What We Talk About When We Talk About Hebrew (And What it Means to Americans).
This volume of essays grew out of a remarkable 2016 symposium on "Hebrew and the Humanities" at the University of Washington. On the whole, What We Talk About When We Talk About Hebrew delivers a winning combination of scholarship and personal narrative. Sokoloff and Berg convened a stellar community of educators, translators, novelists, and poets to wrestle with the knotty challenges that currently beset both Hebrew language learning and the humanities at large. As the editors point out in their introduction, even as Hebrew literature flourishes at a dizzying rate, the study of Hebrew on American campuses is plummeting (a fate shared by other language programs).
Some of the essayists directly confront the reasons for that woeful decline, and a few acknowledge some of the political causes that might underlie it while also speculating about the ways that Hebrew language study might yet enrich the humanities as a whole. For those wondering whether such sanguine assertions overreach, Sokoloff and Berg forcefully remind us that "the story of the revival of Hebrew calls for exploration of interrelationships between territory, nation, people, and language in a way that can add nuance to the study of nationalism in many contexts, as well as to understandings of postcolonialism, migrations, and identity" (10). Very ripe terrain indeed. While it is impossible to do justice to all the essays, highlighting a few should underscore both the scope and considerable merits of this volume. Encompassing personal, poetic and philosophical as well as pedagogical and pragmatic perspectives, quite a number of these essays offer a tantalizing pastiche of all these qualities. For instance, in an exhilarating discussion titled "Living in Hebrew: On Jealousy and Creativity," novelist Dara Horn begins by uncovering startling common ground in Shai Agnon and Etgar Keret's modes of storytelling and concludes with the personal discovery that one of her novels was not only a great deal shorter in its Hebrew translation but seemed to make more sense and was "ultimately less artificial" than its English antecedent (35).
Insightfully probing the vital subgenre of language memoirs, from Bialik to contemporary writers, Sokoloff raises intriguing questions about a host of interrelated issues: acquiring "nativeness," metalinguistic awareness, and the arts of translation. Ilan Stavans surveys modern Hebrew's storied history (and sometimes contradictory cultural roles) as a springboard for condemning the perils of monolingualism. Wendy Zierler offers a scathing critique of the impoverished state of most current modern Hebrew textbooks in this country that predominantly feature readings drawn from Israeli popular culture and society while forsaking the myriad riches of liturgy, the Bible, medieval poetry and beyond. Yet Zierler finds some solace in the exciting degree to which secular Israeli society may be "experiencing a Hebrew religious renaissance," suggesting ways to developing greater "synergy between the Hebrew language and the study of Jewish texts" (97). Raising similar concerns, Sarah Bunin Benor examines the widening rift between Biblical Hebrew and Israeli Hebrew communities in Jewish American communal and institutional life.
Intriguingly, many of the literary scholars featured here share a predilection for Agnon, a figure at once intrinsic to the history of modern Hebrew literature and increasingly distant from the evolving concerns of Israeli literature itself. Readers will find much to appreciate in Adam Rovner's exquisite close readings of the cultural and sociolinguistic complexities of Hebraic verse in America and gifted translator's Adriana X. Jacobs' powerful exploration of the contributions of minority writers to Israeli Hebrew. Jacobs's visionary argument addresses the consequential ways that Hebrew and Arabic increasingly permeate one another, the natural culmination of centuries of interpenetration. Other worthy essays include veteran poet Robert Whitehill-Bashan's thoughtful reflections on his remarkable Hebrew oeuvre as well as Michael Weingrad's consideration of how Whitehill-Bashan's peculiar culturo-linguistic position endows him with the dexterity to "step outside the American Jewish reality" in transformative ways (208).
In the volume's bittersweet coda, the formidable American Hebraist Alan Mintz looks back on a life spent with the knotty and enthralling entanglements of Hebrew. The posthumous "Hebrew in America" constitutes a feisty affirmation of his spirited inquiry, dedication and intellectual struggle: "For the very reason that my Hebrew is acquired rather than given to me in my mother's milk, it will always remain just a little strange to me. There is a lot that I miss by virtue of not being a native, but as a near native there is a lot that I can see that the native will never appreciate" (226). Mintz astutely underscores some of the conundrums invariably separating discussions of modern Hebrew from those of other languages, especially when contemplating the fraught question of nativeness: "the more you think about the concept of nativeness, the more it comes to resemble a boat springing leaks. Many of the Hebraists who taught my generation never lived in Palestine, yet their Hebrew was richer and more robust than most of their counterparts in the Yishuv" (222). Ultimately the quandary leaves much unsettled: "Should the Hebrew taught on university campuses be the Hebrew spoken in the present moment by literate speakers in Israel? Or is that Hebrew only one and only the latest [manifestation] of a larger conception of Hebrew, which includes the achievements of both secular and religious culture over a longer time frame and not just in Palestine/Israel?" (222). That question, which in one form or another stirs many of these scholars, seems unlikely to be resolved to anyone's satisfaction very soon.
Brimming with heart and mind, What We Talk About When We Talk About Hebrew offers breathtaking scope, encompassing a diverse range of linguistic, political, and cultural perspectives. The challenging, unsettling and consistently illuminating insights of its esteemed contributors will be warmly appreciated by scholars, educators, and students at all levels and likely inspire fecund discussions for years to come.
University of Louisville