The Last of the (Hebrew) Mohicans
Over a year ago I received a postcard informing me that the periodical Hadoar was ceasing publication. “We have been unsuccessful in our attempts to raise enough money . . . to maintain the current scope of our operations,” the senders wrote. Although they also held out the hope of providing “new, exciting, and innovative publications in the future,” this was clearly a death knell. After more than 80 years, the longest-running Hebrew periodical in the United States—in fact, one of the oldest existing Hebrew periodicals in the world—had come to the end of its road.
From the start, the journal had struggled. Less than a year after being launched as a daily in 1921, Hadoar became a weekly, published under the auspices of the Histadrut Ivrit of America, an organization for the promotion of Hebrew culture. For decades it continued in this form before devolving in recent years into a biweekly and then, in a last attempt at securing a fresh lease on life, a quarterly, published in partnership with the Hebrew College of Boston. Although the final issues contained interesting articles, literary criticism, and original poems and stories, the journal clearly could no longer command a readership or financial support. Hence the small white postcard, a gravemarker of Hebrew literary culture in America.
Yet, as gravestones do, the card also attested to a perhaps surprising fact—namely, that there actually is, or was, such a thing as Hebrew literary culture in America.
Modern Hebrew literature began in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries and persisted into the 20th as an essentially international phenomenon. By the end of World War I, even though it was becoming increasingly clear that the only viable Hebrew literary center was destined to be located in the land of Israel, a small but critical mass of Hebraists had gathered in the United States. Immigrants from Eastern Europe, they tended to be heder- and yeshiva-educated Jews who had embraced the achievements of modern Western culture while at the same time preserving an ardent commitment to Jewish tradition, the Hebrew language, and the national renaissance that was based in Zionism.
Beginning in the teens and 20's of the last century, these Hebraists would found a range of cultural organizations, start a number of periodicals and journals (including Hadoar), and create and staff a small network of teachers' colleges. Over the decades, a number of scholars in the field of Jewish studies, magazine editors (including at COMMENTARY), rabbis, and intellectuals could claim an affiliation with one or another of the institutions inspired wholly or in part by the Hebraist vision. And the Hebraists also produced a significant body of literature: poetry, novels and stories, essays, criticism, memoirs, and plays in the Hebrew language.
Yet, despite these achievements, they failed to create any lasting or widespread Hebrew-language culture on American soil. Marginal numerically to the main currents of American Jewish life, they were also marginal linguistically: the central story of 20th-century American Jewish speech begins with Yiddish and moves quickly to English. Above all, they were marginal ideologically. As Jewish nationalists, the Hebraists were decidedly ambivalent about America and their place in it, conceiving of America less as a home than as a haven and staging ground for their own project. To the extent that a recognizably Jewish culture exists today in the United States, it certainly does not exist in Hebrew.
In the post-World War II period, the story of Hebrew in America has therefore been a story of the steady decline in the fortunes of an already small group. Yet, paradoxically, this same period also saw the publication of some of the finest examples of American Hebrew literature. Among the poets, the best-known names are those of Gabriel Preil, who died in 1993, and Eisig Silberschlag, who died in 1988 in Austin, Texas, and who expressed his sense of isolation, bitterness, and hope in one of his last poems, “A Poet of Israel, But Not in the Land of Israel”:
If I were in Israel, I would be
a poet of Israel,
published by state presses
and not at my own expense,
paid a reasonable writer's wage,
read by the public,
quoted by officials
at the inaugurations of cultural institutions
funded by non-Israelis.
A poet of Israel but not in the land of Israel:
a strange creature. Yet before Joshua's conquest
there were already others like him,
laying the paths of the Hebrew poem
by the sea, but not entering the water.
There were others like him, and there will be
laying the paths of the Hebrew poem
outside the place of their people.
And today? Hebrew literature in America exists mainly as the presence of an absence, a haunting of sorts. Its provocations are felt mostly in poetry, where language itself is most intensely felt. Indeed, a number of American Jewish poets, including Emma Lazarus, Delmore Schwartz, and the contemporary writer Stanley Moss, have turned to an idea of Hebrew—I say “idea” since they do not know the language itself—as a kind of touchstone of Jewish authenticity and identity. As Moss puts it poignantly in “Work Song”:
I am surprised, when close friends
speak Hebrew, that I understand nothing.
