Let Hebrew Literature Be Itself

I very much love Modern Hebrew literature, sometimes in spite of itself.

On looking through Ora Band's Reader of Modern Hebrew Prose and Poetry, I have the same sickening discomfort that comes when I watch a Hollywood movie made in the 40s and set in a version of NYC that does not seem to have any non-white inhabitants. It presents the Ashkenazi Jewish narrative alone (and that in slightly simplified form). All the authors are Jews, mostly born in Eastern or Central Europe, and most of the rest born in Israel or Mandatory Palestine. There are also some quotations from the holy sages, and one adaptation from Josephus. Would including a Hebrew poem or two by Salman Masalha, or Ronny Someck, not have been worth omitting the adaptation from a passage of Josephus' book (originally written in Aramaic but now surviving only in Greek translation) on the tragedy of what happened at Massada two thousand years ago? 

But some of the selections themselves are more unforgivably grotesque. One section includes, in the anthology's words "Hebrew translations of three poems written by children in the Terezin concentration camp." The book gives no mention of what language (Czechoslovak) these three were originally written in. Nor, for reasons past comprehension, does it even mention the names (Pavel Friedmann, Franta Bass, Alena Synková) of their original authors, even though the names of all other authors in the book are given. It is the dumbest of all dumb luck that I happen to have read the originals and know the above information. And in one case, the way in which the translation into Hebrew is done is truly horrifying. Here's the original Czech version of Alena Synková's poem w/ literal translation

  Chtěla  bych jít sama             I'd like to go off alone
    kde  jsou jiní lepší lidé        Where there are other, nicer people
    někam  do neznáma             Somewhere in the unknown
    tam  se nikdo nezabije           Where nobody kills anyone else

    Snad  nás dojde více            Maybe more of us 
    k  vysněnému cíli                Will reach this goal we dream of
    třeba  na tisíce                     Numbering in the thousands
    jen  za malou chvíli               Before too long

Here's the Hebrew translation of Synková's poem, with my literal translation of the Hebrew:

Livróach lemakóm achér        To go off somewhere else
Lanúd, limtsó et hadrachím     To wander, to find the way
El anashím tovím yotér          To nicer people
El éle she'eynám rotschím        To where there are no murderers

Hen po be'elef levavót           Then there, in the thousands
Tfilá achát lo daachá              A single prayer goes unextinguished:
Ki yom yavó , ze yom tikvá       That a day will come, the day of hope
sh'at hashichrúr vehabrachá          The hour of freedom and benediction. 

This is a holy-fuck moment. A (admitedly bad) poem in simple children's language expressing a wish to go somewhere where people don't slaughter each other has been turned into an (even worse) poem in allusive language that is anything but childlike- expressing the modern aspiration of Zionism which the Israeli national anthem calls the "hope of two thousand years/ to live in freedom in our land".  

I cannot for one moment see how the memory of some of the Nazi's most innocent victims is served by what seems to me an act of brazen dehumanization: omitting all information about these victims -their names, their native languages, where their families were from- save that which pertains to the Hebrew Holocaust narrative. All that this anthology deems worth mentioning is which concentration camp they were in, thereby consigning not just the bodies of the living but the memory of the dead to the horrors of Terezin. That one of these children's anonymized, depersonalized avatars should then conscripted by an act of Hebraistry into supporting an ideology extraneous to the actual child's actual words and experience -regardless of the issues surrounding that ideology in question- is a monument to the violence, in every sense of the word, that can be done in translation.

What I have delineated above is a rather extreme example of a phenomenon of selective anthologization when it comes to anthologies of Hebrew literature intended for Anglophone learners. In this case, of course, selective anthologization shades into outright deceptive presentation.

In more sophisticated anthologies of Hebrew verse (and literature more generally) designed for a primarily Anglophone audience, such as T. Carmi's The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse or even The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself, the same lack is in evidence in a much less crude form, a lack so consistent that it can only be a sign of prejudice and ignorance.

