Hebrew Literature and The Fate of American Hebraism

Yeshua G. B. Tolle

Until recently, several plastic tubs and cardboard boxes sat gathering dust in the basement of DePauw University’s spiritual life center. Inside, you could mostly find old siddurim, stray Haggadot, spare copies of the Hebrew Bible, and the occasional misplaced Christian missal. But rummage around a while longer and you would find a few other things: Hebrew exercise books, dictionaries, a three-ring binder of grammar homework, modern Hebrew literature and literature in translation in cheap paperback. To most, including many Jews, those books will seem all of a piece—texts of Jewish life. What I saw was, mixed in with Jewish books, the remnants of a Hebraist’s library.

As discomfort with, even rage over the actions of successive Israeli governments weaken the bonds between Israel and American Jewry, and perhaps as a result the vogue for Yiddish (that most famous stateless tongue) waxes, the memory of those basement books recalls for me a time when Hebrew was also bound to no modern state. It recalls a moment when Hebrew might have flourished in cities like Cleveland and Chicago—and for that matter, how the language briefly did. Many of those books had no more life, no purpose, when I found them. Others had better weathered the tests of time and decay, suggesting a surprising resilience, an endurance that may yet tell us something.

As I sorted through those torn, spine-broken, falling-to-pieces books in the basement half-light (a favor to the spiritual life director), I realized I felt about them as many felt about the project of American Hebraism.

The Hebraism I refer to is not the passion for Biblical Hebrew evinced by colonial clergymen, back when students at Yale and Harvard learned the language. It is the 20th-century movement, also known as Tarbut Ivrit (Hebrew Culture), that promoted Hebrew “as a reenergizing axis of national renewal,” as the late scholar Alan Mintz put it. The other, better-known pole of that axis was territorial self-determination, whose result was the establishment of a Jewish state in 1948. Mintz, foremost authority on American Hebraism, writes: “Unlike territory, [Hebrew] had the advantage of being portable and therefore suitable for becoming in America the back-bone of a new cultural elite.” George Steiner famously spoke of “our homeland, the text”—the way Jewish culture, Jewish being even, is transported in writing. The Hebraists found a homeland in language.

American Hebraism peaked in the interwar era, declining thereafter; the movement had disappeared almost completely by the new millennium. Looking back, we can see that the emergence of Israel doomed their enterprise. A Hebrew-speaking nation was inevitably going to attract, produce, and retain most of the best Hebrew writers and thinkers. Yet Tarbut Ivrit seemed anything but doomed to its advocates, even for a while after 1948. Inspired by the fierce pen and sterling example of Ahad Haam, the diminutive Odessan ideologue of Jewish cultural nationalism, this band of poets, editors, and essayists, schoolteachers and scholars, strove for something they could almost grasp: a Jewish life in Hebrew, here and now. Steeled by their conviction, they forged a path—littered with journals, books, and newspapers—through the forbidding indifference of their rapidly Americanizing coreligionists. Theirs was no fool’s errand, but a principled attempt to reconnect Jews to a heritage language and so give them access, they thought, to the mental theater of Jewry in every time and place.

But the project was a dream, one that fellow travelers sometimes doubted could long endure the cold light of day. In an essay in Hebrew by a young American born in the Russian Empire, we find the following grim assessment: “The Hebrew books periodically published in the big cities, and the anthologies and newspapers that appear for a short time and quickly fade—they all prove, they verify one thing: that there is no longer any hope that this language and its literature will strike roots and establish itself in America.” The author acknowledges the vitality of Hebrew culture; only that culture’s endurance is in doubt. A future leader of Reform Judaism, nineteen-year-old Max Raisin published this lament, titled “The Hebrew Language and Its Literature in America,” in Ahad Haam’s journal Hashiloach. Skepticism about Hebrew in America had a place even in the leading Hebraist publications.

Admittedly, Raisin was a generation older than many of the main Tarbut Ivrit figures. His distance from them is made clear in the essay’s title, where he refers to Hebrew not as “ivrit” but “sefat ever,” a tic of the old guard Enlightenment Hebraists. Raisin’s 1902 essay fails to anticipate the heights that American Hebraism would reach over the next decades. It fails to anticipate the appearance of talented writers, among them Shimon Halkin, Gavriel Preil, and Avraham Regelson (who inspired his niece Cynthia Ozick’s story “Envy; or, Yiddish in America”). Nor could Raisin imagine the incredible network of Hebrew teaching institutions that would emerge. In short, he underestimated his fellow Hebraists. Of course, he also perceived the inevitable end. Whatever the intervening triumphs, his assessment proved right: American Hebrew literature was a dead end.

Forty years after Raisin published the essay, , he included it in his collection Dapim mipinkaso shel “Rabbi” (Leaves from a Rabbi’s Notebook). I know because I found the book in one of the basement boxes. Though the thick hard-cover binding had protected it from wear, tear, and neglect, Raisin’s book radiated sadness, just like the crumpled paperbacks nestled beside it. To hear others tell it, the book must have been that way from the start. “The increasing number of Jewish auto-biographic writings in recent years indicates that an era of Jewish life in America is coming to an end,” one reviewer wrote:

This is particularly true in regard to Rabbi Raisin’s volume, which is still written in Hebrew; for even an optimist hardly believes that a Reform rabbi forty years hence will write his memoirs in Hebrew in America. Rabbi Raisin’s book, therefore, closes a chapter in the history of American Jewry by the very fact that it is written in Hebrew.

