In her insightful and well-researched book Lingering Bilingualism: Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literatures in Contact, author Naomi Brenner investigates the fascinating layers of connection between Yiddish and Hebrew during the last hundred years. Yiddish, a distinctly Jewish language of Germanic origin, is infused with Hebrew, Aramaic, and Slavic words. Before the Second World War, ten million Yiddish-speaking Jews lived in Europe. At the same time, Hebrew, after two thousand years of dormancy, was resurrected as the spoken language of the majority of a far smaller number of Jews living in Palestine. Brenner’s book maps the complex interchanges between these two exclusively Jewish languages.
In the late nineteenth century, most European Jewish writers produced works in both Yiddish and Hebrew. Writing in Yiddish provided a broad audience and a large income. Hebrew was the uncontested language of literary prestige, but few Jews read or spoke Hebrew, so Yiddish and Hebrew, Brenner explains, coexisted with little tension—until Hebrew became the spoken language of the Zionist movement. The common view is that Yiddish then became associated with the weak position of Jews in exile, and Hebrew with the renewed sense of Jewish nationalism and self-reliance in Palestine.
Brenner’s work counters that theory, illustrating that Hebrew and Yiddish both played complex roles, and each influenced the other. She explains, “this book argues that continued Hebrew–Yiddish literary contact was critical to the development of each literature, cultivating literary experiment.” For even when “bilingualism . . . was denied, negated, or believed to be left behind in Eastern Europe,” it still played a dominant role after the Second World War. Brenner carefully and thoroughly follows the points of contact between the two languages by “focusing on a series of literary collisions between Hebrew and Yiddish . . . [to] . . . discern a dynamic cultural field in which literatures were constantly negotiating and renegotiating their terms of engagement.” Brenner shows us that the collision of Hebrew and Yiddish released creative powers latent in both languages.
She examines these “terms of engagement” in the production of dual Hebrew–Yiddish literature between the world wars. The magazines Rimon and Milgroym (Hebrew and Yiddish, respectively, for “pomegranate”) both treated “Hebrew and Yiddish as functionally equivalent.” Both magazines shared the mission “to disseminate modern and modernist Jewish culture.” Although published in Berlin, the editors of Rimon and Milgroym tailored the magazines for audiences outside of Germany. Most Hebrew or Yiddish journals at this time issued manifestos expounding a specific political or aesthetic ideology. Rimon and Milgroym avoided this, in part, by producing a dual-language journal designed to bridge the language divide. Although the magazine was short lived, Brenner argues that its impact continued to exemplify the interdependence of Hebrew and Yiddish between the wars and beyond, demonstrating that “the two languages were in vital and productive contact with each other.”
But Yiddish and Hebrew also met with less friendly terms of engagement. Brenner details the harsh reception of Yiddish in the communities of Jewish Palestine. Despite attempts by Hebrew-speaking zealots to rout Yiddish from Palestine, “Yiddish remained a force to be reckoned with” in the Holy Land. Writers produced Yiddish works in Palestine even though doing so ran counter to the tenants of Zionism. Brenner details the work of several writers who expressed a staunch Hebraic Zionist program while continuing to write in Yiddish. Often such writers wrote in Yiddish to “convert” the Jewish masses to Zionism, but more often they were attracted to the income that Yiddish literature generated.
By the early 1940s, Hebrew and Yiddish had drifted apart from the intimacy they shared during the last two generations. Younger Yiddish writers in Europe no longer had a firm command of Hebrew, and young writers in Palestine grew up in a strictly Hebrew environment. At this time, translation between the languages was hotly contested. Brenner shows that most Hebrew writers believed that translating Yiddish books to Hebrew would harm the nascent Hebrew-speaking communities of Palestine. She explains that none could have imagined that “the circumstances surrounding Hebrew–Yiddish translation would change dramatically,” but of course, after the destruction of Yiddish-speaking communities in Europe, the translation debate ended.
In fact, after the Second World War, Hebrew writers fought to keep Yiddish literature alive through translation. This mission had unintended consequences. During this translation of Yiddish into Hebrew, an inevitable transformation occurred: Yiddish became “part of the Hebrew literary past” and began to be divorced from its singular context. Hebrew, in turn, was also altered by Yiddish translations. Even in the late 1940s, Hebrew struggled as a vernacular language, but Yiddish works in Hebrew provided the more established colloquial and literary language, with words, phrasing patterns, and even grammatical structures that expanded and matured the range of literary Hebrew.
Brenner’s meticulously researched and elegantly written work reveals a unique set of cultural and linguistic conditions during a time when the majority of Jewish people were linguistically and culturally bound to two Jewish languages. Brenner convincingly demonstrates that Hebrew and Yiddish constantly altered each other and presents a solid case for the idea that Jewish culture was truly “bilingual” for most of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and that such a persistently bilingual quality—even to this day—profoundly shaped modern Jewish literary culture.
About the Reviewer
Eric Maroney has published two books of nonfiction and numerous short stories. He has an MA in philosophy from Boston University. He lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and two children and is currently at work on a book on Jewish religious recluses, a novel and, short stories.