Inventing Hebrew Prose
Most readers of fiction these days, in Israel and elsewhere, take for granted the viability of the Hebrew language as a vehicle of modern literary expression. Hebrew novels seem to get translated into English almost as fast as they are produced in the original; writers like Yaakov Shabtai, Aharon Appelfeld, Amos Oz, and A.B. Yehoshua have come to be seen as important figures on the international literary scene of the 70’s and 80’s; and the evidence of their prose—as well as that of still untranslated writers like Amalia Kahana-Carmon and Yitzhak Ben-Ner—clearly suggests that virtually all desired nuances of thought and feeling, virtually all the minute and peculiar details of external reality, can be caught in the supple meshes of the Hebrew language.
Behind these recent achievements, however, lies a long, uneven, and in some ways quite improbable growth of the language toward maturity as a medium of realistic fiction. When Hebrew literature emerged as a self-consciously modernizing movement in Central Europe more than two centuries ago, it was prose above all that was the technical problem for the new Hebraists. Hebrew, though not a spoken language, had been in continuous use as a literary language for three thousand years. To be sure, during certain periods, literary expression was confined to the religious spheres of liturgy and exegesis; but from the late 10th century C.E. onward there was an unbroken tradition of secular literature as well, stretching from medieval Andalusia to Renaissance and Baroque Italy and Holland. The preponderant genre of this tradition was poetry, sometimes complemented by a wittily ornate form of rhymed narrative prose. More workmanlike varieties of prose served the purposes of philosophic discourse, manuals of devotion, chronicles, rabbinic responsa, travel books, and international business correspondence among Jews.
All this varied activity attests to the vitality of the language, to the fact that many Jews continued to regard it as their national tongue even though they did not speak it. But for the increasing numbers of writers who tried to create prose fiction in Hebrew through the middle and late decades of the 19th century, this hodgepodge of antecedents offered only partial and inadequate solutions to the problems of style, syntax, diction, and vocabulary with which they struggled. They aspired, after all, to achieve in Hebrew what Gogol and Turgenev had achieved in Russian, Balzac in French, Scott and Dickens in English; and how was one to do this in a language nobody spoke, in which it was difficult to discriminate levels of diction and even semantic borders between related terms, in which there was no word for “potato,” and “gloves” could be indicated only by the awkward new coinage, “hand-houses”?
Altogether, the story of modern Hebrew literature in Europe is both intriguing in itself and generally instructive about the nature of the language of realism in literature; but, given the paucity of translations of these early modern Hebrew texts and of critical studies in Western languages, it is a story scarcely known outside the circle of readers of Hebrew. This is hardly the place to undertake a concise history of modern Hebrew literature, but it will be helpful to establish some general notion of where this literature came from and what were the circumstances under which, against all odds, it came to flourish.
The newness of modern Hebrew literature has long been a subject of debate among Hebrew literary historians because the supposed emergence of the modern movement in 18th-century Germany was preceded by that eight-centuries-long tradition of secular belletristic writing in Hebrew to which I have alluded. But the new movement that surfaced in Enlightenment Germany was, I think, different in kind from its predecessor because of its fundamentally ideological character. That is to say, by the late 18th century, European Jewry was launching the process of radical historical transformation we call modernization, and what was at issue now in the act of writing Hebrew was not just an aesthetic pursuit but a programmatic renegotiation of the terms of Jewish collective identity. It is surely not a coincidence that Christian Wilhelm von Dohm brought out his essay, “Concerning the Amelioration of the Civil Status of the Jews,” in 1781, that Joseph II of Austria issued his Edict of Toleration in 1782, and that the founding journal of the Haskalah, or Hebrew Enlightenment, the quarterly HaMe’asef, began publication in Koenigsberg in 1783.
The Haskalah as a coherent movement would last a full century, until the trauma of the pogroms of 1881 made its rationalist meliorism untenable for most Hebrew writers, who then turned to nationalist and neo-romantic literary trends. In its first decades, didactic essays and almost equally didactic poetry predominate, the writers being preoccupied with how to reform Jewish education, Jewish communal politics, Jewish social conditions, Jewish theology. The first instances of prose fiction, which begin to appear around 1820, are lampoons of hasidic obscurantism and so partake of the general reformist impulse.
