Menachem Mendel

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Alexandria in America

David Hazony has written a column in the Forward, calling for American Jews to learn Hebrew in order to keep up with the “Israeli-civilization bus.”

Herein lies our trouble. The more time goes by in which American Jews fail to get on the Israeli-civilization bus, the less qualified they become to say anything at all about who we are and what we should or shouldn’t do. The harsh truth is that any discourse that says “I love Israel, but I can’t stand Israelis,” “I love Israel, but could never live there,” “I love Israel, but can’t stand that horrible rabbinate, that horrible Lieberman, that horrible heat,” or, “I love Israel even though I don’t know Hebrew” — all these are variations of a single bizarre theme, a theme very different from what Jews used to be, a theme in which ignorance and love are seen as somehow compatible, in which what you’re loving isn’t really Israel at all, but your own saucy dreams. But there is a simple solution to all this, perhaps incomplete and sure to cause many American Jews to bristle — but frankly it is the only way forward if this peoplehood thing is going to work. It’s the 800-pound falafel ball sitting in the room.

Many people may not be aware of the flourishing Hebrew culture that once existed in America. This culture included poets (see e.g. Alan Mintz’s Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry); journals (Bi-Tzaron, Ha-Doar); and camps (Massad). Much of this activity was influenced by the Histadrut Ivrit of America. See the following description from this book:

Hebrewperiodicalsamerica

It is one of the great tragedies of American Judaism that the knowledge of Hebrew has not been a priority for this community. If Argentinian Jews can acquire a high-level knowledge of Hebrew, why can’t a significant number of American Jews? For some discussion of this question see Hebrew in America: Perspectives and Prospects.

Hazony’s article is a good opportunity to post an article that has been sitting on my computer for some while. The late Gershon Shaked was an Israeli literary critic and after a sabbatical in America during the early 1980′s, he wrote a long missive about his time abroad. This article was published in the now defunct Jerusalem Quarterly and IMHO is still of great importance. In his article, Shaked compares American Judaism to the Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt of late anquity. Some discussion of his article can be found in Hebrew in America: Perspectives and Prospects.

Gershon Shaked-Alexandria-On Jews and Judaism in America

For a recent discussion of a related issue, see Yehuda Kurtzer’s article, A.B. Yehoshua Should Pipe Down. A historical treatment of late antiquity can be found in the article “A Split Jewish Diaspora : Its Dramatic Consequences” by Aryeh Edrei and Doron Mendels. (part I, part II)

7 Responses to “Alexandria in America”

  1. 1
    DF:

    Hazony’s article refelcts his personal politics (as evidenced in his choice of example, “that terrible Lieberman”, or that he sees the so-called tolerance of American Jews as a worthwhile contribution.) He also grossly underestimates the Hebrew knowledge of active Jews, regardless of relgiious observane. Thus, he foolishly asks if anyone would have French appreciation federations if no one knew French. He seems to forget that ALL orthodox Jews (and there are many such Jews active in Jewish communal life), and MANY conservative Jews know quite a good deal of Hebrew, at the very least how to read it. True, not all know the latest slang, but they still know Hebrew. And it is precisely such knowledgeable Jews who are interested enought to comment or take an interest in Israel.

    With all that, Hazony advocates for a good cause, so I wont take issue with his article.

  2. 2
    Menachem Mendel:

    DF,

    I think that there are very few Jews in America who can read a Hebrew book or newspaper, listen to a Hebrew radio broadcast, or watch an Israeli movie or TV show, and be able to understand most of what they are reading,hearing, or watching.

  3. 3
    Menachem Mendel:

    I should emphasize that I mean a book in Modern Hebrew, not a sefer.

  4. 4
    Abba's Rantings:

    DF:

    “at the very least how to read it”

    come on. the widespread ability to decode is evidence of hebrew vitality? MM is correct in his response to you. the vast majority of american jews are functionally illiterate in hebrew

    MM:

    on the other hand, i think that a comparison with an earlier age in america is overstated. yes, there was a hebrew culture movement in america that no longer exists, but it was never a mass movement. it was so weak that imber (“hatikvah”) subsided on handouts from sulzberger, dolitzky (who inherited JL gordon’s mantle as the hebrew poet laureate) ran a cafeteria on the lower east side and gerson rosenzweig was the proprietor of a shoe store in the same neighborhood (he advertised under the name “bet chalutz ha-na’al”). most hebrew journals were shortlived and even miklat and hatoren never achieved wide circulation.

    so while i’m not sure if the quantity and quality of hebrew readership is really that different now and then, i would say that one difference is that then there was hebrew creativity in america. that is completely lacking today.

  5. 5
    Menachem Mendel:

    AR,

    The Hebrew culture movement in America was small, but it was predicated on the belief that a Hebrew culture was possible in the Diaspora. They may have been wrong about it, but it did exist for some time.

  6. 6
    DF:

    Well, now, its true enough that the vast majority of American Jews functionally illterate in Hebrew. But the points I made were about old fashioned Hebrew. Is it really so important to understand modern Hebrew? There’s no compelling reason for American Jews to watch Israeli cinema or read Israeli books. I personally happen to love modern Hebrew, so much so that I always make sure my kids give me the wrappers of the bazooka jokes, and I take out DVDs to watch Israeli movies. But that’s my own thing. I can see why many have no interest in it.

  7. 7
    Abba's Rantings:

    DF:

    “But the points I made were about old fashioned Hebrew”

    the vast majority of american jews are illiterate in “old fashioned hebrew” as well. even if you are referring to orthodox jews, i question their literacy as well, although certainly no where as bad as non-ortho jews.

    “Is it really so important to understand modern Hebrew? There’s no compelling reason for American Jews to watch Israeli cinema or read Israeli books.”

    i think the critique of american jewish illiteracy is coming from different quarters with different agendas. i’m not sure the wieseltiers care about modern hebrew per se. i’m sure he is just as concerned, if not more concerned, about illiteracy in biblical, classical and medieval texts. for him yeshaya, rashi, ibn gabirol and agnon are all important. it is about cultural patrimony. on the other hand i get the feeling that for modern israeli critics of american jewish illiteracy the concern is about modern hebrew as identification rather than cultural patrimony. they don’t view with disdain hebrew illiteracy per se, but rather what it represents regarding apathy toward modern israel.

    “I take out DVDs to watch Israeli movies.’

    for a while i was watching a lot of israeli movies. but most weren’t that good. now i prefer television, although a lot of that is bad as well. but a good way to keep up with newest idioms and slang.

    “I can see why many have no interest in it.”

    i can see why haredim have no interest in it (although of course a lot of torah scholarship is in modern hebrew), as well as why the unaffiliated and non-zionists are not interested, but if one is serious about the national renaissance implicit in the zionist movement, i find it difficult to dismiss knowledge of (modern) hebrew. ve-romamtanu mi-kol ha-leshonos! (or fichte, if one really prefers)

    chag samei’ach

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