- What Must be Forgotten: The Survival of Yiddish in Zionist Palestine
To tell the story of loss is to create presence. This seems to be the cardinal rule behind Yael Chaver's lovingly rendered world of Yiddish letters in the Yishuv. What Must be Forgotten is a beautiful and important book, uncovering and resuscitating a part of Yishuv experience which was, as the author demonstrates, a more essential part of life than mainstream historiography would have us [End Page 151] believe. For anyone familiar with modern Hebrew literature, this book will be engrossing, enlightening, and occasionally provocative.
Chaver's study alternates between case studies of individual authors (Zalmen Brokhes, Avrom Reiss, and Rikuda Potash) and historical surveys of the role of language in modern Jewish nationalism. The detailed and well-researched panorama of modern Jewish letters analyzes both canonical and lesser-known works. Sometimes the author leads us to a surprising place and then leaves us there—as in the assertion describing Brenner and Agnon as "the major voices of difference in the cultural consensus" (p. 44). While this study does read their work in a way that convincingly demonstrates both writers' proclivity for linguistic diversity, it is difficult to conceive of two such canonical giants as paragons of difference.
Beneath the extraordinary cast of characters that Chaver assembles is an important subplot concerning the rise of Hebrew and the demise of Yiddish as modern literary vernaculars. In contradistinction to the familiar tale of Zionist, and later Israeli, institutional distaste (to put it mildly) for Yiddish and everything it stood for, Chaver's nuanced reading of Jewish culture in the Yishuv demonstrates just how close the average experience of most immigrants to Yiddish literature may have been. This is a more radical proposition than it perhaps sounds. However, just as Israeli sociologists and social historians have begun to depict the Yishuv "from down under," this study shows how Yiddish literary texts succeeded in representing the psychological flavor of immigrant experience in terms that are both familiar and strange—the overwhelming tension between isolation and belonging, the exoticness of the landscape and its multitudes, the pressures of the collective upon the individual—themes which Hebrew literature did not fully engage until much later.
Scholars of literary history are increasingly sensitive to questions of geography and place, and Chaver's study is part of this general re-mapping of Jewish and Hebrew literary history. As the centers of Hebrew literary production migrated out of Eastern Europe to the Mediterranean, the problem of naming emerged, and remains. What do we call Hebrew texts written in Palestine before 1948: Eretz-Yisraeli literature? Yishuv writing? How, after all, does Yiddish writing in Palestine fit any preconceived notions about 20th century Jewish writing? In some sense, these writers were in the "right place." But, significantly, they weren't writing in the "right language." What is enabled by this productive "mistake" is at the heart of Chaver's study.
Brokhes's work is a case in point. The fluidity of identity and social heterogeneity in Brokhes's work reminded this reader of Y. L. Peretz's ethnographic landscape, especially in "Impressions of a Journey to Tomaszov" (1890). The comparison may be instructive: Peretz returned to his native environs, the [End Page 152] shtetlech surrounding Warsaw, in search of statistical research to refute antisemitic accusations of parasitism and draft-dodging. The work's critique derives from the delicate and often precarious position of the author-cum-narrator, who is both enlightened observer and sympathetic landsman. Which brings us to the question: in what sense is Zalmen Brokhes's work "Palestinian"? The study describes a relatively brief body of work produced in Palestine: according to Chaver, Brokhes "spent ten formative years in a Zionist environment" and "eventually returned to the Diaspora, in which he lived for most of his long life" (p. 91). Is Brokhes's critique enabled by the fact that he was "passing through"? Surely I am not suggesting a "love it or leave it" scenario. Peretz did not...