By this time, the Hebrew movement had moved eastward from its original centers in Berlin and Koenigsberg to Vienna, as the rapid progress of assimilation in Prussia eroded the base of Hebrew readers there. Though Vienna itself may be a “Central” European city, down to World War I its Jewish hinterland, we should remember, was Polish Galicia, also part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Here and elsewhere, Hebrew literature was associated with the great movement of Jewish migration from the small towns, or shtetlakh, to the cities that continued through much of the 19th century on into the early decades of the 20th century. (One might recall, as notable instances of the general trend, that Jakob Freud and Hermann Kafka migrated from their native Galician shtetlakh to Vienna and Prague respectively, thus making possible the future careers of their illustrious sons.) Soon, there were centers of Haskalah activity in Galicia itself, in Brody, Tarnopol, Lemberg, and Cracow; and by 1840 the new Hebrew literature had also put down roots in Lithuania and in Russia proper, where it was destined to attain its greatest achievements.
As I have noted, prose fiction was long a peripheral genre in the Haskalah: the first Hebrew novel does not appear until 1853, and an artistically mature body of fiction, free of didactic insistence and stylistically adequate to its subjects, does not begin to emerge until the 1880’s. The eventual embracing of the novel form may well be another manifestation of the substantive newness of modern Hebrew literature in comparison with earlier phases of secular literature in Hebrew. The novel’s generic project of comprehensive realism, of making language effect a kind of sovereign illusion of reality, set it off from earlier genres. To write, let us say, a sonnet or a poetic epigram in Hebrew was an act of competitive cultural imitation, but one carried out within the confines of a highly conventionalized formal structure, and as such chiefly an aesthetic exercise, however deep the feeling behind some of the individual poems. To write a novel in Hebrew, on the other hand, was to constitute a whole world in a language not actually spoken in the real-life equivalent of that world, yet treated by the writer as though it were really spoken, as though a persuasive illusion of reality could be conveyed through a purely literary language. It was, as I shall try to explain, to enter deeply into the mind-set of European culture with a thoroughness not characteristic of premodern Hebrew literature; it was to invent a new secular Hebrew cultural identity as though it were somehow, uncannily, native to the European sphere.
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, 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 1920’s, 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 prayerbook 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.
The young boys were led through the Pentateuch verse by verse, each Hebrew phrase being given its Yiddish equivalent in a kind of oral interlinear translation. Other books of the Bible might be accorded some attention when preparation was being made for their public reading at the appointed festivals (Song of Songs at Passover, Ruth at Shavuot, and so forth), and biblical texts fixed in the daily prayers, including dozens of Psalms, would be gotten by heart through sheer force of repeated recitation. But there would be no formal teaching of principles of grammar, no vocabulary lists, no exercises in composition. Indeed, the teen-age students who happened to get hold of a Hebrew grammar treated it pretty much as underground literature, knowing that their rabbinical mentors would regard as an act of subversion any attempt to study the Holy Tongue systematically, with “secular” tools, as though it were a language just like any other.
By the time a boy reached the age of legal induction into Jewish manhood at thirteen, if he was an alert pupil and if his schoolmaster had not been totally incompetent (incompetence being more or less endemic to the system), he could read biblical Hebrew with an approximation of understanding, would have had some introduction to the primary rabbinic text, the Mishnah, and to the main medieval Hebrew commentaries on the Pentateuch, and would have a reasonably adequate understanding of the Hebrew of the prayer-book. In fact, the extreme unevenness of instruction meant that most products of the heder were functionally illiterate in Hebrew, retaining only the most rudimentary vocabulary and a fuzzy or mangled understanding of particular texts.
After the age of thirteen, a large part of the student body dropped out, some after a year or more of additional instruction, to become apprentices, to assist in the family business, or otherwise to enter the workforce, and sometimes to be married off by their parents by the time they were fifteen. The more gifted went on to the yeshiva, or talmudic academy, often having to move to a larger town where there was such an institution. The subject of study at the yeshiva was exclusively the Babylonian Talmud, a vast corpus of texts composed in a mélange of Hebrew and its cognate language Aramaic; as always, the language of discussion among students, and between students and teacher, was Yiddish.
The schooldays were long, the demands relentless; students worked over the difficult texts and their commentaries in pairs, and then listened to a general lesson from the yeshiva instructor. The complementary intellectual qualities they were encouraged to develop were a prodigious retention by heart of the talmudic texts and their biblical precedents (beqi’ut) and an analytic sharpness accompanied by ingenuity (harifut). Most boys left the yeshiva by their late teens, some, having received ordination, to take up rabbinical posts, many, having entered into an arranged marriage, to enjoy a period of private learning subsidized by a prosperous father-in-law who was willing to pay this price in order to have his daughter married to a man of learning.
