Journal Watch
Fri, 05/01/2009

What’s the Jewish language? Or, more to the point in 2009/5769, what is not? Seventy years ago, Yiddish was the lingua franca of the Jewish people. Today it is not Hebrew, it is not Yiddish, it is not Ladino, it is not Russian (a small flowering of Russian literature in Israel notwithstanding) — it is English.

The language situation is in some ways reminiscent of first-century Judea, where Aramaic was the spoken tongue, not Hebrew. English is the universal language of international discourse, of scholarly exchange, of conversation casual and serious in the streets of Jerusalem, of “learning” in yeshivot — and sadly, of day school education in America. Hebrew? Forget it!

There are many villains in the “Who-Killed-Hebrew?” story; my own view is that Hebrew was a casualty of the increasing fissures within the Orthodox world, where it was viewed as too “secular.” Hebrew does not do well in an increasingly sectarian environment.

But what about Jewish languages, past and present, as they appear either in translation, or in popular literature? I am reminded of a comment Israeli-Arab writer Anton Shammas made to me many years ago: “I’m an Israeli: my language is Hebrew. Yours [that is, the language of the Jews] is Yiddish.” Was Shammas expressing some new “Canaanism” or was he on to something?

This question of language, of who is “up” and who is “down,” is sometimes asked, but rarely answered, in literature. It’s tautological, of course — literature is written in some kind of language, n’est-çe pas? — but a central trope of modern literatures is the inadequacy of words. For example, literary historians and critics have been noting for decades the dilemma of the inbuilt sacred meanings of Hebrew: a language, steeped in biblical and Talmudic associations, which for centuries was primarily written and not spoken. Baruch Kurzweil, the late dean of Israeli literary critics, was of the view that the use of a language of religious tradition to serve secular literary needs was the bane of modern Hebrew literature. It’s a paradox, moans Kurzweil: since the time of the Haskalah — the Hebrew Enlightenment movement of the 19th century — Hebrew literature has been forced into using the language of the religious imperative, only to abandon that imperative.

Journal Watcher’s monthly meanderings chanced upon an incisive article on translating, of all things, the Hebrew Bible — in this case, the Septuagint, commissioned (according to the Talmud Bavli Megilla 9a) by Ptolemy of Alexandria. “It is related of King Ptolemy that he brought together 72 elders and placed them in 72 rooms . . . God then prompted each one, and they all conceived the same idea.” Ben Gurion University’s Moshe Simon-Shoshan, in “The Tasks of the Translators:  The Rabbis, the Septuagint, and the Cultural Politics of Translation” (Prooftexts, 27/2007), asks: Was the Septuagint a catastrophe, as is attested in post-Talmudic Masekhet Sofrim, akin to the making of the golden calf; or was it a technical endeavor, focusing on problems of transcription and variant readings of the biblical text? The first view makes the case that the “religious imperative” can never be abandoned; more generally, that languages are never fully compatible and that true translation is rarely possible. At bottom, the process of translation, according to Simon-Shoshan, reflected the concerns of the rabbinic leadership not only about the text, but about “their own self-defined position as transmitters of the tradition.” Heavy.

A tad lighter, yet raising serious questions, is Naomi Brenner’s incisive and informative article, “Itzik in Israel: Itzik Manger’s Yiddish in Hebrew Translation” (Prooftexts, 28/2008), on Yiddish translation in the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine), ultimately about the relationship between Yiddish and Hebrew — and Zionist ideology. Manger was, for many, the very public face of Yiddish and Yiddish literature in America and in the Yishuv, thence in Israel. Translations of Manger’s poetry, early on (1930s) by the poetic giant Avraham Shlonsky and later by other influential critics and translators, had, according to Brenner, who is a professor at Ohio State University, a common goal: “to adapt Manger’s work to fit the prevailing norms in Hebrew literature and the distinct place created for Yiddish literature within Israeli culture.”

Vos maynt? The translations “reflect the careful mediation of Hebrew language and Zionist ideology,” in which Yiddish language and culture were hotly contested in the hot ideological climate of the Yishuv and later in the state, and usually came out the losers. It was all about ideology. Hebrew and Yiddish, and translations between the two tongues, “were entangled in the long and complicated relationship between the two languages.” But the coexistence, indeed symbiosis, of the two developed into fierce competition, with most Zionist ideologues viewing Yiddish as a danger to an emergent Hebrew culture. The Manger translation, turning Manger from an important Yiddish modernist into an Israeli folk poet, was less of an effort to normalize Yiddish literature than to bend it to conform to the Hebrew and Zionist ideological standards of the Yishuv and the nascent state.

From University of California at San Diego’s Amelia Glaser comes a smart article, “From Polylingual to Postvernacular:  Imagining Yiddish in the Twenty-First Century” (Jewish Social Studies, Spring/Summer, 2008). Glaser’s high-class title masks a truly entertaining review-essay that tackles no fewer than six books on Yiddish, ranging from Michael Chabon’s novel “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” through Michael Wex’s “Born to Kvetch” to Barbara Davilman’s “Yiddish with George and Laura.” Glaser’s question: What happens when the lingua franca isn’t any more? Journal Watch ends where he began: there cannot be a substitute for the original language, as these wonderful books — each different from the next — teach us. Glaser’s bottom line: “Those non-native speakers who choose to put in the necessary work can still have access, if not a native’s understanding, to a language with a rich history. . . The very longing for a language can be viewed as a system with its own set of meanings.”  

Jerome A. Chanes is the author of “A Dark Side of History: Antisemitism through the Ages” (ADL), editor of “A Portrait of the American Jewish Community” (Praeger) and editor of the forthcoming “Whither American Zionism?”(Bar Ilan) and “The Future of American Jewish Religion” (Columbia University Press).

PQ: This question of language, of who is “up” and who is “down,” is sometimes asked, but rarely answered, in literature. It’s tautological, of course — literature is written in some kind of language, n’est-çe pas? — but a central trope of modern literatures is the inadequacy of words.