Writing American Hebrew

By Yehudah Mirsky
Friday, February 25, 2011

Once upon a time, and not so long ago at that, Hebrew literature was written and read in the United States. That this is no longer the case may be owing to nothing more complicated than the fact that the great American absorber and synthesizer of identities has done its smiling work on Hebrew, too. But that is no reason why today, especially with the growth of Jewish and, more broadly, ethnic studies, this fascinating body of work should remain "one of the best-kept secrets," as the scholar Alan Mintz has written, "of Jewish American cultural history."

Mintz himself has devoted considerable effort to bringing the secret to light (his book-length study of American Hebrew poetry will be appearing later this year), and he hasn't been working alone. Now the enterprise has been given a mighty push forward in Michael Weingrad's wonderful and thought-provoking American Hebrew Literature. Weingrad's subtitle—"Writing Jewish National Identity in the United States"—suggests not only what motivated the novelists and poets to undertake their Hebraizing work, but also why the effort may have borne within it the seeds of its eventual demise.

Although there had always been Hebrew readers and occasional writers in America, it was the great Eastern European migration of 1880-1924 that brought a small but actively engaged literary cohort unable or, in some cases, reluctant to make a go of it in Palestine.  For these Hebraists, fresh from the ideological struggles of their homelands, America shifted the ground under their feet in more ways than one. Contemplating his fellow immigrants, the great mass of whom were poor and uneducated, one poet wrote despairingly in 1892: "In Russia . . . we fought the battle for Enlightenment and Zionism against our Orthodox brethren; but even the most fanatical of them were men of stature. . . . Here we have a pack of boors and ignoramuses. . . . In America, the Hebrew poet has no one to fight against, no one to fight with, and nothing to fight for." 

With time, they found their footing. In 1913, a journal, Hatoren ("The Mast"), was launched, in whose pages they thrashed out a program of "Hebrew culture" (tarbut ivrit).  Direct heirs of the Haskalah, the European Jewish program of Enlightenment, the proponents of tarbut ivrit were critical of both socialist revolution and Orthodox reaction, and as disdainful of the vulgar downtown Yiddish masses as of the vulgar uptown German-Jewish bourgeoisie. Three years later, the "Hebrew Federation" (Histadrut Ivrit) was founded, and in 1921 it started its own newspaper, Hadoar ("The Mail"), which lasted for many decades after Hatoren folded in 1925.  

Among the initiatives of the Histadrut and allied groups were publishing ventures, cultural events, and, above all, the creation of teachers colleges whose graduates would staff the supplemental Hebrew schools that for decades comprised the bulk of formal Jewish education in the United States. The full story of this Hebraist movement, which played a formative role in the lives of many American Jews, both famous (Mordechai Kaplan, Henrietta Szold) and obscure, has yet to be told; Weingrad's chief subject is its literature, and he goes at it with discernment, sound aesthetic and historical instincts, and a sure literary touch of his own. While some of the authors he discusses are known to Hebrew literati, many and perhaps most are unknown.

America, in the words of the poet Hillel Bavli (1893-1933), was "a place where a Hebrew letter freezes in midair." The problem was not just the inability of almost any minority culture to resist the pull of American life, not to mention the American aversion to learning foreign languages. It also resulted from the chosen position of the poets and novelists themselves. They were romantics in an age of revolution, enlighteners whose ostensible public was more interested in mobility than in refinement, and apostles of a high and inward-looking Jewish culture in the teeth of boisterous assimilation. The cultural nationalism and the lyrical explorations of faith and doubt embodied in their literary hero Haim Nahman Bialik had been daring in Europe but were quaint in Jazz Age New York. Elsewhere, Hebrew poets were turning toward symbolism, expressionism, and minimalism, while the Yiddish poets were embracing modernism and, along with their many readers, secularism and political radicalism.

