The Invention of Hebrew Prose Analysis

Robert Alter

The Invention of Hebrew Prose

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

The survival of Hebrew as a spoken language, let alone its development within a modern secular literature, is a miracle second only to the survival of Judaism itself. Like Judaism, Hebrew has withstood all manner of attempts to eliminate it. The most obvious pressures on Hebrew were external and historical, beginning as early as the Babylonian Captivity (597 b.c.e.) and the Diaspora which followed it; they continued through the Roman annexation of Palestine and the relentless intolerance of medieval Christianity. Edicts of toleration, issued periodically in various Central and Eastern European countries from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, were usually pragmatic, inspired by business rather than moral considerations. They did little to ameliorate the prejudice which contracted the development of Hebrew and did nothing to stop the pogroms of czarist Russia. By the late nineteenth century, except in a few isolated communities in Eastern Europe and Palestine, Hebrew as a spoken language had almost ceased to exist—and this nearly half a century before German Nazism nearly succeeded in exterminating the Jewish people themselves.

Less obvious causes for Hebrew’s near disappearance as a living language came, paradoxically, from within the Jewish community. Yiddish, derived from medieval High German with borrowings from Hebrew, Russian, Polish, and English, was the language of the shtetlach (villages, settlements) in which most ethnic Eastern European Jews lived. Though often written in Hebrew characters, Yiddish is a language quite distinct from Hebrew; the Jewish agrarian peasants among whom Yiddish originated tended to view Hebrew as a privileged tongue, to be reserved for sacred literature. The rabbinic establishment was loath to remove facility in reading and writing Hebrew as one of the few distinguishing characteristics of class. New vocabulary was unnecessary, since its locutions were scriptural, and evolution of the language became static, since the midrashim (commentaries) relied upon formula. An unhappy consequence of this closure was that the teaching of Hebrew became appallingly inept, particularly in nineteenth century Eastern Europe. Boys were taught to read the few passages from the Torah which were necessary for bar mitzvah, and girls were not taught at all.

It is against this background that Robert Alter, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, begins his engrossing study of Hebrew’s emergence as a vernacular language which sprang up within a century, despite powerful historical forces opposing it. What makes Alter’s study so valuable is that the history it treats and the individuals who effectively saved Hebrew as a modern living language are so little known outside the circle of those who can read it. Hebrew resists translation into the idiom of other languages, as Alter amply demonstrates, and the historical climate of the first half of the twentieth century was hardly conducive to attempts at such translation. Astounding as it seems, no substantive anthology of Hebrew poetry was readily available to English readers until the publication of T. Carmi’s The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse (1981). Were it not for translations published in the modern state of Israel, most Hebrew prose writers would likewise be unavailable to English readers.

Alter combines the approach he used in two earlier books, The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981) and The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985), with a chronological arrangement of authors. Though this attention to chronology demonstrates that most Hebrew writers developed in their own milieu the realism which characterized most nineteenth century European writing, the concomitant element in Alter’s analysis—isolation and dissection of representative paragraphs from the works of these writers—illustrates the degree to which each was bound to sacred tradition. Thus, Alter succeeds in showing the unique position of Hebrew as an ancient language which continues to evolve. His work is concerned as much with the Hebrew language as with those who wrote in it.

It is not surprising that the earliest Hebrew secular prose tends to be stiff and didactic. Hebrew writers of the late nineteenth century were struggling to use a tool which for at least two thousand years had had no active use outside the midrashim. Consequently, the first Hebrew work which could be called a novel, Avraham Mapu’s ’Ahavat Tsiyon (1853; the love of Zion), is essentially a patchwork of biblical fragments forced into a setting contemporary with the age of Isaiah. The result bears certain resemblances to the contemporary movement to revive the appreciation of Latin by translating familiar Victorian classics into...

(The entire section is 1971 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

The Christian Century. CV, October 12, 1988, p. 907.