Rethinking Modern Hebrew Literature: A Review of Shachar M. Pinsker's Literary Passports

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March 10, 2011

When living and teaching in New Orleans, I quickly began to identify myself, much to wife’s consternation, as a literature professor. She viewed it a subterfuge that I failed to distinguish myself as a scholar of Modern Hebrew literature, but I got tired of correcting people’s misperceptions.

Either ignoring the adjective “Modern” or viewing “Hebrew” as a synonym for “Jewish,” scores of cocktail party attendees took note of what I was drinking or eating, or what day of the week it was, and proceeded to ask me if I was a rabbi. Feeling it inappropriate to give a half-hour lecture on Modern Hebrew literature’s emergence as part of the Jewish Enlightenment and its gradual assumption of a largely secular character, I usually said no. Then I awkwardly waited in silence for the next question, or directed one at my interlocutor. Other party attendees, aware of Modern Hebrew’s status as one of the State of Israel’s official languages, decided to overlook my self-identification as a literary scholar and launched into discussion of their views on Middle Eastern politics. Not really fascinated by the insights of amateur Mideast envoys, I frequently left parties having had too much to drink.

While likely not a future New Orleans’ bestseller, Shachar Pinsker’s important new study, Literary Passports: The Making of Modernist Hebrew Fiction in Europe, goes a long way towards correcting the type of misperceptions that I encountered through his successful situation of Modern Hebrew literature within the context of European modernism. By stressing the literary nature of Modern Hebrew literature, he shows it to be something other than an offshoot of organized Jewish religion or a subset of Zionist politics.

The apocryphal tale that opens Pinsker’s study offers a specific instance of the general process Pinsker uses to help readers understand what motivated him to write the book. As the story goes, Austrian officials stopped the Russian-born Hebrew author Gershon Shofman (1880-1972) following his arrival into Vienna’s Nordbanhof train station and requested his passport. Unfortunately he had neither passport nor alternative travel documents. Having deserted the Russian military during wartime nearly a decade earlier, Shofman would have faced jail time and potential execution if sent back across the border. After rummaging through his things, he extracted a postcard with a mixture of trepidation and pride. On its obverse, it featured his photograph and basic bio-bibliographical information. The photograph, together with Shofman’s translation of the Hebrew text, satisfied the policemen, who let him enter the city. Modern Hebrew literature served as Shofman’s passport into European modernity.

Although largely unnoticed by modernist scholars who tend to confine themselves to works written in just a few select languages, the early twentieth century innovation of Shofman and scores of other European-based Hebrew prose writers produced an avant-garde literature on par with other European literatures. Pinsker underscores this point by demonstrating European-based Hebrew modernism’s urban-bred and urban-inspired character, the complex representations of sexuality and gender that characterized its inward psychological turn, and its ongoing efforts to give voice to religious experience. Through his presentation, Pinsker forges belated “literary passports” that redefine European Modernism as a transnational phenomenon and demand the entrance of Hebrew writers into the European modernist pantheon. While previous scholarly research has focused on Hebrew literary communities in European cities, Pinsker’s study is the first to carefully detail the Hebrew literary presence in the West and East European cities of London, Berlin, Vienna, Lvov, Homel, Odessa, and Warsaw, to tie Hebrew writers’ liminal presence in these cities to Hebrew modernism’s emergence and in this way to link Hebrew modernism with its European counterparts.

Pinsker does more than draw the connection between European-based Hebrew literature and European modernism; he also radically redefines the field of Modern Hebrew literature by arguing that Zionism was only of secondary importance to its development. Popular wisdom teaches that Hebrew was a dead language revived by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) in late nineteenth-century Palestine and developed into a major language by the Zionists who followed him. This tale is a fiction.

Hebrew never really died, and Palestine proved less central to its development than is frequently assumed. By the time Ben-Yehuda arrived in Palestine, Hebrew had been quickly developing in Central and East Europe for more than a hundred years, as can be shown by the growing diversity of nineteenth-century Hebrew journals and newspapers, poetry and prose. This largely overlooked process paved the way for Hebrew’s eventual reemergence as Palestinian Jewry’s spoken language, but it transcended vernacular development. First and foremost Hebrew became a supple medium for European-based writers, who by and large did not use it for everyday communication. They embraced it for intellectual expression. Those authors who combined Hebrew with various Modernist narrative techniques for the portrayal of individual consciousness created poignant and diverse representations of psychic life starting in the 1890s.

Likewise, our images of Eastern European Jews have been shaped by movies like Fiddler on the Roof, which imagine these Ashkenazi ancestors living in shtetls, holding fast to ancient traditions well into the twentieth century. Our understanding of this era has also been shaped by the Holocaust. While the Jewish population faced rising anti-Semitism, that was only one factor defining Jewish life in the late nineteenth century. In other ways, East European Jewish life was undergoing the same kinds of rapid change that were overtaking other traditional ethnic European communities in the nineteenth century. Demographic, industrial, and transportation revolutions played critical roles in East European Jewry’s transformation, as they did for other European peoples.