And yet, for decades, this band of talented and richly versed writers created a noteworthy Jewish-American literature of their own, formed by a perspective congruent with their no less distinctive version of Jewish and American identity.  Urban life, not surprisingly, figures prominently in their work, but so, more surprisingly, does rustic America. In rural settings, the writers were able to experiment not only with a different brand of assimilation but with a different version of the nature-worship that was animating their literary colleagues in Palestine—and to encounter a non-Jewish population that loved the Bible as much as they did. "Because," Weingrad writes, "their cultural mission was profoundly bibliocentric, . . .  the American Hebraists were capable of a greater cultural proximity to devout Christians . . . [and] were often able to find in manifestations of American Protestant spirituality a sense of kinship rare in other Jewish literatures in the United States."

They explored other sides of their adopted land as well.  Particularly in the 1920s and '30s, some, like their contemporaries writing in Yiddish, turned to epic depictions of Native Americans. They were thereby delving into an indigenous American reality rooted in religion but untouched by Christianity, and one whose disappearance resonated with their own darkest forebodings. Weingrad: "In the figure of the tragic Indian, these poets could express the individual immigrant's sense of impotence, loneliness, and beleaguerment, as well as national outrage before the upheavals of modern history."

In the book's penultimate chapter, Weingrad explores at length the two most significant American Hebrew writers, Simon Halkin and Gabriel Preil. Each in his own way faced another agonizing dilemma: in Weingrad's words, "the psychic paralysis faced by Jewish nationalists" lured by the Zionist dream even as they went on "residing in the United States, never reconciling themselves to their American home."

Halkin, a poet, novelist, critic, and historian, did not entirely dismiss or denigrate America—among other things, he produced a magnificent translation of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. He just thought that sooner or later it would drive the Jews to cultural and psychic dissolution: "to linger in the North American landscape while the fate of the Jewish people [was] being decided in Israel" was, for Halkin, a grievous sin. With God eclipsed in heaven, and European Jewry destroyed, he could atone only by joining his people in Israel, to which he decamped in 1949.

Preil, the last substantial writer of the Hebraist movement, was a different story. He stuck to his poetry and to his beloved New York cafés, which, sitting on the boundary between home and street, activity and idleness, were correlates of his own terminal out-of-placeness. "In another life," Preil wrote, "I gazed hopefully at a glass that held and reflected all the sea's lightnings." But that was then.  What kind of song could the Hebrew poets sing now, disembodied, godless, and alone in the American vastness?

If it's any comfort, cultural nationalism, unmoored to religion and left to the mercies of globalization, is on the ropes in today's Israel, too. Ahad Ha-Am (1856-1927), the great articulator of the cultural-nationalist vision, imagined a Hebrew-speaking Jewish commonwealth with Jewish Palestine as its center. In a sense, the American Hebraists tried to live up to their end of the bargain—there being no center, after all, without a periphery, no kingdom without its enriching provinces.

To be sure, the thought of America as peripheral to anything may seem like a joke (at least, it did until recently), and trying to translate American Jewishness into the registers of Hebrew was an exercise bound to disclose the limits of both. For a substantial number of American Jews to make the effort, whether as readers or as writers, would have required the belief that their linguistic homeland was as much Hebrew as English. It is hard to imagine that any but a certain slice of religious Jews would think so for long; and indeed it was religious writers, relative latecomers to the Hebraist movement, who sustained it for decades until its end, which can be marked formally with the closing of Hadoar and the Histadrut in 2005. 

But, as Weingrad powerfully shows, we cannot leave it at that. The American Hebrew writers opened a different vista, with a light all its own, onto the Jewish encounter with America, and, in their better works and dreams, another set of cultural and spiritual possibilities. When my father was a boy, he met Gabriel Preil in my grandparents' Brooklyn home. On hearing that their guest was a poet, he exclaimed, "atah ham'shorer harishon sheli!" You are my first poet. A half-century later, as my father and I were walking by the Hudson River, we saw Preil.  "Don't forget," he said to my father, by then the president of the Histadrut, "I'm still your first poet!"

It was indeed a wonder, a Hebrew poet in America; even if it couldn't last. At least we have their books.

You can find this online at: http://www.jidaily.com/writingamericanhebrew

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