The great Hebrew poets and novelists of the 19th and 20th century, who revived Hebrew literature and paved the way for Zionism, for the most part began their literary careers in yeshivas, surreptitiously reading the works of Friedrich Schiller and Dmitri Pisarev—which they hid inside their large volumes of the Talmud. Thus the rejection of tradition became one of the main themes of this new literary genre. Yet who else but yeshiva students had sufficient knowledge of the sacred tongue to use it to craft new works? Shai Secunda reviews a new book about this generation of writers:
In The Yeshiva and the Rise of Modern Hebrew Literature, a short monograph with a bold thesis, Marina Zilbergerts [argues that], despite the complex transformations that Hebrew literature and its writers endured in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a kind of alchemical conservation of energy at work. Of course, the redeployment of a sacred, scholastic language to forge a politically charged, sometimes sensuous, and frequently transgressive literature was revolutionary. Yet, Zilbergerts insists, despite the secular shift in the themes and tenor of the new Hebrew literature, “this revolution originated in the world of tradition”: the rabbinic ideal of pure intellectual devotion to even the most obscure traditional texts was secularized into a radical commitment to writing pristine prose in a largely inaccessible language.
The Yeshiva and the Rise of Modern Hebrew Literature is a blessedly jargon-free book. . . . Despite the historical twists and turns that her argument must take, Zilbergerts’s thesis retains a powerful simplicity. Modern Hebrew writing emerged in Eastern Europe as an enduring, modern literature in part due to the persistent traditionalist commitments of its first writers.
Yeshiva life, and Jewish life more generally, was an imaginatively rich existence, with an abundance of fictions—mainly of the legal sort—and a preference for prooftext over prosaic existence. (The famous Yiddish—and Hebrew—writer Mendele Mokher Seforim once satirized this by telling the story of shtetl mavens who, upon being introduced to a juicy exotic fruit, resorted to scripture to confirm its existence.) Even when budding Hebrew writers abandoned rabbinic learning and engaged in newfound secular pursuits, they continued to read texts voraciously and to spin new, beguiling webs in an updated version of rabbinic Hebrew. In this way we get Micha Yosef Berdichevsky’s indelible image of a formerly pious yeshiva boy holding a midnight study vigil, only now it is a secular Hebrew book over which he pores.