Books: Uneasy bedfellows

Exploring the relationships between Hebrew and Yiddish during the turbulent 20th century.

Hebrew writer Y.D. Berkovitz (photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
Hebrew writer Y.D. Berkovitz
(photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
AS THE historical and cultural circumstances of Jewish life changed in the 20th century, Ashkenazi Jews changed their relationship to the two predominant Jewish languages that had coexisted in separate realms for centuries – the vernacular Yiddish and the sacred tongue, Hebrew. Yiddish became associated with Diaspora Jewish identity, while Hebrew was revived and modernized as the language of Zionist nationalism.
Naomi Brenner’s new book, “Lingering Bilingualism: Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literatures in Contact,” shows that the literary and cultural split between the languages was not absolute, as previously thought. In fact, Yiddish and Hebrew coexisted in specific writers and movements, each enriching the other. Brenner names this “translingualism.”
Investigating Hebrew and Yiddish literature of the years between the two world wars, Brenner attends to the unjustly all-butforgotten or underrated writers like Eliezer Steinman, Ya’akov Fichman and Yitzchak Lamdan, the translator and publisher Rokhl Feygenberg, and especially the bilingual writers and translators Zalman Schneour and Y.D. Berkovitz, alongside figures better known to scholars of Yiddish and Hebrew literature, such as Avraham Shlonsky, Peretz Hirshbeyn, Uri Zvi Greenberg, and I.J. Singer.
Brenner’s emphasis on the translation of Yiddish into Hebrew tackles the central topic of how Jewish literary contact was sustained during the interwar period, when the political and ideological distance grew between Yiddishists and Zionists and as “functional Jewish Hebrew bilingualism” of the Jewish populace as a whole faded.
Brenner’s excellent first chapter on the Hebrew/Yiddish arts journal, Rimon/ Milgroym (Pomegranate), analyzes in depth this fascinating if short-lived bilingual Jewish-language “belletristic magazine” that appeared in the Jewish modernist culture of Berlin between 1922 and 1924.
Brenner builds upon earlier scholarship but makes an original contribution through her focus on the meaning and consequences of this Jewish art journal’s bilingualism and through her readings of the Hebrew and Yiddish mirror texts together.
Although the Hebrew and Yiddish versions of this journal had distinct literary sections, she notes they “shared an identical art section translated into Hebrew and Yiddish,” which “were designed to disseminate a shared Jewish artistic tradition that transcended Jewish linguistic difference.” Because the editors of the two versions of this journal regarded “Hebrew and Yiddish as functionally equivalent,” they put forth a “vision for Jewish art in both Jewish languages [that] defied ideological imperatives that governed Yiddish and Hebrew literatures and criticism of the time.”
By analyzing the languages, their functions, and their historical and cultural ramifications, Brenner shows convincingly that this interwar bilingual journal attempted to create “a holistic Jewish culture through linguistic, literary and stylistic multiplicity,” which would provide “a conceptual middle ground” for the increasingly polarized ideologies of Hebrew and Yiddish Jewish culture.
Brenner aptly explains why, inevitably, this “translingualism,” the attempt to transcend language and culture politics failed, because the politics were inescapable at that time. To this end, she presents insightful readings of the Yiddish poem, “Again, Again,” by A.N.
Stencl, and the Hebrew poem, “On Paths in the West,” by U.Z. Greenberg, both of which appeared in Rimon/Milgroym and which express the profound sense of cultural and linguistic abandonment through the shared Hebraic/ Hebrew word hefker and through evocations of the Jewish Jesus.
Stencl writes in Yiddish (in Brenner’s translation): Again and again Storm and last rays of breath And I am hefker— A crucified way-pointer On crooked world corners! And Greenberg writes in Hebrew (in Brenner’s translation): At the edge of the paths I dug for you wells of blood, You called abandon [hafker] to all who passed on their way to the night feast: A jug of Eastern sanctified wine drawn from the well here to shatter your thirst.
From the study of this brief European moment of Jewish “periodic bilingualism,” Brenner develops her argument about how bilingualism “lingered” in the politically and geographically divided modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature in interwar Palestine.
She presents a fascinating, groundbreaking study of two bilingual Hebrew-Yiddish writers, Zalman Shneour, who switched from Hebrew to Yiddish in Europe and America, and Y.D.
