Minority Tongue: Hebrew Literature in the United States

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November 10, 2009

Review of Stephen Katz Red, Black, and Jew: New Frontiers in Hebrew Literature Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009, 363pp

In the American Jewish imaginary, the Hebrew language connotes Jewish religious authority and Israeli power. Consequently, it is unsurprising that American Jews have distanced themselves from it. Most American Jews view the ability to orally recite Hebrew prayers and identify a few hundred words as sufficient Hebrew knowledge. In their eyes, greater linguistic ability would enslave them to Jewish religious law as presented in the Hebrew Bible and explicated in the Talmud, or it would convert them into a fifth column prepared to defend Israel against even the most legitimate claims of torture or war crimes.

Recognizing the limitations of a monolingual Jewish existence, American Jews have turned to Yiddish to develop a connection with the Jewish past that is more open to the feminism, homosexuality, and fuzzy boundaries between Jew and non-Jew that typify American Jewish life. Rather than questioning the legitimacy of this effort and the important cultural developments that it has sparked, Stephen Katz’s Red, Black, and Jew: New Frontiers in Hebrew Literature serves as a pioneering work in a necessary push to alter the place of Hebrew in the American Jewish imagination.

Sixty-one years after the establishment of the State of Israel, most people assume that Modern Hebrew literature refers to Israeli literature, just as Dutch literature might be equated with the literature of the Netherlands. But this assumption elides the Modern Hebrew literature produced in East European and American literary centers. Modern Hebrew literature’s development actually predates Palestinian settlement and even Jewish nationalism. At the turn of the previous century, during a period termed “the Rebirth” in literary historiography, Hebrew literature was intricately connected with Palestinian Zionism. Yet political engagements proved secondary to the literary developments that gave the period its name.

Over the course of the 19th century, Hebrew literature evolved rapidly, and by the early 20th century it became a literature of comparable quality and scope to those produced by leading European nations. Hebrew writers’ efforts to amalgamate the best of European ideas and forms with what they viewed as the most viable aspects of traditional Jewish culture drove this literary renaissance. While Odessa and Warsaw would serve as the culture’s early centers, Hebrew literature would make its way to America and Palestine together with a Judaically educated subset of the millions of Jews who emigrated from the Russian Empire between 1881 and 1914. By providing the first book-length English language study of American Hebrew literature, Katz provides American Jews and interested students of American ethnic history with an opportunity to rethink American Jewish history and the role that Hebrew language played, plays, and will play in American Jewish life.

While ardent early 20th century Jewish advocates of acculturation like Mary Antin and Anzia Yezierska promoted Judaism’s suppression, American Hebraists maintained a more nuanced view. They demonstrated a willingness to embrace the best of what America had to offer, but their grounding in Jewish and European cultures prevented them from being blinded by talk of American exceptionalism. Sharing Cultural Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’Am’s desire for the establishment of a Jewish spiritual center in Palestine, as well as his recognition that Jewish life would continue outside of Israel, American Hebraists did not see any reason why more than a millennium of Diasporic Hebrew cultural production needed to come to an end in the United States. The new environment could nurture a cultural blossoming, just as Medieval Spain nurtured the fusion of Arabic poetics and court culture with Hebrew language and verse. Therefore, rather than viewing Hebrew language as an impediment to Americanization, American Hebraists looked to make it an effective realm for the coalescence of Jewishness and Americanness, just as their European literary predecessors had used it for the synthesis of Jewish and European culture.

As Katz cogently notes, one of the ways that Hebrew writers did this was through their studied literary representations of Native and African-American life, which frequently drew on contemporary scholarship. While Palestinian Hebrew literature focused almost exclusively on the state-building process by the late 1920s, American Hebrew literature maintained a much less parochial outlook. Its writers turned their attention to theological and aesthetic questions, mainstream American society and its diverse subgroups, Diasporic and Palestinian Jewish life, and the Jewish past, present, and future. Katz’s intimate familiarity with this multifaceted corpus, evident both in the body of his text and his erudite and informative footnotes, pushes readers to disregard the contemptuous scoffing of Palestinocentric critics.

But despite Katz’s empathy for the American Hebraists and his appreciation for their literary works, teleological thinking mars his study and limits its impact. With the exception of Robert Whitehill, the lone living American Hebrew poet, and a number of expatriate Israeli writers, Hebrew literary production has ceased on American shores. Aware of this demise, Katz views the American Hebrew literary center as a failure. He argues that by abandoning the shaping of Jewish national identity, American Hebrew writers lost their raison d’être. Furthermore, their failure to either embrace the linguistic innovation of their Palestinian counterparts or to standardize their Hebrew made their work difficult for their few readers to understand. In essence, Katz argues that the American Hebrew literary center failed because it did not mimic national concerns or the Hebrew (both increasingly standardized and newly colloquial) of the Palestinian/Israeli literary center.

The seemingly colloquial Hebrew found in the poetry of Gabriel Preil, one of the leading American Hebrew modernists, shows that if the American Hebraists had wanted to write more like their Palestinian and Israeli counterparts they could have, but that wasn’t their goal. Moreover, even those American Hebrew writers who eventually immigrated to Israel did not view national concerns as their primary reason for being. Despite the benefits of national sovereignty, American Hebrew writers understood that nationalism, whether American or Jewish, involved standardized norms that preclude productive possibilities open to the individual. Like others writers of the Rebirth period, American Hebrew writers embraced a cosmopolitan attitude that encouraged diverse literary forms, linguistic usages, themes and settings. This attitude enabled them to express their Jewishness in divergent ways and their efforts have proven increasingly compelling to a generation of American Hebrew literary scholars looking to do the same.

