My parents, native Israelis with wide and deep ties to the Hebrew language, insisted, always, on maintaining a Hebrew-speaking household in the U.S. so that my two sisters and I might carry on in the world with “a miracle” of a language at our disposal. I remember my father telling me excitedly that, “before 1948, no one made love in Hebrew!” I was fascinated by the thought of a language existing by virtue of some dedicated people carefully applying ancient, known words to their contemporary surroundings. I would imagine them staring at birds or one another in an attempt to string together some sounds and silences that might do justice to a subject’s fullest character.
But studying Hebrew literature in MESAAS has been one long attempt to bend my thinking to accommodate the reality that modern Hebrew literature is a contemporary Middle Eastern affair. Or is it? Hebrew literature and Israeli culture fits into MESAAS geographically; but Hebrew has long been a shared cultural language of the Jews that only in the 20th century became a spoken vernacular in Israel. A question of belonging arises: how does modern Hebrew literature fit into MESAAS when we look beyond basic points of contact, such as the Semitic origins of the Hebrew language or the many centuries of political-Zionist poetry?
The story of the Hebrew language which I eagerly and romantically adopted as a child is problematic, anachronistic and generally incorrect because it presupposes that Hebrew was dormant from the time of its birth as a Semitic language to an ancient Near Eastern people until the State of Israel was ratified in 1948. This view implies that modern Hebrew language has everything to do with a twentieth-century, Jewish political sovereignty in Israel, while neglecting the reality of Hebrew having been a vibrant cultural language throughout its supposed ‘sleep’ until 1948. We should not ignore its rich life as a language in which the Jews of many regions have been educated, practiced religion, communicated, conducted business and trade, wrote and thought. For example, we might consider the Medieval Hebrew poetry from the Iberian Peninsula, or the 18th century’s German-Jewish journals and literary periodicals which discussed, in Hebrew, the aims of a good and proper Hebrew literature. As these examples suggest, even before Hebrew became the language of Zionism, it was a meaningful point of contact between the Jews and “their” religio-historical traditions, enabling self-reflexive examinations of the psyche and the full range of possibilities afforded to an active, literary imagination. Hebrew has been a language of political action and national self-actualization, but has also served as a language of literary reflection and abstraction.
And yet in Europe and North America, I find Hebrew to be an ‘afterthought’ in anthologies of Arabic, Turkish, and Persian poetry from the Classical period through the 18th century. It is easy for me to read a twentieth-century Hebrew elegy by Yehuda Amichai alongside American theory about English elegiac forms. In Hebrew literature courses, however, recommended secondary reading lists most often exclude the theorists of other major MESAAS languages such as Hindi, Turkish, Persian- and even other Semitic languages such as Amharic or Arabic.
There is, of course, no comparison, in terms of volume, between Iraqi poetry written in Hebrew and Iraqi poetry composed in Arabic. Similarities between modern Hebrew and other MESAAS literatures are often abstract. At best, they are manifest in theological parallel or devotional practice expressed in, say, Arabic and Hebrew poetry from a certain century or two, or in linguistic and grammatical structures. There is Palestinian and Arabic language influence in the modern literature, tremendous engagement with the facts of daily life taking place in the Middle East, meditations on the Occupation and poetry of protest. The possibility of a bilingual Hebrew-Arab population exists, but the reality of Israeli-Palestinian writers is bleak: Anton Shammas and, most recently, Sayed Kashua, have left the region.
I do not intend to be glib. It’s just that there is significant difference between Hebrew literatures and other MESAAS literatures, and I contend that this is because modern Hebrew literature is necessarily slanted to a “Jewish” cultural context (“Jewish” being that heavily-negotiated operative word) that spreads over the various host countries in which the Jews have thought and written, and into modern day Israel.
The modern Hebrew that was championed by Jewish intellectuals of the European Enlightenment and refined through Hebrew literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is only now beginning to display its non-European side through its varied responses to contemporary life in Israel and Palestine.
While Hebrew writers in the 21st century still have little to say about Cairo or Beirut, let alone Bamiko or Tabrisi, the presence of Israel in the Middle East demands writers and its scholars to read and become versed in modern Arabic literatures, and consequently, its theorists.
We might examine, for example, the way Israeli poet Ra’aya Harnick relates to Beirut, and the 1982 war in her poem that responds to the death of her son, “I will not offer/ my first born son for sacrifice/ not I.” Harnick offers several entrances to a variety of readings, at once re-appropriating the biblical story of the Binding of Isaac, and blurs the boundaries between personal, collective, physical, spiritual and political trauma. Where do we draw the disciplinary lines?
The ways in which modern Hebrew literature is distinct (and sometimes not so) from the rest of the Middle Eastern languages is a point of tension ripe for exploration. We will benefit from confronting this literary condition and parsing out its many loose ends, allowing each writer to articulate their own origin story and to till their own imaginative fields.
— Edited by Gauri Wagle