My Hebrew is Poetry

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April 22, 2010

Growing up, I found the elderly men I encountered in synagogue fascinating. While they arrived early for services and prayed with an intensity lacking amongst the better-dressed synagogue elite, they seemed to not understand basic Hebrew pronunciation. What I pronounced ta, they pronounced sa; when I said ah, they said oh; and while I privileged a word’s final syllable (ultimate stress), they privileged the second to last (penultimate stress). My teachers were native Hebrew-speaking Israelis. What were these men doing contradicting them? Shouldn’t they know better? I would eventually learn that they employed the various accents that had been common among East European Jews prior to the Holocaust, all of which are classified as the Ashkenazi accent, and that I read with a standard Israeli accent, commonly referred to as the Sephardic accent.

With the majority of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Palestinian Jewish settlers, who were trained in Eastern Europe to speak Hebrew using an Ashkenazi accent like the elderly men with whom I was familiar, the questions of why, when, and how these settlers and their descendents switched to a new accent in speech and in poetic composition become important historical, linguistic, and literary issues. In her insightful book, A New Sound in Hebrew Poetry, Miryam Segal portrays how Zionism actively shaped Palestinian Jewish society and culture in marked contrast to their East European counterparts.

The desire to cloak innovation in the guise of tradition is one of the hallmark features of modern nationalist movements. While many believe that Israeli Hebrew is a revived form of the language used in Palestine nearly 2000 years ago, it can’t actually claim such a distinguished pedigree. The decision to employ ultimate rather than penultimate stress accords with the Masoretic tradition for reading the Hebrew Bible, developed late in the Common Era’s first millennium. However, its adoption for everyday use constitutes a decidedly political act. Feeling that the sounds of Ashkenazic Hebrew evoked the suffering and humiliation associated with the Diaspora, leading settler-linguists looked to alternative forms of pronunciation as a way of psychologically severing Palestinian Jewish life from its eastern European past.

Full adoption of the Sephardic pronunciation employed by the contemporary Jews of Syrio-Palestine would have offered the greatest claim to linguistic authenticity, but Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who is often thought of as the father of Modern Hebrew, and the East European immigrant teachers who were charged with teaching Palestinian Jewish children Hebrew pronunciation, advanced a hybrid accent instead. This hybrid form featured ultimate stress, like contemporary Sephardic accented Hebrew, but it only changed the pronunciation of a few key vowels and consonants to allow for its easy adoption by eastern European immigrant teachers. It was this hybrid accent’s inculcation in Palestinian Jewish schoolchildren over the course of the first three decades of the twentieth century that created the perception that it was a truly authentic accent. While immigrant teachers initially taught it haltingly, consciously struggling with their youthful accents, native-born teachers educated in its use soon advanced the new accent more forcefully, and it gradually spread to the various institutions of pre-state Israeli society.

The so-called Sephardic accent’s promotion in Palestinian Jewish schools faced little opposition, and as a result, classrooms turned into effective incubators for “Hebrews” who would speak and act in a new way. But at the same time, the accentual switch caused a crisis in Palestinian Hebrew culture that would only resolve itself in the late 1920s, following the emergence of a talented group of poets. The accent advanced by Ben-Yehuda for verbal communication faced little opposition, because, until the twentieth century, almost nobody used Hebrew as a primary means of verbal communication, and by teaching a newly accented Hebrew to Palestinian schoolchildren, its advocates filled a gaping void.

A Hebrew literary tradition, on the other hand, dated back to the Hebrew Bible. Warsaw and Odessa constituted the two primary early-twentieth century Hebrew cultural centers, and critics and writers residing there looked askance at the new Palestinian accent. Starting in the 1890s, a vibrant and rich corpus of modern Hebrew poetry had rapidly developed, and the innovative employment of accentual-syllabic meter proved central to the success of this work, which was considered the pinnacle of contemporary Hebrew cultural production. Through placement of stress on accented syllables arranged in a specific pattern, poets brought an easily discernable music to the language. When combined with diverse literary tropes employed by skilled practitioners, this music could captivate wide audiences.

Hayyim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934) and Shaul Tchernichovsky (1875-1943), two of the greatest Hebrew language poets, did exactly this, but their poetry was also more than just art. Bialik and Tchernichovsky, and a subsequent generation of Hebrew poets, introduced traditionally educated eastern European Jewish men, whose experiences were limited to the cheder and house of study, to a new secular worldview offering new experiences and possibilities. While there were those who viewed eastern European Jewish life as endless suffering and humiliation, Hebrew poets employing accentual-syllabic meter taught their readers a new way of looking at the world. By highlighting the pleasure available through nature, erotic and romantic love, and European and Hebrew secular culture, and by promoting ideas such as freedom, justice, equality, cosmopolitan Hebrew poets pointed the way towards a brighter and more fulfilling future. The achievement of this transformation, moreover, seemed to require a perceptual, rather than a territorial change. It thus proved appropriate that Hebrew poets took up denigrated Ashkenazi accents, considered symbolic of Diasporic degeneration, and used them to fuel their poetry’s music and the new secular worldview it promoted.

