Hebrew in English: The New Transnational Hebrew Literature

By Weininger, Melissa | Shofar, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

Hebrew in English: The New Transnational Hebrew Literature


Weininger, Melissa, Shofar


ABSTRACT

Although the historiography of Hebrew literature has often retrospectively portrayed its development as an Israeli phenomenon, recent scholarship has shown the ways in which Hebrew literature's origins lie largely in the Diaspora. Two new books by Israeli writers written in English, Shani Boianjiu's The People of Forever Are Not Afraid and Ayelet Tsabari's The Best Place on Earth, return to the diasporic roots of Hebrew literature by deliberately placing themselves as a challenge to the Zionist narrative of literary historiography. This article elaborates the ways that these books use English to explore the transnational nature of Hebrew literature and participate in a larger literary conversation about globalization. Their linguistic experimentation is also tied to the thematic challenges they pose to foundational Israeli mythologies, like that of the New Hebrew Man, through an emphasis on marginal characters and themes. This literature, which I call "Hebrew in English," stands as a critique of hegemonic constructions of Israeli identity, nationalism, and culture.

Until recently, modern Hebrew literature was envisioned in the popular and the scholarly imagination as inextricably linked with the rise of the Yishuv in Palestine in the early twentieth century. Recent scholarship has shown, however, that the Diaspora, and especially the cities of Europe, were indispensible to the development of modern Hebrew literature and Hebrew modernism. Even before the destruction and dispersal of the majority of European Jewry during the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel, the major centers of Hebrew literature had shifted to Palestine, and with the creation of the new State, the historiography of Hebrew literature was painted in retrospect with a Zionist brush. Hebrew literature meant Israeli literature, and, perhaps as importantly, Israeli literature meant Hebrew literature. In 2012, two young female Israeli writers, Shani Boianjiu and Ayelet Tsabari, emerged with a challenge to this equation: fictional works that mark themselves as explicitly Israeli, both linguistically and thematically, but are written in English. The appearance of their work marks a new period of transnational Hebrew literature that deliberately places itself outside the national discourse in order to participate in it, critiquing dominant Zionist literary tropes.

Hebrew literature has always depended on other languages in its development into a mature literary language. When modern Hebrew literature arose in the nineteenth century, Hebrew was not a vernacular language, and lacked both the modern vocabulary and the particular syntax necessary to represent dialogue. Various modern Hebrew writers contributed to the construction of a modern Hebrew idiom through literary and linguistic experimentation that often relied on the grammar and vocabulary of other languages, including Yiddish, Russian, and German. S. Y. Abramovitz, who created the definitive nusakh, or style, of modern literary Hebrew, drew on various temporal layers of Hebrew from the ancient and medieval periods, the inflections and syntax of Yiddish, literary influences as varied as Dickens, whom Abramovitz had read in translation, and Gogol.1 The influence of European language and culture also made its imprint on modern Hebrew through literary innovation. Uri Nissan Gnessin coined the modern Hebrew word for "consciousness," hakarah, by turning to the root for "knowledge," because both German and French derive their words for "consciousness" from "knowledge." And Robert Alter notes that the Hebrew writer Micha Yosef Berdichevsky had a "predisposition to make Hebrew work as though it were a dialectical variation of standard literary European."2

These writers drew on European literature and language for their influences because, culturally speaking, they were Europeans as much as they were Jewish. Indeed, beginning with the haskalah and continuing through Abramovitz and later generations, Hebrew writers in Europe were invested in demonstrating both their own Europeanness and the Europeanness of their literature. …

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