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A New Sound in Hebrew Poetry: Poetics, Politics, Accent (review)

From: Hebrew Studies
Volume 53, 2012
pp. 428-431 | 10.1353/hbr.2012.0034

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

One would hardly expect a scholarly study of language, accents, and poetics in early twentieth-century Palestine to begin by invoking Gene Simmons (former lead singer of KISS) as a pivotal cultural referent, but it is a sign of author Miryim Segal's good humor and remarkable capacity for channeling broad currents of popular culture and identity in portraying the emergence of Zionist national culture and language, that she not only does so gracefully but in a manner that cogently sets up the complex argument about the far-reaching stakes and consequences of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda's vigorous promotion of the Sephardic stress system that follows. Segal relates that she once tuned in to a public radio show just as the former rocker (who was actually born in Israel just after the founding of the state) was complaining about the interviewer's pronunciation of his Hebrew name: "It's not Hayim, which is the sort of sniveling please-don't-beat-me-up Ashkenazi European way. The sefaradit way is the correct way. It's Hayim, emphasis on the second vowel, like the Israelis do." Segal cannot resist identifying Simmon's reproach as utterly

in tune with a cultural phenomenon that preceded the founding of the State and that was continually reinforced with the increasing institutionalization of Hebrew as the official national language of the pre-State Jewish settlement in Palestine and the State of Israel. The accent system he invokes is indeed associated with a masculine, nationalist persona, contrasted with what from an Israeli perspective is an outdated Ashkenazic Hebrew.

(pp. xi, xii)

From this contemporary exemplar of the gender politics of Hebrew, Segal effectively launches her study backward in time to 1906, when a young Hebrew writer in London sent a letter to a resident of Rishon le-Tsiyon in 1906 to eagerly inquire whether there was "a decent publishing house in Jaffa" where he might find employment, and, with equal urgency it seems: "do you talk to each other solely in Hebrew—and which accent?" (p. 1; emphasis added).

Segal reminds readers just how reasonable, indeed essential, it was to ask such a question at that moment in time:

Of the many languages in Ottoman-ruled Palestine, Hebrew alone reverberated with both the diversity of established Jewish communities and the sound of stammering newcomers. Ashkenazic immigrants in the late eighteenth century, mostly members of Hasidic sects, had formed minorities within the Sephardic communities and received support from them.

(p. 1)

As the population grew, the school system of the Yishuv was a crucial site for the metamorphosis of Hebrew into the effective proto-national language; accordingly Segal's first chapter delineates the parallel rise of the Sephardic accent stress system within poetry and the schools. In chapter 2, she complicates received notions of an indigenous Palestinian Hebrew by identifying three disparate pronunciations, each with its own claims for "authenticity," each vying for linguistic hegemony. Throughout these early chapters, Segal keenly attends to the inherent contradictions of linguistic gendering as well as further inevitable contradictions arising from the fact that the shapers of literary and colloquial Hebrew took pride in the language's ancient origins even as they sought to fully align it with modernity.

Literary scholars may feel most rewarded by Segal's third and fourth chapters which adroitly address a range of poetic genres and literary movements (women's poetry, Labor poetry, folk song) as well as canonical figures such as Avraham Shlonsky through a series of brilliant close readings. Segal is especially interested in examining how poetry presented the New Hebrew, not just through poetic tropes, but by invoking the new accent as the authentic, living, territorialized language of Jewish labor and the immigrant yet "native" figure of the New Hebrew. Intriguingly, the only figure whose poetics were stubbornly voiced almost exclusively in Ashkenazic Hebrew is Bialik.

Segal's compelling epilogue grapples with the ironic case of the national poet who resisted the new-accent Hebrew that was effectively the national language throughout much of the poet's creative life. This leads to a profound speculation, representative of Segal's sophisticated analysis throughout:

The national poet reminds the nation of the desire that...



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