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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Philosophical and scholarly prose of the Haskalah did often adopt an uneven mélange of rabbinical Hebrew and later prose models. For prose fiction, on the other hand, the biblical style, with very few exceptions, was felt to be obligatory, as it was in poetry, because the language of the Bible seemed loftier, more decorous, had more cultural prestige, than those forms of Hebrew which were associated with rabbinic discourse and the pre‑modern, sequestered existence of the Diaspora. Biblical Hebrew, however, was a terribly cumbersome and inadequate medium for fiction, lacking the requisite resources of vocabulary, tightly restricted by the structures of its syntax in the organization of ideas, in the presentation of data about character and situation.

As late as the last generation of the Haskalah, in the Hebrew fiction of the 1860s, the characters hobble around on shaky stilts nailed together from the scraps and splinters of biblical verses, the language in which their world and their speech are conveyed. In Mendele's work of the 1880s and 1890s, the characters suddenly are made to move and talk with the lifelike fluidity of real people. Fusing the Hebrew of the Bible, the Mishnah, the Midrash, the rabbinic commentaries, and a wealth of other sources, Mendele is able to give us, for example, a man descending from a sleigh, entering a house, peeling off layers of winter clothing, then lighting his pipe, with all the convincing vividness of a Dickens, a Gogol, a Balzac.

Bialik's poetry, in an analogous way, suddenly illuminates layer after layer of past association in the Hebrew words it uses, all brought to bear on the expressive needs of the present, even as the language remains predominantly biblical, in sharp contrast to Haskalah poetry, which was so often a lifeless mosaic of biblical phrases. In a less spectacular way, the disciplined clarity of language in Ahad Ha‑am's essays helps establish a new kind of expository prose, adapting Hebrew to modern requirements of analytic generalization.

While these decisive advances in style were being made, new qualities of innerness, emotional subtlety, introspective self‑confrontation began to manifest themselves in both poetry and prose. Hebrew became more a medium of intensely personal expression at the same time that it was often used, now in a non-ideological, unprogrammatic way, to probe the bewildering predicament of tradition‑bound Jewry thrust into a modern world where it could not feel at home. Thus the didactic concerns of the Haskalah became existential concerns, these writers only being more acutely aware than writers in firmly established national groups of the collective contexts for individual existence. The new complexity of consciousness among Hebrew writers also gradually led to experiments with literary form. Hebrew poetry would remain formally traditionalist until the 1920s, but by the first decade of the 20th century, one Hebrew writer in Russia, Uri Nissan Gnessin, was already experimenting with a mode of interior monologue, and in Palestine the Galician‑born Shmuel Yosef Agnon, at the beginning of his long career, was already reaching toward new possibilities of symbolism, expressionist fantasy, and structuring through motif.

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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.