Lost causes, forsaken beliefs, impossible loyalties! How many of these figure in, and sometimes disfigure, Jewish history. False messiahs like Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank. Jewish homelands in Uganda or Birobidjan or pre-state Alaska. Yiddish as the official language of the State of Israel. Judaism “reconstructed” as ethical culture or liberalism. Jewish national renewal in medieval Spain or late 19th-century Poland or — and this is the subject of Michael Weingrad’s fascinating book, American Hebrew Literature (Syracuse University Press, 2011): 20th-century America.
With the foundation of the State of Israel and the adoption of Hebrew as its official language, the rivalrous relationship between Hebrew (the holy tongue) and Yiddish (the mameloshen or vernacular) assumed a new aspect. Hebrew, precisely because it had been preserved for centuries in the warm storage of Yiddish, had been reborn while other attempts at linguistic revival (in Ireland and Wales) had largely failed. But its success exacted a price. The destruction of European Jewry had transformed Yiddish, the language of millions of recently silenced mouths, into the language of martyrdom, with its own claim to being the holy tongue; and Hebrew had become a language of everyday use in the Jewish State, including the mouths of peddlers of unkosher meat in Tel-Aviv.
In 1954, the literary critic Irving Howe and the poet Eliezer Greenberg published A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, an anthology of “a literature virtually unknown to Americans” which they dedicated “To the Six Million.” In a heroic attempt to rescue a literature, merely 150 years old, that had been cut short by mass murder, they translated many stories themselves and enlisted the help of numerous translators, among them Saul Bellow, Isaac Rosenfeld, Julius and Frances Butwin. They also provided a stunning introduction, which claimed the great themes of Yiddish literature to be “the virtue of powerlessness, the power of helplessness, the company of the dispossessed, the sanctity of the insulted and the injured.” They took account of the partnership between Hebrew and Yiddish, adding that “Yiddish literature releases a profound yearning for a return not to the supremacy of Hebrew but to those conditions of life that would make possible the supremacy of Hebrew — that is, a yearning for the end of the dispersion and a reintegration of Jewish life.”
That yearning is also the subject of Michael Weingrad’s magisterial attempt at another heroic rescue, of an even more short-lived Jewish literature, the American Hebrew writing of maskilim (Enlightened Jews) who arrived in America as a tiny minority within the Jewish migrations of 1880-1920. Their linguistic and cultural allegiance was to the Hebrew language. Their brief flowering began in about 1915, and by the 1960s most had died or (a crucial fact) moved to Israel. Weingrad calls his book a counter-history of American Jewish culture, a “road not taken” by the majority. The spate of egregious recent books by stridently “non-Zionist” Jewish Studies professors invoking that title of Robert Frost’s famous poem, may well set off alarm bells; but they should not. Weingrad, who runs the Jewish Studies program at Portland State University, is not averting his gaze from the worldwide campaign to expel Israel from the family of nations by excavating from obscurity Jewish writers who opposed Zionism. Quite the contrary: Weingrad explicitly warns against “post-Zionists” imposing their ideological prejudices and “Diasporism” onto these writers (one of whom, Naftali Imber, composed Hatikvah).
This is a body of writing even less well-known to Americans than the Yiddish writers were when Howe’s Treasury appeared in 1954; and Weingrad’s rescue operation is more arduous than Howe’s because he has done the massive work of translation mainly by himself. His book is a major contribution to Hebrew Studies, to American Studies, and to understanding the unresolved dilemma of American Jews, as expressed in the novel Ad Mashber (Point of Crisis) by the preeminent American Hebrew writer Shimon Halkin: “This is America! If it weren’t for Jews and Judaism, you couldn’t find a nicer place in the world.”
The range of Weingrad’s books — and intellect — is evident from his chapter titles and subtitles: “America Is My Cage” — in a zoo for “defeated languages”; “The Indian in American Hebrew Literature”; “I Am Not in New York” — Hebrew writers in small-town Christian America; “Messiah, American Style” — an apparently anachronistic but actually brilliant digression to Mordecai Noah, who tried (and failed) to establish a Jewish “City of Refuge” for oppressed and persecuted Jews (and dispossessed American Indians ) near Buffalo; “The Last Mohicans” — the label applied by poet Gabriel Preil to himself and other remnants of a disappearing American-Hebrew culture. With the death of I.B. Singer in 1991, the whole prose literature of Yiddish had come to an end; the death of Preil in 1993 did nearly the same for American Hebrew poetry.
Secular Hebrew writers were more quixotically idealistic than their Yiddishist counterparts because they tried to create an American center of Hebrew culture at a time when (as Alan Mintz observes in his excellent foreword) “there was virtually no such thing…as a native speaker of Hebrew.”
Nevertheless, they had grasped an important truth: Hebrew, a kind of “portable homeland,” could connect American Jews both to their past and to Jews around the world. The Hebraists’ struggle against the “Americanization” of Jewry in general and Jewish illiteracy in particular was not without notable successes. Numerous teachers’ colleges that trained Jewish educators were staffed by immigrant Hebraists; many prominent Jewish intellectuals were schooled in Hebraist summer camps. Thanks to their efforts, many of us studied Hebrew in public high schools.
Some of the most talented writers, like Avraham Regelson and Shimon Halkin, deserve special posthumous honors as the most bountiful of literary uncles. Cynthia Ozick has said that Regelson, her uncle, was for her “a kind of spiritual model” who made it seem “quite natural to belong to the secular world of literature”; and Hillel Halkin has said that the Zionism of his Uncle Simon “had always been a model for me.”
Yet the failure of the Hebraists commands more attention than their successes. The aforementioned Noah, when Ararat, his proto-Zionist project for a temporary Jewish refuge in America had come to naught, admitted that “every attempt to colonize the Jews in other countries [than Palestine] has failed.” His 20th-century successors thought the addition of a stringent Hebrew-language requirement might create a Jewish way-station in America. It did not.
Ironically, the greatest literary successes were poems and novels bemoaning failure to create a significant Hebrew cultural life outside of Israel.
“My Zionism,” wrote Halkin, “was crueler than theirs” (the other American Hebraists) because he recognized before they did that Jews could not “exist as a historical people except in one place, in the Land of Israel.”
In 1949 he emigrated to Israel, as did most movement leaders. Their valiant efforts were not sufficient to disprove the axiom that, as his nephew Hillel has relentlessly insisted, Eretz Yisrael is the only land and Hebrew the only language to which the whole of Jewish history and the Jewish people resonate and respond.