Choosing Hebrew

Jewish writers chose Hebrew, not German or Russian or even Yiddish, as the language with which to build a modern literary tradition.

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There was, to begin with, a negative reason for the fidelity to Hebrew: most of the writers taught themselves Russian, or German, or Polish in adolescence or after and did not have sufficient mastery of the language of the general culture to write in it. Yiddish, of course, always remained an alternative; but in the minds of many of the writers, it was associated with a culture they sought to transcend, a culture that lacked prestige for them.

To restate this attitude in positive terms, a whole set of values was associated with Hebrew, as the classical language of Jewish culture, that Yiddish, even when it was felt by writers to have the intimate appeal of a native language rich in colloquial nuance, could not offer.

Only Hebrew spanned more than three millennia of national experience and had been used by Jews in all the far‑flung regions of the Diaspora. Only Hebrew was associated with Jewish political autonomy, and the awareness of this association played a crucial role in Hebrew literature long before, and beyond, the emergence of political Zionism. For if Jews were to create a culture like others, not dominated by a clerical establishment and not defined exclusively in religious terms, the great historical model had been cast in Hebrew on the soil of ancient Palestine. The biblical texts, moreover, in their sublime poetry and their brilliant narratives, had a cachet of literary prestige for which Yiddish could offer no equivalent.

Ultimately, it seems to me that the passionate commitment to Hebrew was impelled in shifting proportions by both aesthetic and historical‑ideological motives. On the aesthetic side, Hebrew had always been the most valued language of Jewish culture, if not the most commonly used in everyday life, and had long been the medium of refined literary exercises and epistolary art.

hebrew letter artWith a certain aestheticization of Jewish culture that was a symptom of modernity, this attitude toward the language became for some a kind of addiction to its beauties, even to its sheer formal properties: one relished a well‑turned Hebrew phrase, an elegant Hebrew sentence, as elsewhere one might relish Mozart or Cimarosa. The abiding delights of this aesthetic addiction could not be replaced for these writers by any other language, not even by their native tongue.

At the same time, many of the writers had a compelling awareness that this language was not only beautiful but timeless--a consideration usually powerful enough to outweigh whatever anxiety they might have felt about the tininess of their audiences. As S.Y. Agnon--a writer closer to our time but deriving from this Central European milieu before World War I--once observed of his own classicizing style, "My language [is] a simple, easy language, the language of all the generations before us and of all the generations to come." Though few Hebrew writers would have stated matters so flatly, in such a provocatively false‑naive manner, Agnon's assertion expresses a fundamental feeling about the historical role of the language that many shared.

In sum, the creators of modern Hebrew literature in Europe were impelled by a sense that the language through which they sought to shape a new Jewish culture had a unique aesthetic dignity and a unique historical resonance. This sense sustained them in the shabbiest material circumstances, when there was barely a readership to address, when the great culture to come was represented here and now only by the handful of literary colleagues with whom they fraternized and with whom they collaborated on the new Hebrew journals and in the new publishing houses.

The following article is reprinted with permission from Hebrew and Modernity, published by Indiana University Press.

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Robert Alter

Robert Alter is the Class of 1937 Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has taught since 1967.