From the account I have offered, it must surely seem a mystery that anyone could have emerged from this educational system with a sufficient grasp of the Hebrew language to write an essay, a travel book, a sonnet, and, especially, a novel. The yeshiva population was the intellectual elite of Central and East European premodern Jewry. The Hebrew writers produced by the yeshivas were an elite within an elite. In part, I mean simply that they were the equivalent of the A+ students in the system, and certainly the evidence many of them offer of retentive memory and (to a lesser degree) of dialectic subtlety, of beqi’ut and harifut, is formidable. But I am also referring to a rather special mental aptitude which was not necessarily given special value within the system but which would have abundant uses outside the system—something that the Germans call Sprachgefühl, an innate sense, like perfect pitch in music, for how language should properly sound, joined with a relish for the sonorities and the semantic colorations of Hebrew words in their classical idiomatic combinations.
Minds of this almost preternaturally prehensile cast would catch onto every nuanced collocation, every linguistic particle, in a traditional Hebrew text, both those that were part of the curriculum and those that were not. And as a new Hebrew culture began to shimmer before such unusual students as a radical alternative of Jewish identity to that of the Orthodox system, they would, even in the yeshiva milieu, do a good deal of reaching, often surreptitiously, beyond the curriculum—to the parts of the Bible not officially studied, to the medieval philosophers and poets, to those newfangled Hebrew grammars, and, worst of all, to the godless journals, the poetry and fiction, of the new Hebrew literature.
Even a moderately receptive yeshiva student, who had stayed within the confines of the talmudic curriculum, would have been able by the age of eighteen to compose certain limited kinds of Hebrew texts—say, a florid prose letter to a future bride (to be translated to her) made up of a pastiche of biblical phrases, or an opinion on a question of talmudic law in a more businesslike rabbinic Hebrew with an admixture of Aramaic. But the elite of the elite, those prehensile minds I have described, having used the system against itself, would be able by the same age to produce in Hebrew a piece of popular science, a critical essay, a long poem in hexameters, a work of fiction. This was not a language anyone was speaking, certainly not in the 19th century, but out of a comprehensive familiarity with the large body of traditional Hebrew texts, biblical and post-biblical, and counting on an audience whose intimate acquaintance with this corpus matched their own, these young men could compose quite freely in Hebrew.
To compose well, making the language address modern predicaments persuasively, was another matter: and it will be worth the effort to try to understand how the trailblazers accomplished that task.
The class background of the Hebrew writers is elusive. It is sometimes said that they derived chiefly from the merchant class—Ezra Spicehandler, for example, suggests that in the early 19th century the great trade fair at Leipzig was a center of transmission of the German Haskalah to the east through the contacts there between merchants from Prussia and from Polish Galicia. But “merchant” may be a little misleading because in Jewish society it embraced everything from prosperous fur traders and timber dealers to people who maintained wretched little stands in the streets for the sale of odds and ends. The writers came as frequently from the bottom rungs as from the top of the mercantile hierarchy, and so they can scarcely be said to represent an economically privileged class. In a typical poor family, an adolescent son would be expected to help support the household by working full-time. But this was, after all, a society that placed immense value on learning, and in which learning was a means of social ascent; so when a boy showed signs of intellectual gifts by the age of thirteen, great efforts would be made to enable him to continue his studies, poverty notwithstanding. Given the talmudic route to Hebrew literacy, no doubt reinforced by a certain genetic background of intellectual aptitude, it is not surprising that a good many of the Hebrew writers had fathers who were members of the rabbinic intelligentsia—yeshiva instructors or even yeshiva directors, local rabbis, ritual slaughterers (a function that required talmudic learning), independent scholars of Jewish law.
The one social class drastically underrepresented among Hebrew writers was the new Jewish urban proletariat that had formed in the industrializing cities of Central and Eastern Europe by the latter part of the 19th century. Perhaps this is because this class was more rapidly removed from the sources of rabbinic learning than any other in Jewish society. In any case, when members of the Jewish proletariat thought about a programmatic renegotiation of the terms of collective existence, it was typically through socialism, and the language used was the language of the Jewish masses, Yiddish. Although it is true that Yiddish and Hebrew during this period were cognate literatures, and that many of the important writers actually produced work in both languages, it is only Yiddish that evinces a general association with the values and aspirations of the urban proletariat. A surprisingly small proportion of the Hebrew writers were born in the large cities. For the most part, they ended up in the cities, where they sought modern culture, freedom from the restrictions of Orthodox society, and a sustaining coterie of like-minded secularist Hebrew littérateurs. Their writing, however, often concentrated on their native shtetl world or, alternatively, on the deracination of the Jewish intellectual displaced from the shtetl and struggling to find himself in the anonymity of the modern city.
