The Founders of Modern Hebrew Literature Faced Challenges Tolstoy and Dostoevsky Never Had to Contend With—and Triumphed

March 8, 2021 | Adam Kirsch
About the author: Adam Kirsch, a poet and literary critic, is the author of, among other books, Benjamin Disraeli and The People and The Books: Eighteen Classics of Jewish Literature.

Hillel Halkin’s The Lady of Hebrew and Her Lovers of Zion comprises eleven essays—most of which appeared previously in Mosaic—on the founders of modern Hebrew literature, from the early 19th century up to the creation of the state of Israel. In his review, Adam Kirsch, calling the book “indispensable” and a “masterpiece,” writes:

The purpose of modern Hebrew literature, Halkin insists throughout the book, was to help bring about a Hebrew-speaking Jewish state, and he judges each of his subjects by how well they understood and furthered this mission.

Halkin pays intelligent, loving attention to [the works of] all of his subjects. His original translations show each writer to best advantage, while also serving as a running commentary on the evolution of modern Hebrew into a flexible literary instrument. Yet there’s always at least a hint of impatience in Halkin’s critical stance, a sense that none of these writers managed to solve the quandaries of modern Hebrew literature. Of course, that’s because they were insoluble. To write modern literature in an ancient language, secular literature in a religious language, national literature for a nation that didn’t yet exist—these were challenges that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky didn’t have to contend with. If they had, maybe they wouldn’t have become Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

For Halkin, the destiny of modern Hebrew writers wasn’t to produce masterpieces but to serve as a spiritual “government-in-exile” for the Jewish people—one that “seemed unlikely, to say the least, ever to have a land or a people to rule.” The emergence of a Hebrew-speaking Jewish community in Palestine isn’t directly attributable to these Hebrew writers—Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who did more than anyone to resurrect spoken Hebrew, appears in The Lady of Hebrew but isn’t one of Halkin’s main subjects. But it certainly wouldn’t have happened without them.

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