The Pioneers of Modern Hebrew Literature

Writing Hebrew literature in the 19th century was no simple matter, and those who did were the elite of the elite.

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Beginning in the late 18th century, newly emancipated Jews in Europe embraced the Hebrew language as a tool for creating a new Jewish culture. However, until then, Hebrew was only used during prayer and religious study. Turning Hebrew into a literary language was a daunting task, which only a very select group of individuals could accomplish. Reprinted with permission from Hebrew and Modernity, published by Indiana University Press.

Who were the people who created this new literature? How did they get a knowledge of the language sufficient to such an undertaking? What were the material conditions in which a literature so anomalous sustained itself? The makers of modern Hebrew literature were, almost without exception, male and the products of an Orthodox upbringing. (In the earlier Haskalah--Enlightenment--a good many still preserved some form of enlightened orthodoxy; later on, the overwhelming majority of the writers were men who had broken decisively with the world of Jewish observance of their childhood.) The gender and the religious background of the writers were determined by the peculiar educational system developed by Euro­pean Jewry before its entry into modernity; the system, in turn, was associated with the equally peculiar social structure of East European Jewry; and both require a little explanation.

One of the oddest--and most crucial--cultural circumstances of traditional East European Jewry was that its masses, by and large, lived under the conditions of an impoverished peasantry while enjoying almost universal literacy. They were not, of course, a peasantry in being able to work the land: For the most part, they eked out their living as middlemen, petty tradesmen (and often tradeswomen), peddlers, estate manag­ers, and tax collectors, publicans, artisans. But a typical shtetl house, as one can see from photographs and films taken in Poland as late as the 1920s, would have looked not very different from the makeshift quarters of a black sharecropper in the American South: a one‑room shack with dirt floor, without plumbing, crowded by a family with many children, perhaps even with the addition of an old grandparent. One readily under­stands why Mendele Mokher Seforim, the greatest fictional chronicler of these Jews in the Russian Pale of Settlement, should call one of his typ­ical towns Kabtsiel, or Beggarsville.

I have said that these near paupers and actual paupers were mostly literate, but it was a two‑track literacy reflecting a two‑track educational system. The girls were instructed at home to read the vernacular Yiddish, and since the Hebrew prayer book was written in the same Hebrew alphabet as Yiddish, they could also, as grown women, in order to fulfill the impulse of piety, "read" the prayers as well, without however understanding more than isolated words and phrases. The boys began heder, or elementary school, before the age of five, and were immersed in a curriculum that was entirely limited to the close study of Hebrew and, later, Aramaic texts.

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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.