It is hard to imagine how these men, impelled by the quixotic vision of creating a new secular literature out of a sacred language, managed to sustain themselves, not to speak of how they managed to sustain their common enterprise. Serving as Hebrew tutors to the sons and daughters of affluent Jewish families in the cities was one characteristic means of meager support. Some earned a living as editors, correspondents, even typesetters in whatever existed in the way of Hebrew journalism (more of which in a moment). Although most of them were autodidacts, some managed to obtain university degrees, usually by migrating from Russia, where they were excluded by the numerus clausus, to Germany or Switzerland, and a few were able to practice one of the trained professions. By and large, the economic circumstances of Hebrew writers in Europe are an unbroken hard-luck story, and so their sheer persistence in their literary enterprise bears witness to their fierce commitment to the idea of creating a modern literature in Hebrew.
We do not have precise data on the numerical size of this movement, but it could never have been very large. As I have intimated, the chief defining focus of the Hebrew revival was the literary periodical, from 18th-century Koenigsberg to 20th-century Odessa and Warsaw, and the circulation of most of these would not have exceeded that of a highly specialized American scholarly journal. The pioneer publication, HaMe’asef, probably had no more than a thousand or so subscribers at the outset; by the time it was faltering, in 1797, it had only 120 subscribers, and yet it managed to limp on, appearing sporadically, for another twenty-two years, still thought of in Haskalah circles to the east as an important source of ideas and literary models. The Hebrew journals were often quarterlies, sometimes monthlies; HaYom, the first Hebrew daily, was issued in Petersburg in 1886. Toward the end of the 19th century, HaTsefirah, for a while also published as a daily, sold in Russia as many as 15,000 copies per issue.
This was in all likelihood the outer limit for circulation of anything published in Hebrew. The typical journal would have had no more than a couple of thousand subscribers, and most volumes of fiction or poetry would have had printings of the same magnitude, occasionally a little larger, often even smaller. If we add to our calculation the probable circumstance that copies of journals and books would have been shared by several readers, it is still unlikely that most works published in Hebrew in the 19th and early 20th centuries were actually read by more than 10,000 people.
Why, then, would anyone with literary ambitions choose to pursue them under such difficult conditions? And indeed, the writers were not free of moments of despair: a famous case in point is the poem “For Whom Do I Labor?” in which Y.L. Gordon, the major poet of the Russian Haskalah, imagines he is the last of the Hebrew bards as his audience disappears into the vistas of assimilation.
There was, to begin with, a negative reason for the fidelity to Hebrew: most of the writers taught themselves Russian, or German, or Polish in adolescence or after and did not have sufficient mastery of the language of the general culture to write in it. Yiddish, of course, always remained an alternative; but in the minds of many of the writers it was associated with a culture they sought to transcend, a culture which lacked prestige for them. To restate this attitude in positive terms, Yiddish, even when it was felt by writers to have the intimate appeal of a native language rich in colloquial nuance, could not offer a whole set of values that was associated with Hebrew as the classical language of Jewish culture.
Only Hebrew spanned more than three millennia of national experience and had been used by Jews in all the far-flung regions of the Diaspora. Only Hebrew was associated with Jewish political autonomy, and the awareness of this association played a crucial role in Hebrew literature long before, and beyond, the emergence of political Zionism. For if Jews were to create a culture like others, not dominated by a clerical establishment and not defined exclusively in religious terms, the great historical model had been cast in Hebrew on the soil of ancient Palestine. The biblical texts, moreover, in their sublime poetry and their brilliant narratives, had a cachet of literary prestige for which Yiddish could offer no equivalent.
Ultimately, it seems to me that the passionate commitment to Hebrew was impelled in shifting proportions by both aesthetic and historical-ideological motives. On the aesthetic side, Hebrew had always been the most valued language of Jewish culture, if not the most commonly used in everyday life, and had long been the medium of refined literary exercises and epistolary art. With a certain aestheticization of Jewish culture that was a symptom of modernity, this attitude toward the language became for some a kind of addiction to its beauties, even to its sheer formal properties: one relished a well-turned Hebrew phrase, an elegant Hebrew sentence, as elsewhere one might relish Mozart or Cimarosa. The abiding delights of this aesthetic addiction could not be replaced for these writers by any other language, not even by their native tongue.
At the same time, many of the writers had a compelling awareness that this language was not only beautiful but timeless—a consideration usually powerful enough to outweigh whatever anxiety they might have felt about the tininess of their audiences. As S.Y. Agnon, a writer closer to our time but deriving from this Central European milieu before War I, once observed of his own classicizing style: “My language [is] a simple, easy language, the language of all the generations before us and of all the generations to come.” Though few Hebrew writers would have stated matters so flatly, in such a provocatively false-naive manner (“a simple, easy language”), Agnon’s assertion expresses a fundamental feeling about the historical role of the language that many shared.
