How Hebrew Fiction Learned to Talk

With the birth of modern Hebrew literature in the 19th century, writers had little to draw upon when composing dialogue in a language that had not been used for everyday speech in nearly two millennia. The late Alan Mintz sums up the problem in a posthumously published essay:

Even once the main producers and institutions of Hebrew literature had been transferred to Palestine by the mid-1920s and Hebrew had become the official medium of the yishuv, the number of people speaking it on a day-to-day basis in their private lives was quite small. At home, most people spoke Yiddish or Russian or Polish, because being “at home” in Hebrew remained an unnatural thing. No greater proponent of the Hebrew renaissance than Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik famously quipped: Hebreyish redt men; yidish redt zikh (“One speaks Hebrew; Yiddish speaks itself”). The real naturalization of Hebrew began with the children born to these immigrants, especially those who grew up in agricultural settlements and youth movements.

Surveying attempts to create lifelike dialogue in this ancient language, Mintz looks to the writings of S.Y. Abramovitsh, better known by his pen name Mendele Moykher Sforim. Abramovitsh made his reputation writing in Yiddish, but authored many Hebrew stories as well. In these, he—like many other writers—put Hebrew into the mouths of shtetl characters who, in real life, would have spoken Yiddish:

Abramovitsh’s approach to rendering a Yiddish conversation in Hebrew might be called preemptive compensation. He seems intuitively to understand that it makes no sense to try to imitate the timbre, syntax, and intonation of Yiddish speech. . . . Instead of a wan simulacrum, Abramovitsh chooses a different mode altogether: rabbinic Hebrew. In a departure from his [Haskalah] predecessors and from his own early practice, he abandons biblical Hebrew and shifts into [the] distinct syntax and semantics [of the Hebrew portions of the Talmud].

And yet. Abramovitsh’s switching out Yiddish for rabbinic Hebrew implies a provocative possibility. Is there perhaps some deeper link between these two languages, if for the moment we consider rabbinic Hebrew as a language separate from biblical Hebrew? We think of as fundamental to Yiddish speech that a sentence has the tonality and shape of a question. But is it not possible that the provenance of this phenomenon is in truth the give-and-take of talmudic argument? If Yiddish is indeed drinking deeply from that well, then what Abramovitsh is doing is not translating so much as using as an equivalent language system, one that provided the original source for some of Yiddish’s essential features.

Read more at In geveb

More about: Hebrew, Hebrew literature, Israeli literature, Mendele Mokher Seforim, Talmud, Yiddish

Spain’s Anti-Israel Agenda

What interest does Madrid have in the creation of a Palestinian state? Elliott Abrams raised this question a few days ago, when discussing ongoing Spanish efforts to block the transfer of arms to Israel. He points to multiple opinion surveys suggesting that Spain is among Europe’s most anti-Semitic countries:

The point of including that information here is to explain the obvious: Spain’s anti-Israel extremism is not based in fancy international political analyses, but instead reflects both the extreme views of hard-left parties in the governing coalition and a very traditional Spanish anti-Semitism. Spain’s government lacks the moral standing to lecture the state of Israel on how to defend itself against terrorist murderers. Its effort to deprive Israel of the means of defense is deeply immoral. Every effort should be made to prevent these views from further infecting the politics and foreign policy of the European Union and its member states.

Read more at Pressure Points

More about: Anti-Semitism, Europe and Israel, Palestinian statehood, Spain