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What Does It Mean to Write a Modern Jewish Sonnet?: Some Challenges of Yiddish and Hebrew
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What Does It Mean to Write a Modern Jewish Sonnet?
Some Challenges of Yiddish and Hebrew

To Chana Kronfeld, whose love for people and for poetry is a gift

There is a remarkably extensive body of both discursive and theoretical literature on the sonnet, encompassing all aspects of its history, structure, contents, thematics, and prosody. What is equally remarkable is just how little theory exists for the modern Jewish sonnet, in Yiddish and Hebrew. This lack of a robust body of sonnet theory—either by scholars or practitioners—short of, that is, descriptions of individual poems or cycles, means that these preliminary comments must remain fairly conjectural. Two notable historical realities provided the stimulus for this essay. The first is the fact that within less than a century, perhaps some seventy-five years,1 of the sonnet’s putative origin in Italian (c. 1225–1230),2 the poet Immanuel of Rome (c.1261–c.1335) had already begun writing sonnets in Hebrew, making Hebrew the first non-Italian language of sonnet composition. This quasi-nativization of what would become one of the most international of verse forms is a fact little (if ever) noted in the literature on the nature and history of the sonnet;3 indeed, I have not found a single sonnet commentator (who does not otherwise deal with Hebrew sonnets) who even mentions the Hebrew sonnet tradition, let alone as the earliest non-Italian and non-Indo-European language4 in which sonnets were written (one of Jewish Studies’ well-kept little secrets.) The second fact is both how inevitable the appearance of Yiddish sonnets was and how startlingly late they did appear, given that inevitability.

In the modern period sonnets occupy heavily contested literary, cultural, and indeed ideological territory, not only among Jews but among many other (dare one say “smaller”) peoples as well. In the sonnet were concentrated numerous questions about tradition and canonicity, form and content; and particularly among peoples for whom the Western literary edifice exerted a kind of magnetic, if often disputed, authority, the sonnet honed the question of how a people or a culture goes about constituting a “national” literary tradition. The Jewish case is additionally complicated because the understanding of the sonnet can change as one traverses language, cultural outlook, and [End Page 79] political ideology; and in the first part of the twentieth century this could be a journey undertaken in the life of a single poet. This essay will go on to explore and problematize the various conceptions of “Jewish” art involved in the development of sonnets in Hebrew and Yiddish, from ideas of national essence or ethnic authenticity, to others that are culturally hybrid and diasporic. But whatever the details of these cultural trajectories, the common thread is an intuition about the discursive power of the sonnet that transcends form or genre. So often in modern poetry, sonnets are more than beautiful objets d’art, or opportunities to prove artistic merit; they are treated as active and mediating forces.

In what follows I would like to pursue some of these observations with a few tentative speculations. What we see being played out in the writing of sonnets in these languages is a tension in the elastic terms of literary modernization: tradition and innovation. The mutually implicated processes of “engaging” a tradition and of “creating” one are emphasized in different ways in both languages. Hebrew poets have a kind of internal sonnet tradition which they must simultaneously reinvent, especially in light of developments in modern European literatures and the expositors they emulate. Yiddish, on the other hand, until the beginning of the twentieth century had practically no sonnet tradition whatsoever. Its poets must invent for themselves what a Yiddish sonnet is and what a “sonnet” means; and to do this they come up against the influence of high culture and high art traditions which militate against Yiddish for its “low culture” or folk status. To engage a sonnet tradition in Hebrew is therefore both exogenous and endogenous; in Yiddish it is only the latter. This allows Yiddish both the flexibility to create or innovate its own tradition—which it does expansively (if briefly)—and the...