Hebrew Is Too Precious to Be Left in Israel’s Hands Alone

The second issue of a cultural journal edited in Berlin and Paris demonstrates that the idea of Diasporic Hebrew should not be written off

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Hebrew letters tiles. The Israeli refuge isn’t a particularly safe one.
Hebrew letters tiles. The Israeli refuge isn’t a particularly safe one.Credit: Zeev Veez
Omri Herzog
Omri Herzog
Omri Herzog
Omri Herzog

Israelis’ habit of viewing their country as the sole refuge for Jews and the Hebrew language is truly perplexing.

After all, a refuge is supposed to be a safe and isolated space – one where you can stay until the storm is over, or the danger has passed. But the Israeli refuge isn’t a particularly safe one. Not for its residents, not for their language, and not even for Jewish values.

And as long as this refuge – which was supposed to save them and their culture – is locked from the inside and the keys are nowhere to be found, they are basically trapped.

Another interesting national Israeli axiom is the fictitious concept of the continuity of the Jewish nation and the Hebrew language, which existed up until the period of the biblical judges and then continued, in an acrobatic leap, to the early days of Zionism.

It records the 2,000 years of exile as a footnote in Jewish history – a mishap, an arbitrary, unnatural mistake; a temporal gap that must be erased insofar as possible from the national consciousness.

This assertion is clearly necessary in order to justify our historical and mythological entitlement to the “Land of Israel” and supposed to lead to a national and spiritual redemption. The Israeli time is progressing toward that.

Hannah Tzuberi.Credit: Naama Landau

Diaspora culture, of course, threatens this linear movement.

A new Hebrew publication, edited in both Berlin and Paris, tests these propositions. The second issue of Mikan Ve’eylakh (which the journal’s website says “can be translated both as ‘from now on’ and as ‘from here and beyond’”) includes Hebrew-language articles, essays, stories and poems, most of which were written outside of Israel (its strapline is “Journal for Diasporic Hebrew”). But as is made clear in its preface, this isn’t a journal for exiles, but rather an attempt to return the Hebrew language to the Diaspora.

The journal tries to rescue the language from the myth of Hebrew’s revival – a mythos that carries weight in Zionist ideology, which situates the language in a single locale of belonging, development and life: Israel.

Tal Hever-Chybowski.Credit: Daniel Kennedy

Mikan Ve’eylakh returns the language to its speakers worldwide, and is aimed mainly at Europe and the United States. It celebrates the Hebrew of the Diaspora, and draws inspiration from Hebrew journals published in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But it also maps the relationship between Judaism and place – especially the national place.

It opposes the Israeli tendency to define Judaism in terms of the Israeli nation, in which anyone who isn’t part of the nation (either territorially or in terms of identity) is either an émigré or a future immigrant – in other words, someone who has a past or future connection to the national space.

And if, like most American Jews, a Jew has no interest in identifying with it or longing for it, then he/she doesn’t count and their opinions needn’t be considered.

In the preface, Tal Hever-Chybowski – the journal’s editor-in-chief and director of Paris’ Bibliothèque Medem, the world’s largest center for Yiddish culture – offers an alternative to the national-Israeli conception of time.

The Diaspora condition, he writes, “doesn’t exist within a continuum, but rather stems from confusions in the road.” In other words, it consists of parallel time tracks, which may intersect or diverge from each other.

As a result, global Hebrew – unlike Israeli Hebrew – includes “every layer of Hebrew from all places and all times.”

The cover of Mikan Ve’eylakh. Can be translated both as ‘from now on’ and as ‘from here and beyond.’Credit: Mikan Ve’eylakh

It doesn’t exist in a republic of letters that aspires to sovereignty, but in a metaphorical city, “the city of the book” – a textual Hebrew city that has neighboring cities with which it conducts trade and swaps traditions.

The position adopted by Mikan Ve’eylakh, as expressed by its very name, seeks to establish an alternative to national Hebrew literature – to restore its ancient glory, but in the opposite sense of this phrase’s separatist meaning in Israeli culture.

One of the essays in this issue was written by S.Y. Abramovitsh, better known as Mendele Mocher Sforim, who is also known as “the grandfather of Hebrew literature.” It was originally published in the journal Hamelitz in 1878.

“Many disputed issues in the life of our people and huge disruptions of its political and moral status stem from the exaggeration of national love among many inhabitants of the planet in general, and many members of our people in particular,” Sforim wrote. “Those who exaggerate the measure of this love and mislead the people must be called to account – because for them, the truth is absent and honesty cannot emerge.”

