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My Life with Hebrew

When people find out that I teach Hebrew literature, they invariably remark, “Oh, you must be fluent.” I’ve now been working hard at it for many decades, and I’m still not there.

A Hebrew teacher at the Jewish School in Whitechapel, London in 1952. John Chillingworth/Picture Post/Getty Images.

A Hebrew teacher at the Jewish School in Whitechapel, London in 1952. John Chillingworth/Picture Post/Getty Images.

Observation
April 13 2017
About the author

Alan Mintz is the Chana Kekst professor of Hebrew literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His Ancestral Tales: Reading the Buczacz Stories of S.Y. Agnon will be published by Stanford in June. The present essay, in somewhat different form, will appear in What We Talk About When We Talk About Hebrew, edited by Naomi B. Sokoloff and Nancy E. Berg (forthcoming from University of Washington Press).


In my third year as a graduate student in English at Columbia University, I came to a life-changing conclusion: as much as I enjoyed studying Victorian literature, I couldn’t see myself devoting my life to it. My real passion lay instead with the study of Jewish and Hebraic culture. After finishing my Columbia doctorate in the late 1970s and sampling different sub-specialties in Jewish studies—midrash, medieval Hebrew poetry, and others—I settled on modern Hebrew literature.

By that time, my Hebrew was quite good, at least for someone who had never previously aspired to be a scholar in the field. In fact, it was a source of some pride. The Conservative movement’s Hebrew school I had attended as a child in Worcester, MA had been staffed by committed Hebraists; entering college, I saw my future role in life as a rabbi or a Jewish educator, and at the summer camp where I served as a counselor during my college years, Hebrew was the semi-official language. By then, I could not only read texts in Hebrew but speak the language confidently—or so I thought. But once I decided to profess Hebrew, the rules of the game changed demonstrably. The glass that had been half-full now seemed, in my own eyes, half-empty.

I say “in my own eyes” because much of the anxiety I would experience as an American Hebrew speaker, and to some degree still experience as a long-time professor of Hebrew literature, has come from my sense of exposure to the judgment of others. (Whether that adverse judgment is a fact or largely a projection is something I’ll never know.) To this day, whenever I’m among my Israeli colleagues, speaking Hebrew is always a self-conscious performance. I often think about what I want to say before I say it, pre-testing grammar and word choice. The times I have made gross errors are etched into my brain and will never be repeated; less well remembered are those gratifying times when a felicitous phrase has come to me unbidden. Even at my best, I know full well that I’ll never shake my American accent, or enjoy the ease of my Israeli colleagues in skipping intuitively from ironic banter to street Hebrew and back to academic discourse within a few beats.

Writing in Hebrew is even harder. When I’m taking part in a conversation or giving a talk, there are no expectations of perfection; I can phrase and rephrase, using affect and gesticulation to enhance the message and create a bond with an interlocutor or an audience. But putting pen to paper feels like swimming with weights, and I am thrust into a black awareness that humor, irony, nuance, and understatement are all beyond me, not to mention the deft idiom, the apt colloquialism, the mot juste.

When it comes to interpreting literary texts, which is what I do for a living, I’m also chastened by my awareness of how many echoes my ear will never be able to pick up. With the help of reference works I can always chase down allusions to classical sources and parse rare words, but when it comes to a bit of doggerel or a nursery rhyme or a pop song or an Israeli army acronym, let alone to slang and colloquialisms, forget about it. True, no single reader can become the “ideal reader” who catches all references and tonalities, but it’s sobering to know that there will be things I’ll never get.

I once had occasion to examine the voluminous hand-written journals of Mordecai Kaplan. Best-known as the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, Kaplan had been the dean of the Teachers Institute at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) for several decades in the first half of the 20th century. Although he presided over a faculty of veteran Hebraists, he himself had a background similar to mine; speaking and teaching in Hebrew were at once a challenge and a source of self-consciousness. The challenge invigorated him—about a fifth of his journals are written in Hebrew—even as it filled him with anxiety, especially at the beginning of each semester when he had to make a formal address in Hebrew to the assembled faculty and students. To tone his linguistic muscles, he spent days reading nothing but Hebrew. I think of Mordecai Kaplan, working out in the Hebrew gym, as a kindred spirit.

