Two recent books—An Unpromising Land by Gur Alroey and Babel in Zion by Liora Halperin—explore the experiences of rank-and-file Jewish immigrants to Ottoman and British Palestine as opposed to the passionate pioneers and ideologues who have dominated most historians’ attention. In his review, Allan Arkush deems the first book poorly argued but finds much of interest in the second, which documents how Hebrew succeeded in taking hold among the East European-born masses:
When Yiddish movies first hit the market, . . . the Zionist educator Yosef Luria tried to discourage theater managers from showing them. . . . On September 27, 1920, members of the Battalion of the Defenders of the Hebrew Language protested the screening of Mayne Yiddishe Mame at the Mograbi Theater in Tel Aviv. When they failed to prevent it, they infiltrated the theater, then booed and hurled foul-smelling objects at the screen when the talking began. [But] it was easier to keep Yiddish off the screens than off the streets, which were often crowded with peddlers hawking alte zakhn [used goods] and street food in their native tongue. . . .
More threatening to Hebrew than the languages of the countries from which the Jewish immigrants had come was the language of the colonial power governing Palestine: English. It was an uphill struggle to get the British administration to live up to its promise to treat Hebrew as one of the official languages of Palestine. . . .
Halperin does not suggest that people’s recourse for one reason or another to languages other than Hebrew was a defection from Zionism. It would be wrong, she says, to imagine a “rhetorical divide between pro-Hebrew Zionist Jews and apathetic, foreign-language-using non-Zionist Jews.”
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