On the one hand, there is the total neglect of Early 20th-century Hebrew verse by Mizrachi Jews (some would prefer the term "Babylonian Jews") of Arab origin and socialization, such as Shelōmo bin Ṣāliħ Gabāi, Shmuel Shami, and Shelomo Yiṣħāq Nissīm, all great Hebrew poets who wrote their best work in Baghdad and whose periods of activity correspond almost exactly with those of Hayim Bialik, the canonical founding father of Modern Hebrew poetry (or perhaps its founding patriarch, in every sense of the word for maximal irony.) On the other hand, just as prejudiced but even more foolish, there is the seemingly willful neglect of Hebrew poetry which has been, and continues to be, written by Non-Jews of Israeli citizenship. I call this neglect "even more foolish" because it suggests a gross parochialism, a kind of literary tunnel-vision on the part of either the anthologist, the intended audience, or both, i.e. the assumption that "Hebrew literature" must in some way be a subset of "Jewish literature." It is the kind of prejudice Leon Wieseltier displayed when, in discussing his translation of some of Yehuda Amichai's literary remains he said asked "Is it possible to be a great Hebrew poet and not be a great Jewish poet?"

When one looks for non-Jewish poets using the Hebrew language, the first to come to mind might be a partial confirmation of Wieseltier's admittedly stupid assumption. Elisheva Bichovsky was a non-Jewish Russian poet who studied Hebrew and Yiddish, and eventually made the former her sole means of literary expression, though her first two books were in Russian. Her Hebrew metamorphosis was a function of an interest in Jewish culture kindled at the age of nineteen which developed into an increasing affinity for the Jewish people, eventually to the point of identifying her fate with theirs, and herself, in a manner however complex, with the Zionist project. Her story of non-Jewish affinity for Jewry is an interesting and, especially outside of Israel, oft-neglected one. But one can still, with some qualifications, call her a poet in a Jewish tradition.

Yet Hebrew-teachers and Hebrew-learners often miss the fact that there is not only a modern Hebrew poetry that is not an Ashkenazi offshoot, but there is a Hebrew poetry of some significance that can hardly called Jewish in any sense. And that is Arab Hebrew poetry. 

A broad discussion of Arab Hebrew poetry (and its talented producers, such as Antōn Shammās, Naīm Araydī, Sihām Dāūd and many more) and its phenomena is not my intent here, and will have to wait for some other rant of mine.

Instead, let me give a small taste of what the anthologists are so often missing.

In celebration and modification of the methods used in The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself, and in acknowledgement of the myopia of its compilers, I shall give you one of Salman Maṣalħa's Non-Jewish Modern Hebrew poems Itself, entitled Aní Kotév 'ivrít "I write Hebrew." I would simply give a literary translation of the poem, but here and for my purposes, it is important that one not lose sight of the fact that this is a modern Hebrew poem. (But if you want to see my literary translation of this poem, you may click here)

Employing the method used in The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself,  I give the poem in transliteration and then in prose gloss, going stanza by stanza and offering explication to help the English reader into the Hebrew (the poem in Hebrew characters can be found at the end of this post.) Oh and here's an MP3 of me reading the poem in Hebrew

Ani kotév balashón haivrít 
shebeshvilí eynéna sfat em
kdey lalékhet leibúd baolám. Mi sheló holékh 
leibúd lo yimtsá et hashalém.
ki otán haetsba'ót bekháf 
harégel lekhulám. veotó agudál
sheholékh betsád akév

