Choosing Hebrew

Jewish writers chose Hebrew, not German or Russian or even Yiddish, as the language with which to build a modern literary tradition.


There was, to begin with, a negative reason for the fidelity to Hebrew: most of the writers taught themselves Russian, or German, or Polish in adolescence or after and did not have sufficient mastery of the language of the general culture to write in it. Yiddish, of course, always remained an alternative; but in the minds of many of the writers, it was associated with a culture they sought to transcend, a culture that lacked prestige for them.

To restate this attitude in positive terms, a whole set of values was associated with Hebrew, as the classical language of Jewish culture, that Yiddish, even when it was felt by writers to have the intimate appeal of a native language rich in colloquial nuance, could not offer.

Only Hebrew spanned more than three millennia of national experience and had been used by Jews in all the far‑flung regions of the Diaspora. Only Hebrew was associated with Jewish political autonomy, and the awareness of this association played a crucial role in Hebrew literature long before, and beyond, the emergence of political Zionism. For if Jews were to create a culture like others, not dominated by a clerical establishment and not defined exclusively in religious terms, the great historical model had been cast in Hebrew on the soil of ancient Palestine. The biblical texts, moreover, in their sublime poetry and their brilliant narratives, had a cachet of literary prestige for which Yiddish could offer no equivalent.

Ultimately, it seems to me that the passionate commitment to Hebrew was impelled in shifting proportions by both aesthetic and historical‑ideological motives. On the aesthetic side, Hebrew had always been the most valued language of Jewish culture, if not the most commonly used in everyday life, and had long been the medium of refined literary exercises and epistolary art.

With a certain aestheticization of Jewish culture that was a symptom of modernity, this attitude toward the language became for some a kind of addiction to its beauties, even to its sheer formal properties: one relished a well‑turned Hebrew phrase, an elegant Hebrew sentence, as elsewhere one might relish Mozart or Cimarosa. The abiding delights of this aesthetic addiction could not be replaced for these writers by any other language, not even by their native tongue.

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Robert Alter is the Class of 1937 Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has taught since 1967.

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