Why Secular Hebrew Literature Was Born in the Yeshivas of Russia

Jan. 25 2023

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.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Berdichevsky, Modern Hebrew literature, Russian Jewry, Yeshiva


When It Comes to Peace with Israel, Many Saudis Have Religious Concerns

Sept. 22 2023

While roughly a third of Saudis are willing to cooperate with the Jewish state in matters of technology and commerce, far fewer are willing to allow Israeli teams to compete within the kingdom—let alone support diplomatic normalization. These are just a few results of a recent, detailed, and professional opinion survey—a rarity in Saudi Arabia—that has much bearing on current negotiations involving Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh. David Pollock notes some others:

When asked about possible factors “in considering whether or not Saudi Arabia should establish official relations with Israel,” the Saudi public opts first for an Islamic—rather than a specifically Saudi—agenda: almost half (46 percent) say it would be “important” to obtain “new Israeli guarantees of Muslim rights at al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Haram al-Sharif [i.e., the Temple Mount] in Jerusalem.” Prioritizing this issue is significantly more popular than any other option offered. . . .

This popular focus on religion is in line with responses to other controversial questions in the survey. Exactly the same percentage, for example, feel “strongly” that “our country should cut off all relations with any other country where anybody hurts the Quran.”

By comparison, Palestinian aspirations come in second place in Saudi popular perceptions of a deal with Israel. Thirty-six percent of the Saudi public say it would be “important” to obtain “new steps toward political rights and better economic opportunities for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” Far behind these drivers in popular attitudes, surprisingly, are hypothetical American contributions to a Saudi-Israel deal—even though these have reportedly been under heavy discussion at the official level in recent months.

Therefore, based on this analysis of these new survey findings, all three governments involved in a possible trilateral U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal would be well advised to pay at least as much attention to its religious dimension as to its political, security, and economic ones.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Islam, Israel-Arab relations, Saudi Arabia, Temple Mount