American Hebrew Literature: Writing Jewish National Identity in the United States

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American Hebrew Literature: Writing Jewish National Identity in the United States. Michael Weingrad, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2010. 280 pages. $34.95 cloth.

Red, Black, and Jew: New Frontiers in Hebrew Literature. Stephen Katz. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009. 363 pages. $30.00 cloth.

Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry. Alan Mintz. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011. 544 pages. $65.00 cloth.

In 2003, Alan Mintz wrote in The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature that the "existence of a substantial body of Hebrew literature written on American shores is one of the best-kept secrets of Jewish American cultural history" (92). Almost a decade later, the secret of Hebrew in America has been revealed with three new books by Stephen Katz, Michael Weingard and Alan Mintz. But what exactly is the secret and why is it being uncovered now? Does it tell us something new about American-Jewish culture, something that historians and literary scholars did not know, or at least did not pay attention to until now?

Part of the "secret" revealed in these three books is no doubt the very existence of a living and breathing literary and cultural Hebrew presence in America during most of the 20th century. The common story of American Jewish culture is one of the immigrants' Yiddish giving way to English as a language of everyday communication and Jewish cultural and literary activity. Hebrew, on the other hand, is identified today almost exclusively with the State of Israel or as a language of religious liturgy and ancient texts. But these three books make it amply clear that Hebrew has been a viable option for extraterritorial creativity and Jewish identity in America. In 1927 (around the most productive time for Hebrew letters in America), Daniel Persky counted no less than 110 active writers of poetry, prose, criticism, scholarship, essays and journalism, who published their work in Hebrew journals, newspapers and books, most of them edited and produced in America. Although they never reached the mass readership that the Yiddish press attracted and always were as an elitist (even aristocratic) minority group, their numbers and their literary and cultural activity were quite impressive.

So who were these figures, sometimes referred to as "Hebraists"? Although there have been (and still are today) a handful of American-born writers of Hebrew literature, the overwhelming majority came from Eastern Europe to the United States as part of the migration that took place between the 1880s and the 1920s. Hebrew was not their mother tongue, but a language they acquired as part of their traditional and modern Jewish education. They inherited the legacy of European Haskalah, with its emphasis on Hebrew as a core of Jewish spiritual wellspring, and were part of the great ferment that Benjamin Harshav called "the modern Jewish revolution" at the turn of the 20th century, which saw the simultaneous emergence of Jewish nationalism and socialism, the rise of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature which went hand in hand with a mass Jewish migration out of the Pale of Settlement. These Hebrew writers lived and worked in large American urban centers of Jewish immigration: New York City (which was certainly the center of Hebrew cultural activity), Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit, but some of them arrived in far-flung corners of America. If we think of them as a group, it existed mainly as a network or virtual community of writers scattered across the vast country.

The majority of Hebrew writers were also educators, teaching in Jewish schools and teachers colleges, which some of them founded, led and nurtured for years. Indeed, as both Mintz and Weingrad make clear, the most far-reaching impact the Hebrew movement had on American Jewish life was in the area of education. They effectively transformed Jewish education in America into what is known until today as "Hebrew school," with its emphasis on secular-national culture rather than purely religious or liturgical education (Weingrad, XXI). …