Book Review | What We Talk About When We Talk About Hebrew
What We Talk About When We Talk About Hebrew
Naomi B. Sokoloff and Nancy E. Berg
University of Washington Press
In What We Talk About When We Talk About Hebrew, Naomi Sokoloff and Nancy Berg, both professors of Hebrew and comparative literature, successfully present a number of lenses through which the wondrous revival of the Hebrew language—and its current decline on American college campuses—can be viewed. Just short of 250 pages, the book contains 12 essays from a variety of Hebrew scholars, including an original work by Robert Whitehill-Bashan—perhaps the only American Hebrew poet active today. The different essays are both personal and impersonal, addressing the spiritual, the communa and the academic undercurrents making up the Hebraist tradition in America. Their efforts result in a book that takes readers on a kaleidoscopic journey through Jewish identity, Israel, the diaspora and the common denominator that ties them all together: the Hebrew language.
This book is an outgrowth of a 2016 symposium held at the University of Washington to discuss “the current situation of Hebrew studies, its relationship to the humanities, possibilities for the future, and the inherent tensions in the field.” Berg and Sokoloff’s book follows this de facto mission statement quite carefully. In a reality where, as the authors admit, STEM and career-oriented skills take precedence over the humanities, it provides an excellent resource to anyone interested in the past, present and future of Hebrew learning in America.
In addition to the problems generally facing the humanities, several contributors to this book suggest there’s an added layer of complexity to the obstacles confronting Hebrew studies departments. It is possible to trace a line connecting the troubles besetting the Hebraist scholarly community and the cultural struggles gripping Israel, world Jewry and, to an even larger degree, the American-Jewish community. The editors themselves wittily recognize these tensions in the introduction: “We stand at the vortex of centripetal and centrifugal forces, where some of us profess a connection to Judaism…and others…want Hebrew to be a language among the languages.”
The phrasing of this sentence immediately recalls the age-old Jewish quest to find our place in the world as a people—a common thread of the Jewish experience for millenia. This balancing act between exceptionalism and assimilation stretches back to the words of Isaiah, who prophesied that God will resurrect the people of Israel to be “a light of the nations.” In contrast, Theodor Herzl believed that only when Jews have a country “like all other nations” will anti-Semitism decrease and Jews be able to lead their lives as they choose. David Ben-Gurion, the father of the nation, famously took the middle course on this issue by writing of Israel: “Two basic aspirations underlie all our work in this country: to be like all other nations, and to be different from all the nations.” So it seems, that the language of the Jewish people is not free of the cultural baggage of its people.
This tension is apparent in other questions presented in the book, such as: What version of Hebrew should be promoted—Lashon Kodesh (biblical Hebrew) or modern, Israeli Hebrew? Who is the target audience of Hebrew curricula—Jews or non-Jews? And what is the best way to bring this language to its target audience?
This book may not provide definitive answers to these questions (if such answers exist), but it does reveal some interesting insights. In her essay “H is for Hebrew,” Wendy Zierler, professor of modern Jewish literature and feminist studies at Hebrew Union College, recruits Helen MacDonald, a University of Cambridge writer and researcher, and her “certainly Goyishe” memoir titled H is for Hawk to express how, in her perception, Hebrew is “secular but also Jewish, new but also age-old, American but also deeply connected to Eretz Yisra’el.”
The capability of Hebrew to straddle old and new is most apparent in the first section of the book, “Hebrew and the Creative Imagination.” This section includes two essays which are perhaps the book’s best reads, each outstanding for its own merit as well as for the impact it has when read one after the other. The first, “Living in Hebrew: On Jealousy and Creativity,” written by novelist Dara Horn, flawlessly traverses the entirety of modern Hebrew writing by connecting the patriarch of the genre, S.Y. Agnon, with his reference-filled, challenging language to Etgar Keret, perhaps the most terse-yet-celebrated Israeli author of our time. By telling the reader about her own Hebrew language journey towards Hebrew and its impact on her writing, this essay reads as a sort of annotated personal love letter from Horn to the language that allowed her to unlock her personal creative forces. The second essay, “Dying in Hebrew: The Palace of Memory,” also reads as a love letter. At the same time, as the title suggests, it is a much grander endeavour. With sharp movement to and fro references to the scripture, Baudelaire and Dante, Mexican intellectual Ilan Stavans erects an extravagant memorial in celebration of the Hebrew language.
These intellectual and informative essays assume that the aspiring Hebrew student is of Jewish descent, or is at least someone steeped in Jewish culture and history. Others will have little choice but to miss the gravity of the context these three authors serve along with their arguments. Yet this book does not limit itself to tackling questions regarding language itself. By including several works that question the identities associated with the process of language learning, What We Talk About When We Talk About Hebrew becomes not just a collection of questions, but a manuscript full of potential answers in and of itself.
It is only appropriate that, after taking the reader through a remarkable journey of inquiry and reflection, the book closes with an essay of unquestionable quality. Alan Mintz’s autobiographical essay, “Hebrew in America: A Memoir,” follows the trajectory of the man who has transformed the American-Jewish community in innumerable ways, becoming perhaps its greatest modern Hebraist.
In his essay, Mintz beautifully juxtaposes his life story with his lifelong passion for Hebrew learning and teaching. The essay displays the wise and wide perspective found in those who have achieved a lot in their lives—and who have given much of themselves to others along the way. Mintz’s untimely passing at age 69 prior to the release of this book only amplifies the connection he makes with the reader through the written word. There are many lessons to be learned from the sweetness of his nostalgia, and his optimistic hope for the future of the Hebraist community in the United States. Much like the rest of the book, Mintz’s piece shines a light on the special connection between the American Jewish community and the Hebrew language.