The Making of Modern Hebrew
Two books on the revival of an ancient tongue.

Reviewed by Yehudah Mirsky
Sunday, November 23, 2008


By Ilan Stavans

Nextbook. 219 pp. $21


The Making of Israel's National Poet

By Nili Scharf Gold

Brandeis Univ. 445 pp. $35

In the Bible, the Book of Ezekiel begins with the heavens opening to reveal a stunning vision of God. Above the angels, astride a throne, like a fire encased in a frame, the prophet sees a kind of "hashmal."

This word is unique to Ezekiel's vision; in the entire Hebrew scriptures, it appears only there. Its exact meaning is uncertain, but the Talmud -- the vast compilation of Jewish law, lore and interpretation from the first centuries of the Common Era -- offers a powerful etymology: It comes from the phrase "Creatures of fire . . . keep their silence [Hebrew: HASHot] and murmur [u-meMALelot]." Thus, tradition holds that the mysterious hashmal is the aura surrounding the heavenly throne, woven from the breaths of angels, so sacred as scarcely to be audible, even to God.

Yet on the streets of Israel today, hashmal is everywhere. As any child can tell you, it means "electricity."

The reinvention of Hebrew as a modern, spoken language is an astounding story, underappreciated not only abroad but even in Israel (which may be a paradoxical sign of its success). As this one, small example indicates, it is a story of extraordinary inventiveness, achievement, complexity and, also, loss.

In Resurrecting Hebrew, Ilan Stavans sets out to explain how an ancient, holy tongue was converted into a contemporary, secular language. He values Hebrew's new vibrancy but also describes its development (some would say coarsening) in less than a century into a "messy, boisterous, even chaotic" pastiche. This slang-filled, everyday mixture of Hebrew, Arabic and English seems almost as far removed from the elegance of the first generation of modern Hebrew writers as it does from the stark, rock-hewn language of the Bible.

Stavans, a professor of Latin American culture at Amherst College, is a gifted scholar and man of letters. His book is essentially a travelogue: Spurred by an enigmatic dream, Stavans went to Israel, where he had lived for a year as a young man, to explore his Jewish identity and his emotional relationship to Hebrew. His quest quickly led to the figure at the center of spoken Hebrew's revival, the late Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922).

Born in Lithuania as Eliezer Perlman, Ben-Yehuda moved to Palestine in 1881, 15 years before Theodore Herzl published The Jewish State, the founding manifesto of Zionism. In Jerusalem, Ben-Yehuda established several newspapers and went about creating -- with his wife, child and their bewildered domestic help -- the first Hebrew-speaking household in millennia.

He adopted a fierce secularism and equally fierce cultural nationalism in which the revival of Hebrew was central. As Stavans writes, "Ben-Yehuda's Zionism was linguistic. You might almost say he wanted Jews to create their own country so that they could speak Hebrew in it." This required new vocabulary, and so Ben-Yehuda embarked on a decades-long project: a massive Hebrew dictionary in which he offered stunningly erudite etymologies both for existing words and for the terms he was inventing.

He was not without foes. Traditionalists recoiled at his unabashed secularization of the holy tongue, while many other figures of the Hebrew revolution, like the colossal poet Hayyim Bialik and the towering essayist Ahad Ha-Am, thought his work soulless and mechanical. Arguably, that group of writers left an even deeper imprint on contemporary Hebrew than did Ben-Yehuda, but the rebirth of spoken Hebrew is nearly inconceivable without this difficult, quixotic man.

Stavans's journey proceeds mainly through conversations with passionate and learned interlocutors -- including waitresses and cabdrivers as well as linguists, translators, historians and writers -- to which he brings a relentless inquisitiveness and deep love of language. Amid a flood of books about Israel, he offers a new and revealing angle on its society.

Yet some things are missing. Stavans notes in passing but does not explore the fact that Hebrew never really died: Throughout history it remained a universal Jewish written language, used not only for liturgy but also for legal opinions, philosophy, mysticism, travel writing, poetry, natural sciences and more. Indeed, all that richness is on display in Ben-Yehuda's dictionary.

Another gaping omission is the role that the rhetorical force and flavor of ancient Hebrew have played in shaping today's Israel. Stavans makes no mention of the ways in which, as the historian Gershom Scholem suggested in the 1920s, Zionists thought they were secularizing an ancient language but actually were summoning biblical echoes and attitudes into modern life. This observation has been borne out in the politics of religious Zionists, whom Stavans never mentions. They are among the leading standard-bearers of Hebrew in an increasingly globalized Israel, where many elites seem to be switching to tech-infused English as fast as they can, another phenomenon he neglects.

The complexities of the Hebrew revival are also at the center of Nili Scharf Gold's exhaustively researched, passionately argued and highly persuasive study of Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000), Israel's "beloved unofficial national poet."

Born Ludwig Pfeuffer to an Orthodox family in Germany, Amichai fled with his parents to Palestine in 1936, trained as a teacher and fought in Israel's 1948 War of Independence. His reputation rests above all on his collection Poems: 1948-1962, in which he emerged in open rebellion against the ideological verse of the Independence period. In its stead he offered spare, beautifully measured lines that mixed everyday speech with allusions to classic Jewish texts and prayers, a contemporary style with ancient echoes that seemed new and quintessentially Israeli.

Scharf Gold, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, probes Amichai's Israeli-ness in two ways: first, by exploring his formative experiences in Europe and, second, through skillful use of nearly 100 hitherto unknown love letters written by the poet to a woman who left him -- and Palestine -- in 1947.

Amichai belongs to a founding generation of writers who, according to Israeli mythology, gave up their native languages to write exclusively in Hebrew. But Scharf Gold shows that, in reality, Amichai remained deeply engaged with German culture for decades and even composed a number of poems in whole or in part in German, then translated them into Hebrew. She also demonstrates that major poems ascribed to his experiences in 1948 were written earlier, emerging from his personal life and not the crucible of war, though he carefully covered his tracks.

She refers throughout to Amichai's "poetics of camouflage," a locution that makes sense when we think of the stigma the new and would-be heroic state of Israel attached to the aged and victimized diaspora. But although camouflage is undeniably a part of Amichai's work, it is not the whole story. His 1958 poem "Not Like a Cypress" reflects his desire to remain himself but also to be part of a greater enterprise, emerging "Not like a cypress/Not all at once, not all of me,/But like grass, in a thousand shoots,/Wary and green. . . . "

At the close of Resurrecting Hebrew, Stavans poignantly notes that "my search for Hebrew was for something far more multifarious than a language. . . . It was an existential condition, a way of being, of establishing contact with others, with God, and with myself." Perhaps Amichai, in the subterfuges that Scharf Gold reveals, was also seeking to connect with his people, his multiple homelands and his God. Those strange and strained connections are part of today's Hebrew and Israeli cultures; they are creatures of fire that alternately murmur and keep their silence. ยท

Yehudah Mirsky, a former State Department official, is a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute in Jerusalem. He is writing a biography of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.

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