While a desire to maintain Hebrew literature’s connection to traditional sources limited the aesthetic innovation of most American Hebrew writers, a number of them rank among the most important writers of the Rebirth period. This is attested to by the inclusion of Hillel Bavli, Israel Efros, and Ephraim Lisitzky’s poetry alongside that of eighteen other leading period poets in Benjamin Harshav’s highly regarded anthology of Rebirth period poetry. As Harshav explains in his introduction, literary standards change, and to best understand and appreciate Rebirth period poetry one must approach it on its own terms.

In his effort to explain American Hebrew writers’ unprecedented preoccupation with the ways of other minorities, as well as the American Hebrew center’s failure, Katz unfortunately loses sight of Harshav’s warning. Nowhere is this more evident than in his treatment of the work of Ephraim Lisitzky, whose poetry representing Native and African-American life, as well as American Jews’ relationship with Israel, makes him a central figure in Katz’s study and gains him the appellation “the most American Hebrew poet.” Born in 1885 and raised in the Byelorussian city of Slutzk, Lisitzky was a leading student of Talmud who developed a rich Hebrew vocabulary prior to immigrating to America to join his widowed father in 1900. Lisitzky soon wearied of a Jewish religious lifestyle and ceased his Talmudic studies. His turn to Hebrew poetry provided him with a modicum of stability as he struggled for self-definition on American soil. With his appointment as head of the New Orleans Jewish Communal School in 1918, Lisitzky cemented his identity as an educator working to transmit the culture and language with which he so strongly identified to a new generation of Jews. Nonetheless, Lisitzky continued to employ Hebrew poetry as an important form of self-expression that also allowed him to connect with other American Hebrew readers.

Familiarity with New Orleans’ large and vibrant African American community led Lisitzky to learn more about African American spirituals, gospel songs, sermons and history, and they inspired his collection B-‘oholay Kush (In the Tents of Kush), one of the most significant American Hebrew representations of African American life, and arguably Lisitzky’s best collection. Katz recognizes the collection’s fluid expression, which demonstrates a nuanced understanding of, and identification with, African-Americans, but he criticizes it for failing to emulate the vernacular style of African American spirituals and gospel songs. He refers to Lisitzky’s poems inspired by these forms as feeble imitations. While these and other poems might be considered poor imitations, Lisitzky didn’t aspire to imitate. As Katz correctly notes, “it is likely that by examining other marginalized groups in American culture, Hebrew writers found a means of indirectly writing about themselves.” While Lisitzky clearly empathized with African Americans in the American South who suffered under discriminatory Jim Crow policies, and desired to provide a mimetic representation of African American culture’s richness as part of a program for the advancement of civil rights, he aspired to do more with In the Tents of Kush.

Indeed, the collection fulfills a number of divergent goals simultaneously. In addition to presenting African American life and culture, the poems powerfully evoke the world of Jewish folkways and faith, demonstrate the ability of traditional Jewish culture to respond to contemporary social issues, and show how a source-rich Hebrew can be synthesized with non-Jewish literary forms to assist American Jews withstand the assimilatory pressure of American national culture. Lisitzky and many of his fellow Hebraists were forced to tear themselves from the embrace of Jewish faith with their emigration from the East European Jewish heartland and adoption of enlightened culture, and the acceptance of their decision’s validity did not make the pain of separation any less strong. By using a rich Hebrew style evoking Biblical and liturgical texts for his adaptations of African American gospel songs and spirituals, Lisitzky found a way to introduce a new culture to his readers while consoling them with a recognizable variant of the world they left behind.

In other poems, inspired by the African American sermon, Lisitzky shows the continuing vigor of the Jewish tradition and how he and his fellow Hebraists could use select elements from this tradition to find their way in contemporary America. In “Va-tdaber Miriam b-Moshe” (So Miriam Spoke to Moshe) a presumably African American preacher delivers a sermon based around a midrashic reading of the Biblical descriptions of Moses’ sister while offering a resounding condemnation of racism. In the imaginative world of the poem, the Christian preacher’s Hebrew linguistic skill and midrashic imagination make him an apostle for Judaism’s continuing resonance in contemporary America through participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Finally, the originality and sheer pleasure of poems like “Kuvyustus Yupiter hozer bi-tshuvah” (Jupiter the gambler repents), which reinterprets the Biblical story of Jacob’s struggle with the angel at the Jabbok river through real and folkloric elements of African American life, embody an attractive and vibrant alternative to American and Jewish national cultures that didn’t require American Jews to deny part of their identity.

While critics familiar with American Hebrew culture might find points of disagreement with Katz’s approach or his evaluation of specific literary works, even they can not be displeased with his work. Years of careful research have produced a volume that fills a significant lacuna in American Jewish self-understanding. Rather than constituting a foreign language or a language of oppression, Hebrew constitutes a rich patrimony for American Jews that was and can be mined for the expression of myriad identities. As the poetry of Robert Whitehill poignantly shows, American Hebrew literature need not cease to be written. Even if it does, however, it will continue to have value far into the future. American Hebrew literary works continue to have a pleasing beauty when read in accordance with their compositional standards. They also provide the opportunity for a richer understanding of 20th century American Jewish life and the contemporary possibilities for secular Judaism in America. Regardless of what ultimately attracts English language readers to American Hebrew culture, Katz’s study serves as a compelling introduction.

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