The use of Ashkenazi accents stood at core of the revolutionary new Hebrew culture. Hebrew writers who maintained Zionist sympathies, as well as those among them who immigrated to Palestine, had difficulty embracing the wholesale disposal of these accents together with the cultural legacy attached to them. At first, the only individuals willing to challenge Ashkenazi-accented Hebrew poetry were Palestinian Hebrew teachers who felt like they were being placed in a no-win situation. Either they could teach the poetry as it was written and confuse their students, who were being taught to employ a different accent, or they could teach this poetry in accordance with the new accent and give the false impression that Hebrew poetry lacked the musicality common in other national poetries. Neither option furthered the development of a new Hebrew nation in Palestine, and these teachers felt that Hebrew poets should do their part in the nation-building process by switching to the new accent. Unsurprisingly, leading poets like Tchernichovsky bristled at the idea. After striving for decades to produce poetry on par with the world’s best, he and his contemporaries were being asked to liquidate a central component of their work to make it more appropriate for grade school children.

Although Tchernichovsky would eventually adopt the proto-Israeli accent, many of his contemporaries never did, writing Ashkenazic accented poetry until their deaths. Indeed, at first the new accent only conquered less prestigious forms, such as children’s poetry and folk songs. Even during the short efflorescence of free rhythms in the early 1920s, resistance continued to be voiced against the new accent in lyric poetry, which was still considered the more prestigious form. But as the new accent’s power grew through its use in the schools, heightened anticipation of its use in lyric poetry offered prestige to the first poets capable of doing it.

Unlike the Yiddish literary community, women were almost entirely absent from the early Hebrew literati, a result of the conventional poetic references to Biblical and Talmudic texts traditionally taught only to men. The very factors that excluded women, however, also allowed them to be among the first innovators of accentual-syllabic meter in the new accent. Two pioneering poets whose fame was closely tied to their early and effective adoption of proto-Israeli pronunciation were Rahel Bluvshtain (1890-1931) and Elisheva Bihovski (1888-1949). The daughter of an Irish mother and a Russian father, Bihovksi learned Hebrew in accordance with the new accent, which allowed her to seamlessly adopt it for poetic use once she had achieved the requisite linguistic skills. Similarly, Bluvshtain perfected her Hebrew in Palestine, and found few impediments to the new accent for use in both her poetry and her poetic persona. Drawing on the name she shared with the Biblical matriarch, Bluvshtain successfully portrayed herself as a Palestinian native tied to the land through blood. Furthermore, her use of the so-called Sephardic accent was intended to reflect her authentic use of the Hebrew language, a Jew’s true “mother tongue.”

While Bluvshtain employed the new accent to portray herself and her work as directly linked with an ancient past preceding the loss of Jewish sovereignty in Palestine, Avraham Shlonsky (1900-1973), the man who has been wrongly credited as the poetic pioneer of the new accent, correctly recognized that Ashkenazi-accented poetry could not be easily disregarded. As a poet who still employed an Ashkenazi accent in 1920s Palestine, Shlonsky understood both the power of accentual-syllabic verse in the Ashkenazi pronunciation as well as the need for the model of Jewish modernity advanced by Hebrew poetry to accord with the model advanced in Palestinian schools. For the new accent to succeed and culturally unify Palestine’s emergent Jewish community, not only did someone need to demonstrate the full range of possibilities for new-accented accentual-syllabic verse. Someone needed to directly address why Ashkenazi-accented poetry should be dismissed.

Shlonsky supplied the requisite metrical virtuosity, as well as two alternative meta-narratives justifying the earlier accent’s rejection. As Segal carefully demonstrates, Shlonsky’s poem “Train” offered the first argument for the earlier accent’s disposal. Like many of his contemporaries, Shlonsky saw the Bolshevik revolution as a symbol of the radical change available to those who were ready to seize it, and in his futurist-inspired masterpiece he portrays the new accent’s adoption as analogous with technological adaptation. Even if it would wound, scar, and kill poets, a better future demanded it. This poem’s revolutionary fervor would later be superseded by an alternative justification for the Ashkenazi accent’s rejection in the poem cycle “To Papa-Mama.” This new-accent cycle strikes a more elegiac tone. While calling for the Ashkenazi accent’s rejection, it works to integrate key elements of Diaspora life into Palestinian life and the new-accent poetry meant to embody it. In the wake of this cycle nearly all Palestinian Hebrew poets switched to the new accent, and Ashkenazic accentual-syllabic verse and its legacy became circumscribed in Israeli cultural memory to a few poets and poems.

Segal’s careful, concise, and well-written study of the new accent’s instauration in Palestinian Hebrew speech and poetry constitutes a significant contribution to the study of Zionism, as well as Hebrew linguistic and literary studies. Despite Shlonsky’s successful portrayal of new-accent poetry as capable of incorporating the best of Ashkenazi Hebrew verse and Diaspora Jewish life, an alternative Hebrew model of Jewish modernity represented by Ashkenazi Hebrew poetry has been largely lost from sight, just as elderly men praying in the Ashkenazi accent are becoming more rare in non-Orthodox American synagogues. One can hope that for her next project Segal will turn her attention to this largely lost world.

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