 

In my life with Hebrew, there is a term I have grown to loathe and a term I have grown to embrace. The one I loathe is “fluency.” When people find out that I teach Hebrew literature, they invariably remark, “Oh, you must be fluent”—a comment that can be made only by someone who has had no serious experience learning a foreign language. Etymologically, fluent is related to the Latin word for river, conjuring up an effortless, spontaneous flow that has little to do with the imposing, arduous, and desultory process of mastering a language. At best, the term implies a state of arrival achieved by a fixed amount of exertion. You begin by not being fluent; you work hard at it; and then—you’re fluent. I’ve now been working hard at it for many decades, and I’m still waiting.

Today, scholars of foreign-language acquisition shun the term “fluency” and prefer “proficiency”: a word that, encouraging no mystification, defines the goal as becoming good enough to function. Instead of one proficiency, moreover, there are four: understanding speech, producing speech, comprehending a text, and writing. Each of these skills is susceptible of infinite stations of progress from the absolute beginner to the most advanced student, and in every learner the skills proceed along separate tracks at different rates. The most, and the best, we can say is that we are on the path and are moving forward.

But there’s another term—“near native”—that I’ve come to embrace even more. I first came across it in job listings for university Hebrew instructors possessing “native or near-native” knowledge of the language. Though I’ve never seen the word used as anything other than an adjective, I see no reason not to make it into a noun. I’m therefore pleased to declare myself a Hebrew near native, and one who belongs to a small but (mostly) happy band of other near natives.

 

The term “near native” is now a staple (and an ideal) in academic discussions of language acquisition. As with so many things Jewish, however, Hebrew isn’t quite like other languages. Many of the American Hebraists who taught my generation never lived in Palestine, but their Hebrew was richer and more robust than that of most of their counterparts in the Yishuv (the Jewish settlement in Palestine). There, aside from the strange case of Itamar Ben-Avi, the son of the pioneering Hebraist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922), the members of the first generation to be actually raised in the language were born only in the early 1930s to parents who in many cases had learned their Hebrew in Europe. In short, nativeness in Hebrew is a relatively recent phenomenon.

A particular style of Orientalized Hebrew, spoken in the youth movements in the Yishuv in the 1930s and 1940s, more or less conferred upon itself the status of nativeness; subsequently, it became the form of Hebrew that gained admittance to American universities. The price of admission was the packaging of Hebrew as a modern language to be taught alongside other modern languages—in this case, the language that happened to be spoken by inhabitants of a country in the Middle East.

The effect of this packaging was to obscure Hebrew’s provenance as the age-old language of Jewish culture, thus providing the ingredients of a potential culture war. Should the Hebrew taught on university campuses be only the Hebrew spoken in the present moment by literate speakers in Israel? Or was that Hebrew only the latest manifestation of a larger conception of the language that would properly encompass the achievements of both secular and religious culture over a much longer span of time?

Merely to ask such questions is to see why Hebrew has never been a comfortable fit in departments of Middle East studies. If real Hebrew speech and literature didn’t develop in Palestine until the 1920s, what is one to do with the 150 or so years in which modern Hebrew was being created in Germany, Poland, Galicia, and America before arriving in the Levant? Is the poet Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik—who wrote most of his works before settling in Tel Aviv in 1924 at the age of fifty—a Middle Eastern writer? Or the poet Shaul Tchernikhovsky, whose translations of Homer, Sophocles, and Shakespeare are still read in Israel today, and who likewise lived most of his life in Europe?