(1) I write in the Hebrew tongue (2) Which (for me) is not [my] mother tongue (3) To go [get] lost in the world. Who does not  (4) Get lost will not find the whole. The poem opens with the words halashón haivrít to refer to the Hebrew language. Lashón primarily means "tongue" in modern Hebrew, whereas safá is the normal word for "language."  Use of the term lashón to refer to language has an archaic ring to it in roughly the same way "The English Tongue" does to a modern English speaker. (Slightly more analogous is the Modern Arabic connotative distinction between lisān and lugha.) Lashón in modern contexts mostly occurs in miscillaneous idioms such as leshón ham'ata "understatement" (literally "language of belittlement"), but also in phrases such as leshón hakodésh "holy tongue" ( i.e. Hebrew) or Leshón hamikrá "Biblical Hebrew" (and ditto with other stages of Hebrew e.g. Mishnaic, Medieval etc.) By using the term lashón here Maṣalħa is suggesting not just Hebrew language, but the entirety of the tradition that it represents. Contrasting it with safá "language" in sfat em "mother tongue" heightens this distinction and salience.

 (5) Because everyone has the same (6) Toes. The same big toe (7) Going with the heel. - Hebrew, like many languages, does not have single words for "toe" or "foot". Rather, foot is kaf regel "leg-end" and the word for "toe" is the same as the word for "finger." Thus "the same toes" here is literally "the same fingers on the ends of legs." Then Maṣalħa plays with an idiom.   The phrase alluded to is akév betsád agudál , literally "going heel by (the side of the) big toe" (referring to steps so short that the right heel lands next to the left toe and so forth) meaning "to walk slowly, to go step by step, to plod on, to take one's sweet little time." By reversing it to "the big toe that goes by [the] heelside" Maṣalħa is teasing the reader with foreignness, the derangement of normal speech. Rather as if an English-learner were to say "downside up" instead of  "upside down." But looked at logically, it makes little physical or spatial difference whether you say that the heel is by the toe or the toe by the heel, just as there's no reason why the downside couldn't be up instead of the upside down. One is just thought of as more natural than the other by being regularized as an idiom. That one seems stranger than the other is a function of coincidence, and not essence. In context, Maṣalħa's use of this  intentional foreignization provokes a reevalutation of norms. Normality is in the eye of the beholder/speaker, and not in the essence of things. Things are. That is objective. What is subjective is how you describe them, how you do not describe them, how you express their being, how you think of them, how you get used to thinking of them. 

veivrít, lifaamím, aní kotév
kdey letsanén et hadám shenigár 
leló héref min halév. khadarím yesh
beshéfa baarmón shebaníti betókh
beyt hakhazé. veulám, hatsva'ím
shel haláyla shenimrákh al kirót
khasufím, mitkalfím bli ladaát
máhu hapéle hazé.

(8) And [it is] Hebrew, at times, [that] I write (9) To cool the blood that gushes (10) Without end from (the) [my] heart. Rooms there are (11) Aplenty in the mansion that I built within (12) The chest. However, the colors (13-14) Of the night, which spread on the exposed walls, peel without knowing (15) What this wonder is. Regarding form, though the poem is disguised as free verse, maṣalħa is weaving in rhythm and rhyme elements. The em and hashalém form a salient rhyme-pair at the end of two thought groups. Likewise ba'olám and lechulám, though not at line-ends, are both given prominence by the syntax. Akév at the end of S1 rhymes with the kotév "writing" beginning S2, and then with the halév "the heart" in the middle of the stanza. This method of irregular rhyme is somewhat rare in modern(ist) Hebrew poetry, but is rather common in Arabic. The significance of this should require no further explanation. Moreover, beyt hakhazé "chest, thorax" is literally "house of the breast." Thus the house and domicile imagery operates at the level of the pun here.

vaaní kotév ivrít, kdey lalékhet
leibúd bidvaráy. uvéyn hashár
gam limtsó ktsat inyán lemidrákh
haragláyim. Od lo támu tsaadáy.
Ma rabím hashvilím shekharáshti.
nekhretú beyadáy. od esá et
ragláy bayadáyim. veefgósh beharbé
anashím. vekhulám eesé yedidáy.

