Modern Hebrew Literature: Early Challenges

The pioneers of modern Hebrew literature took a cumbersome, unspoken language and created a vibrant literary tradition.

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

The fundamental problem of language was for a long time overwhelming: an ancient or medieval Hebrew had to be adapted to modern literary needs, made to reflect the inner and outer world of people who did not even use it as a spoken tongue. It was not only a matter of developing a new lexicon for modern things--having Hebrew words for "locomotive" and "factory" and "pharmacy"--but a new lexicon for feelings and motives, even in certain respects a new syntax to express newly assimilated patterns of conceptualizing.

Finally, Haskalah (Enlightenment) literature was often seriously limited by its ideological character. Imaginative literature with a point to prove--or an axe to grind--often ends up being shaped by a narrow, shrilly insistent imagination, more concerned with laying down a program than evoking a complex world. As the Israeli critic Dov Sadan put it, the Haskalah writer, indignant over the ultra‑Orthodox Jew who wore a filthy kaftan instead of decent modern European dress, was in no position to describe that Jew in loving detail, as a novelist should, down to the last spot of grease on the kaftan.

A touching but artistically crippling quality of earnest naiveté persists in Haskalah fiction to the last: All would end well if only Jews would learn European languages, acquire decently productive professions, observe the laws of decorum and hygiene, in short, follow the path of the good goy who is the positive hero of a good many Haskalah stories. 

mendele mokher seforim (shalom yakov abramowitz)In the 1880s, this whole situation began to change fundamentally. After a century of literary activity, Hebrew writers had at least made a start in developing their own viable traditions, and in learning how to assimilate their European literary models. More important, the old militancy toward the immediate Jewish past relaxed considerably, so that it was easier for a Hebrew writer to do work that was not so insistently ideological. Now it became possible to balance programmatic criticism with intimate insight and affection in rendering the world of Eastern European Jewry, and no one illustrates the artistic advantages of this new inner freedom more strikingly than Mendele Mokher Seforim (Shalom Yakov Abramowitz). Perhaps most important, however, is the sudden forward leap of individual genius, which could not have been predicted and cannot be accounted for merely in terms of broad historical causes. It seems almost as though Mendele waved a magic wand and made modern Hebrew prose possible.

Prose style had been one of the most problematic technical features of Haskalah writing. Though in fact there are many available styles to choose from in the three millennia of development which the Hebrew language has undergone, one may speak, broadly, of two basic kinds of Hebrew: biblical Hebrew, which has a relatively small, indigenously Semitic lexicon and is mainly paratactic in syntax (i.e., clauses are often juxtaposed without conjunctions); and rabbinic Hebrew, which reflects an enormous lexical influx from Greek, Latin, even Persian, and which is basically hypotactic (i.e., it uses coordinating or subordinating conjunctions to link clauses), with its own distinctive modifications of classical Hebrew grammar and morphology.

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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.