Something in me expects to understand them
without the least effort,
as a bird knows song.
In American Jewish fiction, by contrast, we are more likely to detect the actual footprints of the Hebraists themselves. Thus, Abraham Cahan's 1917 novel, The Rise of David Levinsky, contains a Hebrew poet, Tevkin, who expresses the alienation from America (“my cage”) typical of the Hebraists. Cynthia Ozick's famous story, “Envy; or, Yiddish in America” (COMMENTARY, November 1969)—about the agonizing marginality of Yiddish writers in the United States—was based, as Ozick has admitted, not on Yiddishists but on the Hebraists whom she had known as a girl through her uncle, the American Hebrew poet Avraham Regelson. (Indeed, Ozick's fictionalized portrait of the impish I.B. Singer suggests more than a little of the impish Gabriel Preil.) The still insufficiently appreciated American Jewish novelist Mark Helprin is not averse to using Hebrew-speaking immigrants as characters in his mythical fictions. And even Philip Roth wrote a story about an obscure immigrant Hebrew teacher (with the foreboding name of Franz Kafka) who resembles the autobiographical characters populating a number of works by the immigrant Hebraist writers of a much earlier age.
But as for works written in Hebrew itself, of this there is almost no sign. We need not dismiss the possible emergence some day of a kind of Israeli-American writing, but so far the many Israelis living in this country have yet to produce a major novelist or poet, and their children tend to be thoroughly comfortable in English. By the same token, there are American immigrants to Israel who have made the transition into Hebrew literature, including the first-rate poet Harold Schimmel and, more modestly, Jacob Jeffrey Green, whose novel Sof-Shavua Amerikani (“American Weekend,” 1998) makes for interesting reading if not for brilliant literature. But these are American-Israeli contributors to Israeli culture, not to American Jewish culture.
What then happened to the Hebraist dream of raising American-born Hebrew readers and, especially, writers? Some students of the old Hebraists have indeed written in the language—one thinks of Arnold Band, the dean of Hebrew literary studies in America, who published a collection of Hebrew poems, Ha-re'i Bo'er Ba'esh (“The Mirror Aflame”) in 1963, and of the young Robert (Uri) Alter, who contributed poems to Hebrew-language publications. But both these men are critics and scholars first, and their poetry must be considered academic in more than one sense. (Band's first collection was also his last.) Gabriel Preil, who outlasted all the other immigrant Hebrew poets in America, was thus right to conclude his late-life survey of American Hebrew literature by referring to himself as “the last of the Mohicans.”
Still, there is a Mohican whom Preil missed. A few months after I received the notice of Hadoar's cessation, I was sent a 125-page manuscript of Hebrew poems. The collection, culled from work done over the preceding two decades, was impressive in its formal range, running from free-verse lyrics and prose poems to that ultimate expression of Hebrew formal virtuosity, the klil sonetot (corona or sonnet garland). It was equally notable for its idiosyncratic sensibility—alternately confessional and hermetic, flip and serious, pious and heretical. Some poems read like the stuttering loops of a psychoanalyst's malfunctioning tape recorder, others disgorged random bits of detritus like the slit-open bellies of captured sharks. The poems ended inconclusively, in an awkward or mischievous silence, or ascended tenaciously toward visionary horizons. They were, in a word, unpredictable.
But then they were written by an unpredictable American Hebrew poet, with the improbable name of Robert Whitehill.
Born in 1947 in North Carolina, Whitehill moved as a child to Lubbock, Texas, where he stayed through his college years. His parents, both of them children of Jewish immigrants, were themselves extremely assimilated. Along with a few childhood years in the Sunday school of a local Reform synagogue, Whitehill grew up with a tree in his house at Christmastime and no bar mitzvah.
But at thirteen, he was spurred both by curiosity and by the relentless Christian proselytizing of his peers to begin reading about Judaism in the local library. He soon became entranced with Israel and its Zionist heroes. More decisively, in 1962 he purchased the Berlitz Hebrew Self-Teacher, quickly graduating to the “Living Language” teach-yourself-Hebrew program on vinyl records. In this solitary and determined way, he learned the language.
