How Hebrew Fiction Learned to Talk

July 8, 2020 | Alan Mintz
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).

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.

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