposed by the English language and pushes us to consider the strategies developed to respond to them.


PHILIP HOLLANDER is an assistant professor of Israeli Literature and Culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of the forthcoming book From Schlemiel to Sabra: Zionist Masculinity and Palestinian Hebrew Literature (Indiana University Press, 2019).

doi: 10.5325/studamerijewilite.38.2.0218
COPYRIGHT 2019 Pennsylvania State University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2019 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Hollander, Philip
Publication:Studies in American Jewish Literature
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Sep 22, 2019

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters