Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry

American Jews have forgotten their letters and words.

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Here at this time very few among them are able to discourse perfectly in the Hebrew or Holy Tongue, which they call lashon ha-kodesh, wherein the twenty-four books of the Old Testament are written; nor yet in the Chaldee [Modena is referring to Aramaic], which is the language of the Targum, or Chaldee Paraphrase of the Bible, and which they commonly spake before their Dispersion; because they all generally learn and are brought up in the Language of the Countries where they are born: so that in Italy they speak Italian; in Germany, Dutch [Deutsch]; in the Eastern parts and in Barbary they speak the language of the Turks and Moors; and so the rest. So that the Common people everywhere conform themselves to the Language of the Nations where they inhabit; only mixing now and then a broken Hebrew word or two in their discourse with one another: although the Learneder sort among them are somewhat more perfect in the Language of the Scripture, and have it, as it were, by heart. Notwithstanding it is a very rare thing to meet with any among them, except they be their Rabbis, who are able to maintain a continued discourse in Hebrew, elegantly and according to the Properties of the Language.

The Riti was an apologetic work. Its portrait of Jewish practices was designed to reassure Modena's Christian readers that the Jews were not entirely alien, not entirely inassimilable into European life, and that therefore they deserved to be met with greater sympathy. Yet Modena's observations of the sad linguistic state of his brethren extended beyond his apologetic purpose.

When he discussed Jewish literacy in writings that were addressed to Jews, his tone was more astringent, more the tone of a social critic. He raised the unpleasant subject of linguistic ignorance frequently in his works. In 1612, for example, in the introduction to Galut Yehuda, a Hebrew-Italian dictionary that he composed, Modena sharply bemoans the decline of Hebrew and describes it as one of the characteristic features of exile.

And he adds this bitter note: "It was initially my plan to print the Italian equivalents [of the Hebrew words] in Hebrew characters; but experience dissuaded me from this course of action, when I showed my work to eight or ten Jews who said: we cannot read this. The exile has made us forget not only our Holy Tongue, but even our linguistic competence."

In America, the first evidence of Jewish illiteracy occurs as early as 1761 and 1766, when Isaac Pinto published his translations of the liturgy into English. He was acting out of a sense of crisis, out of his feeling that Hebrew, as he put it, needed to "be reestablished in Israel." Of the American Jewish community of his time, Pinto recorded that Hebrew was "imperfectly understood by many; by some, not at all."

In 1784, Haym Salomon found it necessary to address an inquiry in the matter of a certain inheritance to Rabbi David Tevele Schiff of the Great Synagogue in London; but the renowned Jewish leader could not write the Hebrew epistle himself, and so he enlisted the help of a local Jew from Prague.

In 1818, at the consecration in New York of a building for the Shearith Israel synagogue, Mordecai Emanuel Noah observed that "with the loss of the Hebrew language may be added the downfall of the house of Israel."

Linguistically speaking, then, the beginnings of the American Jewish community were not glorious; and we have lived up to our beginnings.

Of course, I do not mean to deny the validity or the utility of translation, which was also a primary activity of Jewish intellectuals throughout the centuries. Very few of us have studied The Guide of the Perplexed in the Judeo-Arabic in which Maimonides wrote it. It is the Hebrew version by Samuel ibn Tibbon with which we have wrestled.

Translation has always represented an admirable realism about the actual cultural situation of the Jews in exile. Whatever the linguistic delinquencies of the Jews, their books must not remain completely closed to them. Better partial access than no access at all, obviously.

Moreover, we are American Jews; that is to say, we believe in the reality of freedom, and we are prepared to pay its price. The requirement that a Jew know a Jewish language is not a requirement that a Jew know only a Jewish language; and it is certainly not a requirement that a Jew express only one belief in only one means of expression.

An American Jewish writer is free to write Jewishly or non-Jewishly. He or she is free to write anything that he or she wants to write, and in any language in which he or she wishes to write it. My question to the Jewish writer in America is not, what language can you write? My question is, what language can you read?

It is impossible to deny that a calamitous decline in Jewish competence has taken place in our time. There are many ways to measure this decline. Consider a quantitative measure: In 1965, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem established the Hebrew Paleography Project, for the purpose of recording the significant codicological features of all surviving Hebrew manuscripts. This massive undertaking produced a very striking result.

In the words of Malachi Beit-Arie, "The systematic recording and analysis of almost all the extant manuscripts with colophons [a colophon is an inscription at the end of a manuscript identifying its scribe or its owner], some 4000 in all, indicate that at least half the medieval Hebrew manuscripts were personal, user-produced books. Such a high rate of non-professional, personal copying certainly reflects the extent of Jewish literacy and education."

Beit-Arie is referring to a very long period in Jewish history: to all the medieval and early modern centuries. So it seems entirely uncontroversial to maintain that, the complicated history of Jewish literacy notwithstanding, there has occurred a truly precipitous decline in the linguistic abilities of the Jews, a decline by orders of magnitude--almost a free fall.

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Leon Wieseltier

Leon Wieseltier is literary editor of The New Republic.