As an undergraduate at Texas Tech in Lubbock, Whitehill found his first Hebrew conversational partner in an Israeli Arab fellow student. At the age of twenty-one, he took his first trip to Israel, spending two months in an intensive language course before returning home to begin law school at the University of Texas in Austin. While working toward his law degree, he also sat in on Hebrew classes and completed an MA in English literature. A few years later, to relieve the tedium of an appellate hearing—by now he was working in a civil court—he picked up a pen and wrote his first Hebrew poem. It was accepted for publication by Hadoar.
Although Hadoar turned down subsequent poems, finding them overly vague, Whitehill had meanwhile entered into correspondence with the Israeli writer Aharon Megged, whose novels he was translating. Megged asked to see Whitehill's work, and as a result the verse that was being rejected by Hadoar in America began to appear in the literary supplements of the newspapers Ha'aretz and Davar in Israel. In 1977, thanks to the combined enthusiasm of Megged, the poet and scholar Simon Halkin, and the lyricist Yossi Gamzu, Whitehill's first collection, Orvim Humim (“Brown Crows”), was published in Israel, an occasion marked by a reception in Tel Aviv that was attended by a number of well-known Israeli literary and artistic figures as well as by the author, who at that point had still not spent more than a few months total in Israel.
In 1981, Whitehill's second collection, Efes Makom (“No Place”), appeared in Israel to generally positive reviews, although in some places he was treated mainly as a curiosity—the “Hebrew poet from Texas.” Understandably, Whitehill was and remains concerned not to be seen as the proverbial dog walking on hind legs; still, one cannot ignore the fact that he is probably the only non-Israeli publishing fine Hebrew poetry today. And it is ironic, to say the least, that after all the efforts of the immigrant Hebraists to raise native-born American Hebrew writers, the career of America's only active Hebrew poet should have been launched more or less ex nihilo from Texas. It reminds one of an apocryphal story about the 19th-century writer Judah Leib Gordon, who, upon introducing himself as a Hebrew poet to the great German-Jewish scholar Leopold Zunz, was asked, “And when did you live?” Logically speaking, Robert Whitehill should not exist at all.
If Hebrew poets of Whitehill's ability do not normally spring forth from assimilated families in the far reaches of the Diaspora, his emergence does owe something, I believe, to a very American tradition: the self-educated and self-trained writer. Even more ironically, it also owes something to the same Southern atmosphere that the young Whitehill found so importuning—an atmosphere characterized by an unmediated immersion in Scripture. In these respects, his act of self-invention is at once supremely American and uncannily Christian.
But a darker psychic engine also drives much of Whitehill's early work. In the most haunting sequence in Efes Makom, a series of 15 poems entitled “Among My Father's Oil Paintings,” Whitehill shifts between realistic, acerbic commentary and cryptic yet revealing meditations on the dissonances of his family relationships. In the former mode, for example, he discusses his parents' ambivalent expectations both toward their son and toward their own Jewishness: “Before I found [my wife] Susan,” he writes,
they certainly wanted me to find a woman.
Perhaps Jewish, perhaps not.
In any case not too much so either way.
All religions are the same, and Jewish is just a
religion, they said.
Or he said, and she said, echoing him.
In any case it went without saying that I
wouldn't marry a Catholic,
or a Protestant from one of the more extreme
and not a Mexican
and not a black.
Perhaps in their dreams they envisioned me
standing under a huppa
next to Princess Anne in Westminster
but how to approach her?
They certainly wanted me to find happiness
but not too much lest I become spoiled
to be fruitful and multiply, but not too much
to be a man of distinction under his fig tree
awake in dreamed America
in any case.
In other poems in this series, however, the ironic distance is gone and we seem to wander with Whitehill as a boy among the strange and disturbing imagery of his father's art—by profession a psychiatrist, the elder Whitehill was also an amateur painter. Both endeavors are seen by the son as implicitly linked to the individual psyche, and both need to be transcended in favor of a more communal vision:
My father delivers me to a remote island, to a
realm of horizons
with no mountains or fields around it
no produce of years but only unfathomable
From this perspective, Hebrew was both a means for Whitehill to express the tensions and sorrows of his family and a form of protection against them. The first poem in the series ends: avi over al panai veshotek belashon aheret. “My father passes before me, silent in another language.”