In sum, the creators of modern Hebrew literature in Europe were impelled by a sense that the language through which they sought to shape a new Jewish culture had a unique aesthetic dignity and a unique historical resonance. This sense sustained them in the shabbiest material circumstances, when there was barely a readership to address, when the great culture to come was represented here and now only by the handful of literary colleagues with whom they fraternized and with whom they collaborated on the new Hebrew journals and in the publishing houses.
But even the most ardent loyalty to the language as a repository of distinctive values could not conceal the awkwardness and the artificiality of classical Hebrew as a medium for the representation of modern realities, whether social, historical, relational, or psychological. What was needed to make Hebrew transcend these inadequacies was the bold intervention of genius, which would find ways to make the old language answer to a radically new world.
This shaping of an artistically viable realistic Hebrew prose was achieved in two stages. The first stage was effected from the 1880’s onward by a single extraordinary writer who was rapidly followed by a whole school of stylistic disciples. The second stage emerged around the turn of the century as a vehement reaction against the first which nevertheless built upon it. In order to understand these developments, we need to trace the story of Hebrew prose back to the Haskalah proper.
Although the prose of the Haskalah was by no means consistently biblical, it evinced a pronounced biblicizing tendency, especially in fiction. This meant a renunciation of the other major historical stratum of the language, rabbinic Hebrew (the language of the Midrash, the Mishnah, and the Hebrew elements of the Gemara). Now, rabbinic Hebrew in fact has a much larger and more nuanced vocabulary and a more flexible and precise syntax than biblical Hebrew, but in the minds of the new Hebraists it was the language of the Bible that had the aura of cultural prestige, while rabbinic Hebrew was associated with the narrow learning of shtetl and ghetto which they aspired to transcend. Many writers of the Hebrew Enlightenment seem mesmerized by the intrinsic magic of the lofty biblical phrase (melitsa, which was also a synonym for poetry itself in their usage but would later come to mean something like “overblown rhetoric”). The prose that was produced out of this aesthetic conviction is often a lifeless pastiche of biblical fragments, and when it attempts contemporary subjects one usually feels a grotesque disparity between the organizing patterns and lexical scope of the prose and the mental and material world of the characters.
In 1862, a twenty-six-year-old writer named Shalom Yakov Abramowitz published a short novel called, in a phrase from Isaiah with a didactic flourish characteristic of the Haskalah, Learn to Do Well. Although the writing exhibited a virtuoso’s mastery of classical Hebrew, it also suffered conspicuously from the faults of the pastiche style that I just noted. Six years later, he reissued the novel with substantial revisions, now giving it the Turgenevan title, Fathers and Sons, but not really solving its artistic problems, as he himself quickly recognized. For he now abandoned Hebrew altogether, and during the next eighteen years, writing in Yiddish a brilliant series of satirical novels about Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement through an invented narrative persona, Mendele Mokher Seforim, Mendele the Bookseller, he became the acknowledged “grandfather” of the Yiddish novel. When he returned to Hebrew composition in 1886, producing new stories and reworking his Yiddish novels into Hebrew, he had arrived at a point where he could give Hebrew much of the pungency, the liveliness, the suppleness of the Yiddish he had been writing.
The two chief stylistic moves that enabled Mendele to achieve this unlikely feat were a switch to rabbinic Hebrew and a radically new use of allusions to classical Hebrew texts. In fact, his compendious prose incorporated virtually all the historical strata of the language—biblical, rabbinic, liturgic, medieval-philosophic, devotional, hasidic—but everything was contained within a normative framework of rabbinic idiom, grammar, and syntax. This general adherence to the language of the early rabbis produced a sense of stylistic homogeneity, despite the inclusion of heterogeneous elements. Even more important, rabbinic syntax with its abundant possibilities of subordination made available a new precision in the definition of causal relations, just as its system of verb tenses offered a new complexity in the representation of temporal relations. And from the rabbinic sources, teeming as they are with references to the minutiae of everyday experience, Mendele culled a rich vocabulary with which it became possible to offer vivid depictions of everything from a broken-down horse pulling a wagon and a beggar in rags to a man patiently filling his pipe, lighting it with a glowing coal held in tongs, puffing it up, relaxing into the pleasure of a leisurely smoke.
