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  • Lasker-Schüler's Languages:Hebrew and Hieroglyphics
  • Samuel J. Spinner (bio)

I will begin with a quotation from Else Lasker-Schüler in its original language:

Ani ben-hamelech mi-Teben sholeach lecha ethamichtav hazeh asher nifkad me-itivenichtav bichtav hakinorim hana'ale sheliri ha-ivrit Ir-Zahav:

vehineni meshiv lecha et etzem hagulgoletasher beyamim avaru kavashta lema'anibamilchama:

adom yifga becha hachesed ka'asher natanli linshom od:

yavo-na dami alecha:

(Der Malik 87)

These words are Hebrew. But Lasker-Schüler did not know Hebrew. Although she famously maintained that her works were composed in Hebrew, she did not, however, claim that she knew Hebrew (Shedletzky 171). And her contention is correct: at least in the single example cited here, she did in fact write in Hebrew. While Hebrew words appear elsewhere in her works—usually as titles or captions of drawings—none of these examples is as substantial as the text cited above, from her 1919 prose work Der Malik. I will demonstrate that this text emerges from a complex of concerns that were current in Lasker-Schüler's context—the avant-garde interrogation of the relationship between word and image and the exploration of modern forms [End Page 701] of Jewish identity. In the case of Lasker-Schüler's Hebrew, and her notions of Jewish identity more broadly, these two areas—aesthetics and the "problems" of modern Jewishness—are fully enmeshed in a manner that was current among (largely) Yiddish-speaking writers and artists. While it is certainly idiosyncratic, perhaps even sui generis, for a writer to produce a text in a language she does not know, Lasker-Schüler's Hebrew was, to an extent, of a piece with figurations of Jewishness at the intersection of word and image across central and eastern European Jewish modernism. And although the scholarship largely ignores this context of Lasker-Schüler's work, I will show that attending to it can help explicate works otherwise indecipherable.1 Specifically, Lasker-Schüler developed an approach to Hebrew—as language and as script—in conversation with Jewish artists and writers (the latter typically working in Yiddish or Hebrew) whom she met in Berlin in the late 1910s and early 1920s. As a result, although Lasker-Schüler's Hebrew text is characteristically daring, it is nonetheless in accord with the efforts of a number of eastern European Jewish writers and artists who sought to demonstrate the capacities of both Yiddish and Hebrew to meet the demands of avant-garde semiotics and aesthetics without abandoning the traditions that preserved the Hebrew letter into modernity. The fact that Lasker-Schüler, unlike these other figures, could only painstakingly write a few Hebrew characters and could probably barely read them, does not make her project incompatible with the broader discourses on Jewishness in the period. Indeed, the focus in the avant-garde on the visuality of text and script meant that comprehending the semantics of a text could be, as in this case, beside the point. And so a Hebrew text that was illegible to its author and readers is not only a fascinating experiment in the creation of new modes of signification but also an attempt to elaborate new understandings of Jewish language and Jewish poetry. The visual aspect of Hebrew—the appearance of its letters—opened a space for conceptions of Jewish language to turn away from semantics and toward form; away from content and toward effect.

Hebrew in German

It was the Hebrew and Yiddish poet Uri Zvi Greenberg who reported, decades later, that Lasker-Schüler had once responded to his offer to translate some of her works by stating that her poems were written [End Page 702] in Hebrew to begin with (Shedletzky 171). Interestingly, Greenberg agreed with her. In a Hebrew essay written in honor of Lasker-Schüler's fiftieth birthday, published in 1924 in the Tel Aviv Hebrew newspaper Davar,2 Greenberg argued that Lasker-Schüler's poetry is an example of modern Hebrew verse (Kol Ketavav 122–29). Revising Lasker-Schüler's famous claim that she was born in Thebes, Greenberg writes that...


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