The Emergence of Modern Hebrew Literature

Modern Hebrew literature got an ideological start in Germany, then found artistic maturity in the East.


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Reprinted with permission from Modern Hebrew Literature, published by Behrman House.

As it gradually became possible during the later 18th century for Jews in Western Europe to leave the walled‑off life of the ghetto and enter into modern European society, some Jewish intellectuals, associated with the merchant and managerial classes, adopted Hebrew as the means of creating a new kind of Jewish culture that might take its place with the cultures of other peoples in a progressive international society of enlightened men. (The progressive cosmopolitanism of the European Enlightenment touched these Jews deeply.) 

In their eyes, Yiddish could not serve this purpose because it was a low “jargon,” associated with their remembrances of the ghetto–and, one might add, linked with their own self‑rejection. To adopt German exclusively, on the other hand, would have meant the renunciation of Jewish cultural distinctiveness–of all the historical memories, associations, and emphases of feeling, that a people stores in its own language. When an 18th-century German Jew, then, decided to write a poem on spring, an essay on educational reform, a satirical sketch, in Hebrew rather than in his native Yiddish or his acquired German, he was strenuously affirming a new relationship as a Jew both to modern culture and to the Jewish past, and through this he was proposing a model for others.

hebrew booksThe Hebrew term itself chosen for “Enlightenment,” Haskalah, suggests both a state of being and an active causative effect on others. A maskil, or proponent of Haskalah, is, according to grammatical context, a person who understands or one who induces understanding in others. This early sense of national purpose, it should be noted, and this effort of cultural self‑definition, continue in radically transformed ways to play an important role in Hebrew writing down to many Israeli contemporaries.

Wherever assimilation became widespread, Hebrew literature quickly disappeared, for the obvious reason that with assimilation the audience of readers who knew Hebrew through the traditional Jewish educational system rapidly dwindled, then vanished. Ha-Measef, the first journal of the Haskalah, founded in Koenigsberg, Prussia, as a monthly in 1783, declined into an annual in the 1790s and by 1797 it had only 120 subscribers. By the 1830s, the main center of Hebrew literary activity had moved eastward from Germany to Galicia (the eastern end of the old Austro‑Hungarian Empire), where the Jewish population was more concentrated and traditional life stronger. A generation or two later, though significant Hebrew writing continued in Galicia, the most important centers had moved still further eastward to Poland and Russia.

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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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