At the same time, the profuse allusions to both biblical and post-biblical texts, intended of course for the delectation of an audience scarcely less learned than the writer himself, were transformed from inert fragments of a pastiche into satiric flashpoints, repeatedly illuminating the discrepancy, or the wryly ironic congruence, between classical model and modern reality. An 1890 story, for example, called “Shem and Japheth on the Train,” begins with a description of an unruly mob of ragtag Jews trying to conduct trade as they crowd into the third-class compartments. On the surface, the prose seems Dickensian or Gogolian, but it is also reverberant with echoes from the Exodus story and the story of the Golden Calf, suggesting expulsion, without the dignity of liberation, as a recurrent historical fate of the Jewish people and the fixation on gold as an immemorial national propensity.
The major Hebrew poet, H.N. Bialik, a self-avowed disciple of Mendele in his own prose style, nicely summarized the master’s achievement by calling him, in an essay written in 1910, “the creator of the nusakh.” A nusakh is a traditional musical mode for chanting prayers in public worship. Anyone with a musical ear can learn a nusakh; once you know it, you can intone any set of words from the service and so act as prayer leader. Its three most prominent features are transmissibility (Bialik stresses that the nusakh is a collective possession), adaptability to new circumstances (any text can be sung to it), and its status as clarified form, exhibiting a modal unity. In regard to the last of these three traits, it should be observed that Mendele’s prose evinces not only a stylistic consistency in adhering to rabbinic norms but a fondness for symmetries and balance, a predisposition to arrange strings of overlapping or nearly synonymous terms in nicely ordered pairs and triplets (Bialik notes the “solidity” of Mendele’s style).
There was a powerful allure in the traditionalism and the internal harmony of this prose: for an approximate English equivalent, one would have to go back to the 18th century, to Johnson or Fielding. Within a decade of Mendele’s return to Hebrew, dozens of writers were turning out nusakh prose. The last, and most extravagant, practitioner of the nusakh, Haim Hazaz, died as recently as 1973, and the influence of the tradition has been so pervasive that one still encounters little turns of phrase that hark back to the nusakh in Hebrew journalism today and, perhaps more frequently, in a certain style of Israeli political rhetoric.
But by the beginning of the 20th century, a number of young writers had come to feel that Mendele’s stylistic synthesis was a solution that did not respond to the imperative of realism as they perceived it. There was, of course, a certain tonal fit between the Jews of the Pale who inhabited Mendele’s stories and novels and the Hebrew in which they were represented, for at least the males among them were, after all, study-house Jews or Jews who had rubbed against the world of the heder and study-house, however imperfect their actual learning. Their very ne’er-do-well woolgathering drew on the idiom of the rabbinic texts, so the Hebrew Mendele uses for them is, paradoxically, flesh of their flesh, bone of their spiritual bone, even as we remember that their real-life counterparts would in fact have been speaking and dreaming and counting in Yiddish. Many of the younger Hebrew writers, however, like M.Y. Berdichevsky, Y.H. Brenner, U.N. Gnessin, were interested in representing deracinated Jewish intellectuals in urban settings, and for such figures the language of the nusakh belonged to a world of values and concerns which the characters had put behind them. And the writers were not content to refer to modern experience largely through the indirection of ironic allusion, in the manner of Mendele.
There were still more substantive problems with Mendele’s prose. Its classicizing balance did not accord with the new writers’ interest in representing what was discordant, fragmentary, contradictory, ambiguous, and confused in human relations and inner experience. In fact, Mendele offered a model of prose as splendidly wrought artifact, whereas the new writers were variously concerned instead with evoking process in their writing. And as an extension of this last contrast, the nusakh style provides a sharp external view of the characters but does not lend itself very readily to the rendering of the characters’ inwardness, to techniques like style indirect libre and interior monologue. By the first decade of our century, many Hebrew writers, like their English, French, German, and Russian contemporaries, were above all drawn to the fluctuating movements of consciousness as the proper arena for the enactment of serious fiction.
How could Hebrew, still without a vernacular base, be made the medium for a realism that was experiential and not social, as it had been for Mendele? To begin with, it was necessary to write what a purist would no doubt regard as bad Hebrew. I say bad in order to emphasize the energy of opposition or avoidance in this new writing. The symmetries and harmonies of the nusakh had to be shattered in order to achieve a closer approach to the kinetic reality of consciousness. The elegance of perfectly attuned classical Hebrew idioms had to be abandoned and in many instances actually replaced by what amounted to a Hebrew translation of European idioms, for it was the latter that more faithfully represented the unvoiced inner speech of the Europeanized characters.