He added that excessive national love stems from excessive self-love, a feeling of arrogance, of “grandeur and genius.” This feeling is contrary to Jewish morality because “God’s spirit doesn’t tolerate foreign arrogance and a tendency to the trait of excess, and arrogance is thus a lying spirit in the nation and leads it astray from the path of good sense and truth and humility and justice,” he observed. For writing such things, he would doubtless be denounced as an absolute traitor in modern Israel.

Scraped Hebrew letters on a sign.Credit: Naama YM

The journal also includes articles by other authors who are observing the psychosis of Israeli arrogance from a certain distance.

Hannah Tzuberi writes from Berlin about the strange tension that exists between anti-Israel sentiment, anti-Muslim sentiment and anti-Semitism, toward which Israeli politics also acts arrogantly. It’s well known that anti-Muslim racism is entwined, both historically and ideologically, with anti-Semitism.

Tzuberi writes that in the European (and especially German) context, anti-Muslim racism blurs its anti-Semitic roots by perceiving Jews as the “good others,” and investing in their rights. But this tactical division between “the bad other” (the Muslim) and “the good other” (the Jew) is liable to prove nothing but a temporary way station, after which all “others” will be combined into a single enemy.

She wonders whether, for a Jew, “it is even possible to speak and act without being appropriated to the ‘good other,’ thereby providing the hegemony with one of its fundamental legitimizing assets.”

Mikan Ve’eylakh has all the characteristics of a contemporary manifesto. It argues in favor of a “global Hebrew” and the universalist Jewish identity that this requires (but without negating Israel as a place in which such an identity could exist). The journal does this, as manifestos usually do, through a combination of decisiveness and quarrelsomeness.

Particularly noteworthy is a conciliatory essay by Mustafa Hussein, who writes simply, clearly, non-polemically and even somewhat naively about why he, an Arab Muslim, studied and writes in Hebrew, and is thus suspected of being a double agent.

“When I write in Hebrew, I am claiming not Israeli-Hebrew but Hebrew as a language that has many similarities with Arabic as a language, and as a culture that has also been nourished by Muslim-Arab culture.” He positions himself – how scandalous! – as a natural and obvious partner in Hebrew.

S.Y. Abramovitsh, better known as Mendele Mocher Sforim.

The journal’s biggest test lies in the sections containing prose fiction and poetry. Does the literature here provide an alternative to Israeli literature, which is trapped between arrogant nationalism and its status as “the good other” – meaning writing that is designed for translation and therefore blurs its historical and linguistic origins?

In the journal’s short stories (though far less in the poetry), there’s an attempt to create “a different type of writing.” Some of the authors practice an archaic or distorted Hebrew writing; some envelop themselves in a state of alienation and foreignness, in the spirit of the wandering Jew. There are good stories by Dorit Kedar and Tomer Gardi, while Einat Bady’s excellent story, “Experiment on a Bird with an Air Pump,” is a standout.

Bady writes about a family that arrives at an unnamed tourist spot and, following an exceptional combination of coincidences, manages to enter it without passports. The story integrates the unstable family dynamics with the need to declare one’s identity. Without a visa or any other bureaucratic testimony to national belonging, the family isn’t where it actually is; the authorities can’t recognize it or its location. This story is located away from home, both in its Hebrew and in the locale where it takes place, and does an excellent job of describing the treason and liberation inherent in not belonging.

On the other side of the spectrum, in a beautiful piece titled “A Shabbat Like All the Others,” Maurice Olender describes the Sabbath prayers as an answer to this sense of placelessness. The very sound of the words of the prayer creates a home, a shelter for those without a place, something that has been passed down through the generations and is rebuilt time and again through the power of these words.

In the preface to the second issue, the editor discussed a critique of the first edition published in Haaretz’s book supplement about a year ago. Matan Hermoni wrote that the journal’s principal challenge would be continuity. Now, the second issue has appeared, and it ends with an invitation to submit essays, stories and poetry for the third issue.

Now, therefore, the challenge is slightly different. The journal has already made its rationale clear: now it must back it up with literary works that fit this rationale and the journal’s view of global Hebrew and the non-territorial nature of its speakers.

This is no simple task, because the journal must free itself from the basic tenets of Israeli writing and challenge them. But this radical, disturbing and thought-provoking issue suggests this is a fundamental, nay essential, task. Hebrew is too precious to be placed in a single national basket.