Berkowitz, who switched from Yiddish to Hebrew in Palestine. This analysis studies the phenomenon of self-translation in the context of literary bilingualism and is a major contribution to the larger field of translation studies.
Brenner then studies two 1940s translation projects to bring Yiddish literature into Hebrew.
The concept behind these projects was itself controversial. Yiddish writers, such as Rokhl Feygenberg in Warsaw and Yankev Glatshteyn in New York, were concerned with the decline of the language in the 1920s and then with the destruction of Yiddish language and culture during and after the war.
Many Hebrew writers, such as Avraham Shlonsky, were vehemently opposed to preserving Yiddish through translation into Hebrew because they associated Yiddish with the Diaspora and did not want it to flourish in Israel Nonetheless, two prominent American literary figures, the Yiddish critic Shmuel Niger and Hebrew critic Menachem Ribalow, joined forces to publish in the US, in 1943, an anthology of Yiddish literature translated into Hebrew, Achisefer (Brothers of the Book) “to promote Hebrew-Yiddish unity.”
Also in 1943, Rokhl Feygenberg, long settled in Palestine and already composing works in Hebrew, established a publishing house in Jerusalem Hame’assef (The Gathering/ Anthology) “with the goal of publishing in Hebrew literature written in Yiddish,” in order “to bring the Jews of the diaspora closer to Hebrew culture” and to “rescue every book written in a foreign language whose contents are taken from the life of Jews.”
Although, Feygenberg adhered to the Zionist belief that Yiddish had no future as a living language in the future State of Israel, she acted to preserve in the new Israel the culture of Diaspora Jews in all their languages, especially in Yiddish, the vernacular language of most of the world’s Jews for centuries.
Brenner contrasts this effort with Niger’s and Ribalow’s 1943 American anthology project, which aimed at informing the speakers of each language, Hebrew and Yiddish, about the literary treasures to be found in the other. It should be remembered that there was a significant Hebrew language movement in the US at the time.
Brenner neatly illustrates this tension between translation as a means of preserving the language and as a prelude to the abandonment of the language through a close reading of Aharon Zeitlin’s translation into Hebrew of Yankev Glatshteyn’s famous 1938 Yiddish poem, “A Gute Nakht Velt” (Good Night, World). Brenner shows how Zeitlin’s translation erases Glatshteyn’s ambivalent and yet ultimately positive references to Yiddish culture and replaces them with Hebraic and ultimately Zionist elements.
Such ideological translations did not go unnoticed at the time. Brenner highlights the skeptical reactions to such changes by prominent Yiddish poets Kadya Molodowsky, in a review in Svive (Environment), and Yankev Glatshteyn, in an extraordinary Yiddish poem, “Reading Achisefer.” Glatshteyn’s poem depicts with sly irony how Yiddish dies in order to serve translation, and yet how Yiddish is resurrected through translation. According to Glatshteyn, Yiddish can live in translation only because it is dead: “Translation is akin to murder.”
In the Postscript to her book, Brenner cites a 1986 poem by the Israeli poet Avot Yeshurun, which brings up the question of Yiddish and Hebrew bilingualism. Even as his lines seemed to mock and reject the presence of Yiddish in late-20th century Israel, the Yiddishisms inserted into his own Hebrew style belies this message and, as Brenner skillfully shows, embodies the persistence of bilingualism and translingualism in Hebrew and Yiddish literature.
Throughout her book, Brenner raises central scholarly and theoretical issues about Jewish language literature, the cultural, political, geographical, and ideological rifts between Hebrew and Yiddish, and the attempts in the interwar period to forge connections through translingualism and translation. She treats these matters with authority and originality and makes a genuine and important contribution to the discourse in literary studies, translation studies, and cultural history.
Perhaps the greatest pleasure that the non-specialist reader will find in Brenner’s intriguing book is that, as Jewish writers of the interwar years attempted to mediate between the two languages that encapsulated bitterly opposed hopes for the future of their people, they created and preserved memorable poetry and fiction. The interwar translation projects could not sustain a productive bilingual exchange through the war and the formative years of the State of Israel.
Still, the mutuality between Yiddish and Hebrew, which Brenner’s fine book uncovers and highlights, holds open to today’s readers the prospect of a renewed dialogue between the cultures of Hebrew and Yiddish.