To this mix, nowadays, must also be added the isolation and demonization of Israel itself in the Western academy. So thick is the anti-Zionism in some Middle East departments that it has become nearly impossible to teach Hebrew and Israeli culture in any but a defensive crouch.

For these reasons alone, I have felt fortunate to have taught at Brandeis University and then for a much longer time at JTS: two institutions in which no apologies for Hebrew need be made. At JTS especially I’ve been lucky in each semester to have had the support, and the students, to teach a literature class conducted in Hebrew.

Such a class, once common in the teaching not just of literature but of all subjects of Judaica in Hebrew colleges in America—and certainly so at JTS’s own Teachers Institute—is now a rarity. This isn’t due to some general lowering of standards but to the collapse of Hebraist ideology and the scarcity of instructors confident enough in the value of Hebrew to take the trouble of teaching their subject in it. And it does take trouble. But there is also something wonderfully bracing in the very artificiality of the situation, and for a professor of Hebrew teaching in Hebrew, the gains are very much worth the tradeoffs.

The prize is an unmistakable and unique intimacy with both the texts and the language in which they’re written. And there are secondary gains from this sort of linguistic immersion as well. Students develop a capacity for conceptual and analytic thinking in Hebrew that is hard to acquire in any other way. New vocabulary is absorbed; the Hebrew muscles are flexed and conditioned. There is the satisfaction of succeeding at something difficult and the joy of putting one foot before the other on the path to near nativeness.

 

In America, alas, we Hebrew speakers must often walk that path alone. We’re not watching TV or reading newspapers in Hebrew, or talking on the phone to service representatives or having fights with our spouses in Hebrew. I spent years studying the works of American Hebrew writers—there are quite a few, including some very talented ones—and this same quality of loneliness and aloneness in their work has stayed with me indelibly.

Those poor souls felt doubly abandoned. The younger generation of Hebrew readers they hoped to foster never materialized, while the Hebrew readers of the Yishuv and later of Israel evinced little interest in literary gifts from the Diaspora. For Israel Efros, Avraham Regelson, and Simon Halkin, the isolation was intolerable; each found his way to Israel around the time of the establishment of the state. More stayed on in America: Gabriel Preil, Eisig Silberschlag, Ephraim Lissitzky, Reuven Wallenrod, and others whose names are little-recognized today.

Still, no matter how quirky and perverse these figures may have been, they were not delusional. They were able to soldier on in the absence of readers because they were not dependent on them. There was something in the private relationship each had with the Hebrew language that provided the necessary nourishment. One can find a glimpse into this relationship in Regelson’s magnificent ode, Ḥakukot otiyotayikh (“Engraved Are Thy Letters”), which he wrote at the end of World War II before his move to Israel. There the poet describes Hebrew as a sublime yet nubile beloved whom he worshipfully courts like a troubadour and to whom he pledges eternal fealty. He praises her plasticity and polymorphousness and even writes a hymn to the binyanim, the verb paradigms that threaten to defeat novice learners.

Regelson’s ode is gorgeous and over the top, but it is right on target when it comes to identifying the gratifications experienced by the Hebraist in working the language and manipulating it. The pleasure is quasi-erotic and the fidelity quasi-religious. Despite the want of readers and despite the lack of honor, the Hebraist has no doubt that, where it counts, his or her affections are returned.

I may not be as ardent a lover or as great a believer or as erudite a possessor of Hebrew as my predecessors, but that does not prevent me from feeling something of those pleasures. And although I am definitely a Zionist, I’m grateful that the establishment of Israel and the revival of Hebrew, though deeply linked, are not one and the same thing. As the portable component of the Jewish national idea, Hebrew in the Diaspora is a source of nourishment and delight. At a time when the humanities are in trouble and enrollments for languages, including Hebrew, are down, I remain thankful that Hebrew is my daily bread. “Were not Your Torah my delight,” says the psalmist (119:92), “I would have perished in my affliction.”

More about: Arts & Culture, Hebrew, History & Ideas, Jewish language