(16)And I write Hebrew, to go (17)lost in my words. And, inter alia (18) Also to find some interest in the course (19) Of [my] feet. My steps have never ended (I have never stopped walking) (20) How many are the paths I have journeyed/plowed. (21)Engraved by my hand. Yet will I take (22)My feet in hand, and meet many (23)People. And all of them I will make my friends. The word dvaráy "my words" is salient here, because it does not use the normative word for "word" (which is milá.Davár is an archaic word. (In normative modern Hebrew davár normally means "thing, stuff.") It is the Hebrew name of the book of Deuteronomy, among other things, and it connotes a great deal here. It helps to cement the reclamation of the Hebrew "word" in toto. kharáshti means "plough, to etch, to groove" in literary Hebrew, as well as "to journey a long way" in more colloquial registers. The phrase nekhretú beyaday "they were engraved by my hands" plays on the (etymologically different) biblical words nikhretá (being cut off) yadv (hand), suggestive of the meaning "his hand shall be cut off" but also several extended senses. The verb nikhrét in the Hebrew Bible is a way of signifying both physical punishment and disseverment from the Israelites). Add to this the fact that yad also means "monument, memorial" in Classical Hebrew, and one has an incredibly resonant set of textual keys. This is not just a reclamation of the Hebrew language by an Arab. This is a way of claiming a speechright to the entirety of the Hebrew tradition as a non-Jew. 

míhu zar? mi rakhók vekaróv? 
eyn zarút behavléy haolám.
ki zarút, al pi róv
yesh belév haadám

(24)Who is (a) strange(r)? Who is far and (who is) near? (25)There is no strangeness in the ways (literally "vanities") of the world (26)For strangeness, in general (27)[There] is in the heart of man (literally "of Adam") The term havlím "foolishness, vanities, absurdities" is a word found, among others, in Ecclesiastes. (Havél havelím = "vanity of vanities"). As an idiom havléy ha'olám means "worldliness, the nonsense of this world, worldly possessions." Likewise zar "stranger, alien" is a word which in Biblical language has overtones of the profane (but which may be benevolent, depending on context, and is not as harsh as nékhar, "foreigner, outsider") and often denotes non-Israelites living peacefully in Israelite territory who do not become part of the Israelite nation (as opposed to the ger "proselyte")  In modern Hebrew it is the normative word for "stranger." At this point the subtle Biblical playing comes full circle as Adám "human(ity)" receives its full diachronic power, signifying also "Adam" who begat all.

And so the poem ends, bringing Hebrew into modernity not as the bearer of the sacred, but as just another language, one with its beauty, one loved by this poet, and one with its own appreciable history and unique features, but not more or less worthy, more or less sacred, than any other. Not foreign. Not native. What the poet shows us is just the Hebrew language, as it were, being itself, no less so (and perhaps even more so) for being a non-Jew's chosen medium of expression. The language has grown up.

For Hebrew speakers, here's the Hebrew text:

אני כותב עברית
סלמאן מצאלחה

אני כותב בלשון העברית
שבשבילי איננה שפת אם, 
כדי ללכת לאבוד בעולם. 
מי שלא הולך לאבוד לא
ימצא את השלם.
כי אותן האצבעות בכף
הרגל לכלם. ואותו אגודל
שהולך לצד עקב.

ועברית, לפעמים, אני כותב
כדי לצנן את הדם שנגר ללא
הרף מן הלב. חדרים יש
בשפע בארמון שבניתי בתוך
בית החזה. ואולם, הצבעים
של הלילה שנמרח על קירות
חשופים, מתקלפים בלי לדעת
מהו הפלא הזה.

ואני כותב עברית, כדי ללכת
לאבוד בדבריי. ובין השאר,
גמ למצא קצת ענין למדרך
הרגליים. עוד לא תמו צעדיי.
מה רבים השבילים שחרשתי.
נחרתו בידיי. עוד אשא את
רגליי בידיים, ואפגוש בהרבה
אנשים…וכלם אעשה ידידיי.
מיהו זר? מי רחוק וקרוב?
אין זרות בהבלי העולם. 
כי זרות, על פי רוב,
יש בלב האדם.

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