There is a well-known story that the Hebrew writer S. Y. Agnon once told Saul Bellow that his work had a future only if translated into Hebrew. Presumably, he meant that translation would bring Bellow securely into the Jewish canon, preserving him from the fickleness of Anglo-American taste. I mention the story because, inadvertently, it throws into relief the tragedy of American Hebraism. Neither Hebrew nor hard-cover kept from neglect a book whose world did more than up and disappear—as all worlds must—but, in disappearing, left almost no inheritors, and now goes largely unremembered.

Nonetheless, as I turned the pages of those frail, tattered, overlooked books, I found traces of a familiar desire. Here and there, scribbled notes stood out—margin comments, impromptu translations. I noticed a copy of A. B. Yehoshua in “easy Hebrew” beneath the Raisin. Exercise books, crude by present standards but impressive for how much Hebrew they expect you to retain. I recognized the desire for Hebrew that lay behind the scribbles, the homework, the strange jumble of books from Agnon and Bialik to Chekhov and Defoe in translation. It reminded me of my copy of Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, its first page dizzy with penciled-in notes. The desire I recognized was my own.

I am one of the numberless Hebrew-less veterans of Jewish day school. For seven years, my mornings were dedicated to Bible, Talmud, and Jewish law, not to mention a stand-alone Hebrew class in the afternoon. Still, I graduated high school feeling less than useless in the language. And I succeeded in making college almost as Hebrew-less as I felt.

A few years later, I started graduate school, where I thought I would study Jewish American literature, with a focus on Yiddish poets. New to the language, I worried my Yiddish wouldn’t pass muster in 2nd-year language exams and so I took Hebrew for credit on the side. Again, I felt inadequate—the only grad student in a succession of classes filled with teenagers fresh from their gap-year in Israel. After I met my language requirements, I quit.

But as it happens, studying Yiddish brought me back to Hebrew. A seed of desire was planted in those years. It started when I encountered Yiddish writers who also wrote in Hebrew. S. Y. Abramovitch, also known as Mendele Moycher Sforim (Mendele the Book-Peddler), is the most famous. This one, bespectacled man laid the foundation for both modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature. I took an interest in Aaron Zeitlin, the displaced last scion of a neo-Hasidic, Varsovian intellectual family, who survived the Holocaust only because he was in New York when the Nazis invaded Poland. His keening, metaphysical Yiddish Holocaust poems were written alongside elegant Hebrew essays and poems. Zeitlin wrote them while teaching Hebrew in Manhattan in the fifties and sixties. I knew diaspora writers wrote in Hebrew after the founding of Israel, but he was the first to get my attention.

Yiddish brought me to Tel Aviv to study at the university. At the Hamigdalor bookstore one day, I spotted a book with Yiddish on the spine: Gezang fun hirsh. Yiddish literature is almost as rare in Israel these days as Hebrew literature in America. I had to know what lay inside. I opened the book only to discover another title: Shirat hatsvi, or “deersong.” The book was a volume of Hebrew poetry by Harold Schimmel, an American who moved to Israel in 1962 in his late twenties. Where Zeitlin’s choice of language in the diaspora surprised me, Schimmel’s decision to write in Hebrew, not even knowing the language before he emigrated, bowled me over. That an American should become a Hebrew writer so relatively late in life seemed little short of miraculous. What compelled him?

Encounters like these accumulated. Hebrew was not the possession of some nation-state. It was what it had been for more than two thousand years—“our element, our beginning, our air, the air peculiar to us,” as Leon Wieseltier says, regardless of the soil beneath Jewish feet. The Hebraists convinced me. I came to regard a central tenet of the Tarbut Ivrit movement—the tenet that Hebrew, the language of the Bible, the Mishnah, post-Talmudic rabbinic writing, and a dozen ages of subsequent thought and literature, was a key to Jewish life, and to communal self-understanding—I came to regard it as, in large measure, correct. It did not necessarily follow that American Jewry could sustain a vibrant Hebrew culture, nor that the Hebraists’ elitism was unproblematic. It did mean that American Jews had long been underserved with respect to a core dimension of the Jewish lifeworld. Memories of my Hebrew education, recent and long past, flooded back. I ached at the missed opportunities; I fumed over disservices.

I began to learn again. My halting speech grew smooth, my reading slow but certain. Two decades since I began sounding out the Hebrew script in Sunday school, I was returning actually to read the Hebrew Bible. My aching abated, replaced by a sense—not exactly of homecoming—but of having a homeland.

I picked out books from the tubs and boxes. Some I set on a nearby bookshelf to catch the eye of a passing student. Others I put in my bag. The rest I left.

As I culled that jumble of books, and I knew that my own little library will someday meet the same fate. Looking at them, I knew their sadness was also mine. It is a sadness that stems not just from the failed dream of Tarbut Ivrit. We see it already in Max Raisin, skeptical in the warm light of the last century’s dawning. Isn’t it there in Ahad Haam himself?

Raisin writes that Ahad Haam “gave the impression” in his later years “of a lack of faith in the correctness or the ultimate triumph of the very values which meant so much to him, such as the revival of Hebrew and the renascence of the Hebrew nation in Palestine.” Hebrew—should I say, American Hebrew?—may have been a sad, regrettable enterprise from the start. But who would give it up? Not many, I believe, if they would first have it. I took my books and left the basement. Before my library is culled, I must build it.


Yeshua G. B. Tolle is a scholar and translator living in Columbus, Ohio. His work appears or is forthcoming in Asymptote, Jacket2, and MELUS Journal. He is working on a book about the academic transformation of Black, Puerto Rican, and Jewish American poetry. He works at Ohio State Hillel.