For example, as the East European Jewish population skyrocketed, increasing numbers of Jews left shtetls in search of economic opportunity. Unsurprisingly, cities in the Russian Empire, Western Europe, and the United States attracted more East European Jewish immigrants than Palestine, an undeveloped region of the Ottoman Empire. Consequently, up until the 1920s and 1930s, most Hebrew writers could be found in European urban centers rather than in Palestine. Pinsker demonstrates that many Hebrew writers turned to new modernist literary methods and forms to portray this new urbanism and to give voice to the fractured sense of reality brought on by the rapid social changes that Jews, like other Europeans, faced.

Modernist Jewish writers like their European kindred, were becoming increasingly uncertain about the possibilities for human progress and turn-of-the-twentieth-century European modernist literature. Like canonical Western writers, writers of Hebrew literature frequently voiced these uncertainties through the use of gender. For example, former independent farmers and craftsmen, now working for factory owners who could hire and fire them at will, were portrayed as “feminized” due to their inability to control their situation. Women who proved able to take advantage of the changing conditions were demonized as threats to the social order due to their assumption of inappropriate gender roles.

So-called “decadent” literature, which doubted the possibility of combating the anxiety-inducing aspects of modern life, offered aestheticized portrayals of individuals assuming non-normative gender and sexual roles, which were considered unsavory at the time, with beauty as the ultimate aim of such depictions. Previous scholars of European-based literature pointedly ignored decadent writing in Hebrew literature, perhaps because Jews as a group had been accused during this era of feminine decadence by anti-Semites like the converted Jew Otto Weiniger. Pinsker returns to the context of the work itself, demonstrating how Hebrew literary modernists were often decadent, and decadent in the same ways as non-Jewish writers—both using decadence to combat modernity itself. While this presentation helps Pinsker link early twentieth century Hebrew modernism to European modernists like Oscar Wilde, his failure to engage the anxieties that the overwhelming majority of European Hebrew writers had about their personal futures, as well as the Jewish people’s future, here downplays literary attempts at social engagement highly common in Modern Hebrew literature, including its European modernist works.

The most eye-opening aspect of Pinsker’s discussion of European-based Hebrew modernism as a sub-set of European modernism proves to be his detailing of the continuing presence of religious experience in this literature. This discussion overturns a widely shared presupposition about the field of Modern Hebrew literature. Most scholars view it as different from the Hebrew literature that preceded it due to its secular character. As scholar Barukh Kurzweil put it, Modern Hebrew literature replaces earlier Hebrew literature through its replacement of a theocentric worldview with an anthropocentric one. Rather than affirming this assumption, Pinsker draws on the work of scholar Pericles Lewis, who points to the continuing importance of religion in Modernist literature. While much late nineteenth century Hebrew literature charts the painful break of Jewish young men from the religious Jewish world of their past to forge a place for themselves in the modern world, Pinsker points to such breaks as merely a rejection of the institutionalized trappings of Jewish religion. Fixed customs and rigidly observed laws, phylacteries and prayer shawls, an exclusively Jewish bookshelf and eyes averted from the natural world, were cultural and religious markers that Jews jettisoned as they looked to experience the world.

However, Pinsker argues, the desire to come into contact with God remained with Modern Jews, even those who seemingly had left God behind. Pinsker shows that these authors were able to activate sacred elements latent within the Hebrew language itself, so that a seemingly secular medium could once again assume religious function. By drawing on phrases and words from Jewish sacred texts and Hebrew prayer and ordering them in new and unfamiliar patterns, Modernist Hebrew writers reactivated the religious associations of these phrases and words. Pinsker’s convincing discussion of Yosef Hayyim Brenner’s novel, Around the Point, points to the value of understanding the role played by religious experience in Hebrew literary modernism.

While Hebrew literary scholars might disagree with various parts of Pinsker’s argument, the contribution that he makes by directing scholarly attention to tens of overlooked works of European-based Hebrew literary modernism can’t be denied. Pinsker’s extensive treatment of the prose fiction of Uri Nissan Gnessin (1879-1913) shows why. During his short life, Gnessin only made a short visit to Palestine and his involvement with Zionist politics proved highly circumscribed. Furthermore, his corpus resists efforts to assign it overarching political meaning. Finding it difficult to integrate it into a Zionist metanarrative, most critics marginalize it. Yet complex syntax and rich vocabulary, psycho-narration and interior monologue, turn the varied works of his oeuvre into must-read fiction for aesthetes. Comparable to a swim through linguistic honey, reading Gnessin’s fiction is not for the faint of heart. Yet it constitutes an important and largely overlooked part of the European Modernist corpus. Pinsker’s compelling readings of his varied works should evoke the curiosity of non-specialists and lead them to pick up translations of his work. If they do, Pinsker’s book might just be a passport for a whole literature and its critics.

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