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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2010
Number 73
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Hebrew: A World of Its Own

Hebrew Writers on Writing, edited by Peter Cole in The Writer’s World Series edited by Edward Hirsch. San Antonio: Trinity University Press.
A review essay by Daniel Grossberg

Hebrew Writers on Writing is one volume in the series, “The Writer’s World.” The Series Editor, Edward Hirsch, describes the series as featuring writers from around the globe discussing what it means to write, and to be a writer, in many different parts of the world. The work presents a broad range of material and provides access for the first time to a body of work never before gathered in English.

A reading of one volume in the series in the light of another, rewards us multiply. We see the universality of the written word as it bridges chasms and binds humanity. We see, too, through contrasts and comparisons among the languages what is distinctive and distinguishing in the written word of different cultures. In order to draw attention to some points in Hebrew Writers on Writing and to better elucidate them, I make occasional reference to Irish Writers on Writing, ed. Eavan Boland.

Prominent and recurring in the contributions of the Hebrew Writers is a linguistic self-consciousness. A recognition that their medium is not like any other is a chief subject of consideration in the volume. Several contributors point to unique, often redoubtable and numerous aspects of Hebrew that pose formidable obstacles they constantly need to overcome as they write. Writers of the early modern period, for the most part , wrote in a language they did not speak; a language that was considered by many to be a “Holy Tongue” of divine provenance, a language used primarily for daily devotions. A defining trait of their medium and of Hebrew in our own day as well, is its long history and its synchronic nature. Its present time comprehends all of its four thousand year past. Writers today chose words and phrases from an immensely rich range of linguistic and literary layers of the language. Virtually any phrase is likely to allude to a prior time or literary occurrence, whether intended by the writer or not. Peter Cole, editor of Hebrew Writers…, deemed the weight of Hebrew’s past so heavy as to create a nearly intolerable burden for Hebrew writers. I would add that the literary challenge extends to the readers as well. And the ramifications do not end there.

Despite Israel’s second place in the world, after Iceland, in book publications, in relative numbers, the number of writers and readers of Hebrew literature is small. According to one of the contributors, “a runaway best-seller in Israel, would sell only about eighty to one hundred thousand copies, and that’s very rare.” As a result Hebrew books need to be translated into other languages and cultures which poses a great challenge to the translator and to the target readership because of Hebrew’s synchronic multi-layering.

Certainly it is not only Hebrew writers who are preoccupied with their medium and who are linguistically self conscious. The New York Times Magazine of May 3, 2009 dedicated a feature article to Colm Toibin, an Irish novelist also included as one of the Irish Writers on Writing. Alex Witchel relates in that article Toibin’s reaction to some raw material that his friend, the writer Robert Sullivan transmits to Toibin for the creation of Toibin’s recent novel, Brooklyn: “He walked on, cloaked for a while, seemingly reciting his own rosary about feeling and language and writing. Finally, Sullivan told him that Sam was talking Gaelic, and he perked right up again. ‘Do you know it has no single word for yes or no?’ he said … animatedly. The fact of it delighted him. For someone who has such little use for ‘good’ and ‘bad’ the very notions of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are equally prosaic. Why bother with such useless extremes when all the really good stuff is in the middle?”

A reading of the Hebrew Writers in the light of The Irish Writers yields another interesting analogy. The Hebraists wrote in Hebrew; they treasured the old, dusted it off, and breathed into it a new life, albeit with the vestiges of the ages still an indispensable if not always desired part of the medium. The Irish on the other hand, lost a language, they mourned the passing of Gaelic and never quite accepted the new one, English, through which, as Eavan Boland puts it,” came all the humiliations history can offer a defeated people: The orders of the garrison. Injustice in the courts. The landlord’s rent rules. The bailiff’s shouted instructions to the battering-ram party.”

Shulamit Hareven in “The Limits of My Language Are the Limits of My World” expresses the principle that every language is replete with concepts which are linked to a system of associations. The most important feature of Hebrew, she maintains, has to do with value concepts. “The synchronic Hebrew language holds certain precise ethical and philosophical value concepts that belong only to Hebrew and to Judaism and that are really untranslatable. Such words cannot be learned simply as words without their philosophical concepts. Some are whole teachings.” Hareven decries the impoverishment of Hebrew culture when the Hebrew speaker loses the original meaning or at least the knowledge that there is such a meaning beyond some of these words and phrases. If the Hebraist merely takes the fraught Hebrew concept as a handy and shallow translation of an alien expression, then the speaker has erased one of the components of his culture. “We,” laments Hareven, “end up speaking English or German in Hebrew words.”

Peter Cole and Eavan Boland provide brief introductions to the writers represented in their respective works. These essays are uniformly insightful and provide the important historical and cultural context within which each appeared and in light of which each needs to be read.

I wonder, is the title, “… on Writing” too broad a heading or did the editors not choose the best excerpts to fit under that rubric? There is an annoying degree of diffuseness and an absence of a true unifying theme in both works, particularly, however, in Cole’s volume. Most of the selections deal directly with the issue of Hebrew writing, but many are just too far afield and touch only tangentially on the topic. Cole also stretches the fair boundaries and includes selections of works that were not written in Hebrew, but in Yiddish and German. Although Gabriel Preil penned poetry in Hebrew, his prose was in Yiddish and English. A prose essay of his, translated from the Yiddish, appears in the present volume. Gershom Scholem wrote primarily in German and in Hebrew, as well. Cole, however, includes in the book a meditation by Scholem translated from the German. If Cole had defined the theme more narrowly and judged the contributions more strictly the book would have had a greater coherence.

I am, as is Cole, “struck by the tremendous potency and variety of Hebrew Literature, but also by the fact that so little of what is richest about it is known beyond Israel’s borders.” This small volume might well provide one further step in repairing this sad state.

Daniel Grossberg, Ph.D., is professor emeritus at State University of New York at Albany and a contributing editor to Menorah Review.

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