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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This new Hebrew literature was by no means a mass movement. Typically, it would focus in some large town--Vienna, Lemberg, Warsaw, Vilna, Odessa--where emancipated Hebrew intellectuals (in general, former yeshiva students, self‑made refugees from the small Jewish villages) would gather to put out a Hebrew newspaper or literary magazine and spread the good word of "Enlightenment" to their fellow Jews.

Ha‑Measef gasped its last breath in 1829 after years of intermittent publication. Meanwhile, a new Hebrew periodical had been launched in Vienna, Bikkurei Ha‑Ittim (1820‑1831), to be followed there in the next generation by Kerem Hemed (1833‑1856). The two Galician journals tended to have more of a scholarly‑historical emphasis than did Ha‑Measef, but the general effect of a didactic miscellany was never lost, even as a whole series of more sophisticated periodicals in the course of time were established in the cities under tsarist rule where there were Jewish centers, culminating in Ha-Shiloah of Odessa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

These publications at best would have a circulation of a few thousand, sometimes of no more than a few hundred, and since the Orthodox community vehemently opposed the new secular writing, the journals were often read secretly in the provinces as a kind of underground literature. One must add that most of what was written during the Hebrew Enlightenment was characterized far more by earnestness than by originality or accomplished literary art. The poetry often seems composed mainly to prove that it is possible to write poems in Hebrew, or to demonstrate that there is something intrinsically poetic or "sublime" in the language of the Hebrew of the Bible. Altogether, a sterile infatuation with the Hebrew language in and of itself plagues Haskalah writing to the end. The essays, generally directed to topical questions concerning Jewish education and culture and the reform of Jewish society, are more of historical than of literary interest. The fiction, often a satirical exposure of the oppressiveness or rigidity of the old rabbinic authorities, is generally awkward in style and narrative method, and primitive in characterization.

Nevertheless, the literature survived, continuing to inspire loyalty in its readers and to have enormous personal meaning for them, perhaps because of the sheer fact, that whatever its faults, it was, after all, a developing modern literature in Hebrew. There were a few instances of interesting individual talent through the middle years of the nineteenth century, but Hebrew literature attained real maturity only after the Haskalah period, which Hebrew literary historians conventionally end around 1881.

There was, for reasons that are not hard to imagine, a curious time lag in the mental world of the Haskalah. Its proponents still cherished the values of Frederick the Great, Voltaire, and Lessing at a point when cosmopolitanism and calm reason were forgotten dreams in European history and a fiercely assertive new nationalism was making itself felt everywhere. A full generation after the main wave of European Romanticism, some Haskalah writers do begin to produce idylls and to celebrate, decorously, the passionate aspects of life, but the more powerful themes--both in a literary and a political sense--of European Romanticism (like the engagement with the irrational and the occult, and the affirmation of organic national community) remain quite beyond the maskilim.

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Robert Alter

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.