If one tries to think about the Western novel in generic overview, there are of course striking stylistic differences among writers as well as notable shifts from one generation of writers to the next, but there is also a kind of loose consensus of stylistic predilections—say, from Stendhal to Flaubert to Tolstoy to Conrad and Mann—which one might call, with a necessary tincture of ironic qualification, Standard Novelistic. This consensus would include the sense of narration, from larger units down to sentence structure, as slow cumulative process; a fondness for analytic discriminations and proliferating qualifications, for lists and the endlessly additive assemblage of details; a flexible, constantly mobile use of narrative stance, shuttling back and forth among authorial commentary, report of scene and action, quoted monologue, third-person rendering of unspoken inner speech, summary of thought and feeling.
The anti-nusakh writers of the early 1900’s, whether they had specific European models in mind or not (Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and lesser Russian and German writers were variously sources of partial inspiration), were essentially trying to make Hebrew work as a dialect of Standard Novelistic. With regard to the history of the Hebrew language, then, it is instructive to note that the process of Europeanization that many linguists have observed in Israeli Hebrew actually began in the composition of fiction a good quarter-century before Hebrew was fully revived as a spoken language. This revolutionary change at times results in grating effects, especially in the prose of Brenner and Berdichevsky, but the rapid success of the undertaking is quite remarkable.
A full demonstration of this success would require lengthy quotation and analysis, but let me offer just a small fragment of a sentence from Gnessin—he is a writer who tends toward paragraph-long sentences—as an illustration of the new orientation toward style in early Hebrew modernism. The protagonist of his 1906 novella To the Side is, like the central figure of many a modernist fiction elsewhere, a man without much vocation for living—neurasthenic, sexually insecure and self-subverting, dreaming of professional achievement and private consummation without the will to effect them. Here is the report of a characteristic moment in his chronic condition of quiet desperation:
. . . and the heart felt as though some thin crust were peeling off within it, and that thin crust were peeling and splitting and separating into bubbles, and these were sliding, sliding out and pressing against the chest and bursting into the throat.
The unpleasant but effective simile of the bursting crust and the sliding bubbles is not dictated by any conventional literary decorum or by a traditional association of idioms but rather by the desire to be faithful to the kinesthetic reality of the represented experience. The overlapping, additive movement of the syntax does not reflect any established rhetorical norm of sentence structure but rather the commitment to the verbal intimation of process of which I have spoken.
In precisely this regard, Gnessin actually shifts the center of gravity of the system of Hebrew verb tenses. Instead of simple past (Hebrew: pa’al) he repeatedly prefers either an iterative past or, as here, a progressive past (in Hebrew, both have the same form, hayah po’el). The effect is as momentous as that of the analogous shift Erich Auerbach observed long ago in Flaubert’s French from passé simple to imparfait: instead of a world of clearly demarcated events following one another in steady sequence, things happen habitually, over and over, the units of time blurring together; or, alternately, there is a movement of minutely calibrated process in a kind of experiential slow motion, as in the figurative language here we edge through the progressive verbs from peeling to splitting to separating, sliding, pressing, and finally bursting.
Gnessin, who died of tuberculosis in 1913 at the age of thirty-two, leaving behind only a small handful of remarkable short fictions, achieved the most subtle and complex effects of any of the creators of modernist prose in Hebrew. It took more than half a century before Hebrew criticism began to appreciate the extent of his originality, though he had a few stylistic heirs in the next generation of Hebrew writers. One was Simon Halkin, who wrote in this country two densely lyric novels about American Jews before he emigrated to Israel in the late 1940’s; another was David Fogel, like Halkin also a prominent poet, who produced some extraordinary fiction, thoroughly European in character, concerned with the psychological convolutions of erotic life, while he was living in Paris in the 20’s and 30’s. (He was to perish in a Nazi death camp.)
In addition to its stylistically iconoclastic impulse, the modernist movement in Hebrew exhibits through the early decades of the century the most impressive growth of precision in the nuanced use of terms. In part, this is a consequence of creating a consensus through repeated literary usage on the precise semantic range of classical Hebrew terms. But Mendele’s mining of the lexical wealth offered by rabbinic and post-rabbinic sources was also crucial for the very writers who rebelled against his model of indigenously Hebrew prose artifact. For these sources offered writers of fiction the vocabulary to describe the streaks of the lily, the beads of moisture on the grimy windowpane, the wart on the bulbous nose, and even the various modes of consciousness and inner states of being.
