From the Academy: Modern Hebrew Literature

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Miryam Segal is Assistant Professor in Hebrew in the Department of Classical, Middle Eastern & Asian Languages & Cultures at Queens College of the City University of New York. She received her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley. Miryam SegalHer first book, A New Sound in Hebrew Poetry: Poetics, Politics, Accent (Indiana, 2009) has been praised by major scholars including Robert Alter and Dan Miron; Harry Fox of the University of Toronto calls it “an extremely impressive piece of literary and historical scholarship.”

What sorts of texts do scholars of modern Hebrew literature study? What are the boundaries of the field?

Scholars of Hebrew literature study poetry, drama, novels; they read poems closely and write about prose fiction as a part of a larger web of cultural production of a given period—including music and visual art; they teach Hebrew poetry in relation to works in other languages; they study Hebrew literature as a series of great writers. In other words they survey the field in almost every conceivable way—by genre, period, ideology, influence, style. Periodization usually has a bit of the arbitrary about it and historians mark a few beginnings for Hebrew literature in modern times: the publication of Avraham Mapu’s novel Ahavat tsiyon in 1853, Moshe Hayim Luzzatto’s La-yesharim Tehillah of 1743 and Naphtali Wessely’s Shirei tiferet written at the end of the 18th century.

How does the study of modern Hebrew literature tend to differ from the study of Hebrew texts in earlier periods?

Hebrew literary scholarship is often seen as part of Jewish studies, but it is also a sister to other fields of literature—and is probably more directly influenced by trends in literary theory and criticism and critical theory than Jewish studies as a whole.

Modern works do not present the complex textual problems that are inherent to pre-modern multi-authored texts (e.g. midrashic compilations, the Talmuds). We have Bialik’s letters, the periodicals in which he published his poems; we know a lot about where and when he wrote his poems. The late Yehuda Amichai and Amos Oz are popular authors both here and in Israel, and their manuscripts and letters are preserved in archives at Yale, Ben Gurion, and Indiana University. Scholars rarely have this quantity of materials for non-modern subjects.

What do you see the field offering to Jews outside of the academy?

What does the literature itself offer? Great reading!

For anyone interested in Israel—as a state, a culture, a phenomenon—modern Hebrew literature is a way in. North American Judaism and Jewish culture project a lot on to Israel. They seem to expect it to provide some explanation, some critical piece of modern non-Israeli Jewish identity. Hebrew literature is an interesting place to start re-examining assumptions of the connection between Israeli culture and Jewishness.

How can the study of modern Hebrew literature influence the practices and choices of contemporary Jews?

There are many possibilities for how religious communities might use vernacular literature for inspiration. Hebrew poetry and prayer have always had a relationship—going back to the Bible where they overlap to a great extent. The relationship between prayer and poetic address is a fascinating one in general—and given the religious/theological/mystical poetry being written in Hebrew now, that is an especially interesting oeuvre in which to think about that relationship.

Does the study of modern Hebrew literature require approaches that are substantially different from those applied to other modern literatures?

You might say that Hebrew is different by degree—in seeming to invoke at every turn the variety of languages and literatures which have touched it, including Yiddish, German, Russian, Arabic, and English. And the history of Modern Hebrew literature is so condensed, so utterly subject to Jewish and Israeli history—and also marks and delineates it.

Hebrew has a long history with unique points of disjuncture, such as the so-called language revival, and surprisingly long stretches of continuity, including two millennia of literary creativity in Italy. I think these give Hebrew literature its personality, its fingerprint. They are part of what make it interesting. That and the great poem or superb novel one rediscovers.

What are some of the more pressing questions that remain to be answered by academic scholars of modern Hebrew literature?

In an introductory essay first published in 1947, Dov Sadan poses questions on the borders of the field. Perhaps in a living literature these can never be fully answered. Is Hebrew literature an entirely secular literature? Is the break with tradition in the period of the Jewish Enlightenment as definite, as clear cut, as some historiographies articulate it?

Then there is the question of Hebrew literature’s relationship to other literatures, beyond questions of influence, to parallel or divergent developments in genre, school, and their relationship to other historical and cultural developments. The entanglement of modern Hebrew literature with modernity—with secularism, capitalism—this remains an area with room for a lot more scholarship. In the last twenty years or so scholarship has begun to be critical of Zionist ideology, inspiring attempts to understand anew the history of literary developments in Hebrew.

What drew you toward this field?

I have always enjoyed the concise elegance of the Hebrew language, and am drawn to its sprawling history. Before graduate school I was far more familiar with classical Jewish texts than with modern Hebrew ones (in fact hardly at all with the latter!). What drew me to the field was a sense that there were so many exciting questions waiting to be asked, more so than other fields in the discipline. Small as the corpus of modern Hebrew literature is, it stands at the crossroads of modern Jewish history and has all sorts of unexpected takes on the clichés of literary studies: new-old, exile, postcolonialism, literary language and vernacular. Hebrew asks you to ask the usual questions but also turns them every which way—makes you ask them differently, funnily, sideways.

If someone wanted to know more about where the scholarly study of modern Hebrew literature is currently headed, what would you recommend he or she read?

In English, the journals Hebrew Studies, Prooftexts and BGU Review. In Hebrew, Mehkerei yerushalayim be-sifrut ivrit, mi-Kan, and some that have a wider focus: Teoriyah u-bikoret, Alpayim and the recently launched Yisrael. The newspaper Haaretz also has a useful culture and literature supplement as well as a popular book review section. The best way to start, though, might simply be to read a variety of authors and then follow your own individual reading trail. So much Hebrew literature is available in translation. Checking out an anthology to help you find your new favorite Hebrew authors. Consult your local librarian!

Posted on March 23, 2010

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