Not long after the publication of Efes Makom, the confidence that had allowed Whitehill to stake his claim as a Hebrew poet seemed to evaporate. The fault, as he himself has related it, was that of Saul Tchernikhovsky (1875-1943), one of the titans of modern Hebrew poetry. In the 1980's, reading Tchernikhovsky's complete works, Whitehill came to the conclusion that the worst of the classic poet's juvenilia was better than his own best efforts. Thereupon he entered the business world—not an unreasonable decision for a family man—and, though he continued reading and translating from Hebrew, stopped publishing poems.
It was over a decade later that, revisiting his own work, Whitehill decided he had been too hard on himself and resumed actively writing and publishing. As if to declare the recovery of his ambition, he even put himself to the task of composing a sonnet cycle, just as Tchernikhovsky had done. The result is a wild collection, parts of which have appeared in Israeli literary journals and the whole of which is due to be published soon in Israel. This is the collection that was sent to me a year ago in manuscript.
The title, HaHelem vehaNitzotz, is indicative of the book as a whole, which plays on Whitehill's juxtapositions of the sacred and the secular. The word helem denotes a shock, electrical or otherwise, while nitzotz, a spark, is a term that immediately conjures up the kabbalistic concept of the holy spark, trapped in the fallen world.
While some of the poems in The Shock and the Spark date back to the 1980's, most are more recent, and a number are haunted by the ongoing terror war against Israel. In one poem, “Metamorfoza,” a BBC interviewer flirts ecstatically with an aspiring suicide bomber—as if, Whitehill writes, the two were on a blind date in the very café the bomber would destroy. Others offer more wide-ranging meditations on human cruelty, and on the frail absurdity of the human condition faced with such cruelty. A poem made up of the poet's thoughts on exiting the Whitney Museum in New York ends with a sudden and horrifying swerve into an image of human sacrifice:
And what passed through the soul of Hernando
Cortez when he walked in the
company of Montezuma the king in the
darkness of the pyramid of the sun by dusty,
choking with the stench and the heat, and when
he raised the torch before the wall
before the dried blood spattered there and the
still wet blood from that
morning and the massive stone vat filled to the
with thousands of human hearts, most rotting
some still pulsing
in the holy of holies
and the king said: all is valid and binding.
Lending unsettling force to this image in the original Hebrew is the final justificatory phrase of the king—hakol sharir vekayam—familiar from the traditional Jewish marriage contract and other legal documents.
Part of what makes Whitehill's poetry so often surprising is its associative leaps, a kind of daydreaming. Job, who in the Bible is from the land of Uz, becomes in one sonnet the Wizard of Uz, mourning the death of the good witch Glinda. Except that Whitehill, not content to let the reference alone, links Glinda with her wicked counterpart as two sides of the same personality, with Glinda's face turning green in death's decay and melting like water in Job's memory. The effect of these shifts and revisions is reinforced by Whitehill's language, slightly eccentric as compared with standard Israeli Hebrew and lacking any firm hierarchy among linguistic strata drawn from Jewish liturgy, the Israeli media, the Bible, classical Hebrew literature, the classroom, and the marketplace.
The book's opening poem announces Whitehill's return through the figure of a dog, here an embodiment of the evil impulse that is simultaneously a creative impulse prodding, threatening, and mocking the poet out of his silence. Indeed, the figure of the dog presides over the first five poems in the collection, taking on various symbolic associations and pulling along a number of biblical and rabbinic allusions. In one poem, it is even the reincarnation of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Elsewhere, though, Whitehill's new poems are less symbolic than out-and-out surreal. In one, “The Prophet of Baal Entertains Guests at His Home in Texas,” the pagan motif suggests, on the one hand, Whitehill's lingering sense of alienation from Christian Texas while, on the other hand, linking biblical Judaism directly with its arch-enemy, Baal-worship. The poem is also obviously concerned with religion and celebrity, pop culture and the sacred, and though it would be wrong to take any of it too seriously, we can also sense in it the traces of a somber isolation and self-deflation. As in a number of Whitehill's poems, the ending does not march to a grand conclusion but trails off in semi-jocular comment. Here it is in its entirety:
On the day I die, stick my corpse in a plastic
bag and ship it by refrigerated truck
to Houston. Can't waste time, it's summer
already, such heat . . .
as for the ritual altars, maybe you can sell them
at a garage sale.