Thus, a single passage in a novella by David Fogel representing a woman’s disturbed state of arousal in the presence of a sexually overpowering man uses yeshut, a medieval philosophic term that means in context “inward self”; da’at, “mind,” a biblical and rabbinic term; havayah, “essential being,” a rabbinic word originally meaning “that which is”; and soon after we encounter hakarah, “consciousness,” a new acceptation, under the pressure of analogous European usages, for a rabbinic term that indicates recognition or knowing. Very little of this literary vocabulary, which has been inherited by contemporary Israeli writers, consists of loan-words, a fact that makes the acquisition of literary Hebrew to this day a difficult task for anyone who has not grown up with the language.
The precedent of the nusakh was important for the anti-nusakh writers in other ways as well. Although their own prose, for the reasons I have offered, no longer paraded ostentatiously in the bookish finery of rabbinic learning, juggling sources as it went, they followed Mendele in fixing rabbinic syntax and grammar as the prevailing norm, a formal decision which made possible the kind of suppleness of statement and complication of temporality and relation they sought. The model of rabbinic Hebrew, moreover, opened an avenue to vernacular vitality in a language nobody as yet spoke.
Mendele as a composer of Yiddish prose had exploited the vernacular vividness of the actual folk language. When he came back to Hebrew, still using a narrator who was a kind of oral performer, he needed to create some Hebrew equivalent for the liveliness of the spoken word. The rabbinic texts on which he now drew made a crucial difference in this regard because they are filled with living voices. The Mishnah is a written compilation of what was initially an oral study of the Law, and it retains in the very cadences and turns of speech of its questions and responses and conclusions abundant traces of its oral origins. The midrashim had a prehistory as actual sermons, and in their homey diction and their lively imagery they often strive toward a literary recreation of the living immediacy of the preacher addressing his congregation. Thus the rabbinic classics possess what could be called a vernacular-like character, for all their manifest status as literary texts. Mendele turned this vernacular-like character to artistic account in creating a credible theatrical voice for his itinerant bookseller-narrator who reports on life in the Pale. A generation later, Gnessin tapped the more subdued and reflective elements of speech in rabbinic Hebrew to evoke persuasively the rhythms of inner speech of characters who would actually have been thinking in Russian or Yiddish.
Conventional wisdom associates the rise of the novel elsewhere with a bold new embrace of the vernacular in narrative prose. It is a formula that in England has always worked well enough for Defoe and Richardson, but only marginally for Sterne and not at all for Fielding. Reading European and American novelistic prose in the light of the seemingly anomalous example of Hebrew, one notices more readily that the language of realism is only rarely a performance of the vernacular but is typically a complex system of equivalences for the vernacular that includes only local citation of and oblique allusion to actual spoken usage. Indeed, it is by no means a simple or natural operation to appropriate the vernacular for literary purposes, as the example of the 19th-century American novel before Mark Twain will suggest. The mediation of literary models to show how the vernacular can be used is usually indispensable.
In Hebrew, the first generation since ancient times of writers who were native speakers of the language became active in the 1940’s (the so-called Palmach Generation). One might have thought that their prose would exhibit a new colloquial naturalness; but as the Israeli critic Gershon Shaked has persuasively demonstrated, Palmach Generation writing tends to be self-consciously “literary” in the pejorative sense, abounding in mannered locutions, rhetorical insistences, and replications of the clichés of European and American prose. It is only with more recent writers like Shabtai, Ben-Ner, Amalia Kahana-Carmon, and the later Yehoshua that Hebrew prose attains the subtlety and suppleness it reached by the early decades of this century among its best practitioners in European centers like Odessa, Vilna, Vienna, Berlin, and Paris. And most instructively, the prose of the finest contemporaries begins to sound more like that of the anti-nusakh current at the turn of the century than of their immediate predecessors in Israeli fiction.
This strange episode in literary history leads one to ponder the relation between language and national consciousness, on the one hand, and language and the representation of reality, on the other. By all rights, Hebrew on the threshold of the modern era should have been a dead language, or at any rate a purely academic or clerical one. The quixotic effort, improbably crowned with success, to create an “as-if” Hebrew world in fiction on European soil demonstrates that at least for this intellectual elite the Hebrew of the classical texts presented not a fossilized past but a crystallized living reality. The language potently persisted in their minds as the timeless, distinctive, and authoritative language of the Jewish people, and so it could become the solid basis of a new collective existence, of a cogent cultural nationalism, before Zionism was conceived.
The general principle of literary expression manifested in their enterprise is that literary realism is by no means dependent on a transcription of living speech but, on the contrary, always needs the stylistic norms and conventions of antecedent literature in order to achieve its compelling approximations of immediate experience. The success of the early modern Hebrew writers, working without a vernacular base, reveals something of how written language, in all its powerful internal cohesiveness as a formal system evolving through time and accumulating historical associations, may be deployed to evoke the feel and weight and complexity of the real world.