His embarrassed wife runs to the living room
and showers the guests with excuses:
he's been so tired lately, with all the sacrifices
and the press conferences, it's hard to be a
prophet, you understand, I hope, let alone a
prophet of Baal, anywhere but particularly
in Texas. Pe'or, Hadad, Zafon, Dallas, San
Antonio, Lubbock, it doesn't matter where.
One of the guests says: Besides that, my back is
killing me, I bumped into the edge of
in the dining room, I'm
thinking of calling
The prophet of Baal yawns and says: Don't
bother. I went to a chiropractor and he
Then he excuses himself and steps into the
There he goes to the mirror and draws
imaginary scribbles on the glass with his
He fantasizes: Thus sayeth Baal, And Baal said,
And Baal spoke unto me saying, Thus
speaketh Baal of Hosts, son of El, who
abideth in Zafon, Ascribe to Baal honor and
majesty. . . .
In the living room, on the Sony color television
with video and DVD, Madonna chats
with Bill Clinton about the doctrine of
tsimtsum according to the system of the
Tanya as opposed to that of the Vilna
Gaon, and they both tend to side with the
former, since (says the ex-President) without
the constant presence of at least a
residue of the eternal light of the eyn-sof, be
blessed, there would be (continues Madonna)
neither the existent universe nor anything
else. President Clinton remarks that
one bright day he woke up to the sound of
a pin falling on a carpet.
Madonna adds: how strange, I dreamed the
same thing, only in my dream it wasn't
a pin but a goose feather.
And another thing, says Mr. Clinton, I
discovered a huge cockroach nesting in the
bristles of my toothbrush. What does that
Madonna says: It means, Mr. President, that it's
time for a message from our distinguished
sponsors, our good friends at Lone Star
Good night, O Bill
Good night, O Esther.
The prophet of Baal returns to the living room
and fetches some cold beer from the fridge
for himself and his guests.
Meanwhile, some of the guests play Clue.
Who killed whom, how, and where.
The losers have to jump out the window, thank
Baal that it's only a one-story house.
Two-story houses in Texas are extremely rare,
even the houses of prophets, not to mention
duplexes. Trailers, though, are something else
entirely. . . .
Not all of Whitehill's poems are wholly successful. The idiosyncratic relationship to Hebrew literature that allows him his linguistic gambles dispenses its rewards erratically, even as it imparts energy and excitement. At their worst, his poems become private to the point of incomprehensibility. At their best, they produce images of startling originality, love lyrics notable for their eroticism and vulnerability, and a personal-cultural chronicle unique in the annals of Hebrew literature.
Does the existence of Robert Whitehill mean that reports of American Hebrew literature's death are premature? Certainly, the appearance of his new collection of poems is an encouraging sign, of sorts. And there are a few others. New Hebrew-language programs continue to appear at American colleges and universities, and organizations like the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture and the Avi Chai Foundation have undertaken helpful initiatives to promote aspects of Hebrew education on, respectively, the early-childhood and high-school levels. Perhaps most significantly, in our globally and electronically connected world, Israeli literature, film, and journalism are readily available in America by way of DVD and the Internet to anyone who wants them.
All this does not change the fact, however, that the level of fluency that would allow for the creation and appreciation of Hebrew belles lettres no more exists among American Jews today than it did when Hadoar first appeared in the early 20th century. As inspiring as is Whitehill's story, and as American as are his origins, the trajectory of his career has of necessity led him again and again to Israel, where his real literary community exists. As the immigrant Hebraists well knew, in America the situation of the Hebrew poet is, in the words of a Whitehill poem, that of one who “plays lullabies before a noisy audience/in an empty hall.”
1 Here, and throughout, the translations from Hebrew are my own.