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Reviewed by:
  • What We Talk About When We Talk About Hebrew (And What it Means to Americans) ed. by Naomi B. Sokoloff and Nancy E. Berg, and: Women's Hebrew Poetry on American Shores: Poems by Anne Kleiman and Annabelle Farmelant ed. by Shachar Pinsker
  • Philip Hollander (bio)
WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT HEBREW (AND WHAT IT MEANS TO AMERICANS) EDITED BY NAOMI B. SOKOLOFF AND NANCY E. BERG SEATTLE: UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON PRESS, 2018 ISBN: 978-0-2957-4376-9(paper), 978-0-2957-4375-2 (cloth), 256 pages, $90.00
WOMEN'S HEBREW POETRY ON AMERICAN SHORES: POEMS BY ANNE KLEIMAN AND ANNABELLE FARMELANT EDITED BY SHACHAR PINSKER DETROIT: WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2016 ISBN: 978-0-8143-4136-0, 232 pages, $34.99

Sokoloff and Berg intentionally name their edited volume to evoke Raymond Carver's "What We Talk about When We Talk about Love" and Nathan Englander's "What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank." Yet they only refer to these short stories in the afterword. While Englander's New American Haggadah and translation of stories by Israeli author Etgar Keret make it perfectly reasonable to discuss him in a volume devoted to reflections on Hebrew's place in America and the American university, Carver's connection seems nonexistent. [End Page 218]

As Berg and Sokoloff inform us, however, Carver joined his wife on a fellowship in Tel Aviv in 1968. His ignorance of the Hebrew language and his inability to find himself in a Jewish land made this sojourn a low point in his life. When confronted with his ignorance of the Hebrew language, Carver lost his sense of self in a manner evocative of what many Americans go through when brought face-to-face with the unfamiliar Hebrew alphabet.

The volume's contributors look to alert their English-language readers, whoever they may be, to Hebrew's beauty and the possibilities its offers. Hannah Pressman convincingly makes the case that scholars of Hebrew need to engage public scholarship and new media to accomplish this task. Indeed, if there is an expanded discussion of Hebrew language and culture on English-language social media, it will no doubt attract the attention of more Americans, but should the ultimate goal of Hebrew's proponents be providing a superficial understanding of Hebrew language to a wider American or American Jewish audience? Seeing this as a realistic and realizable goal, sociolinguist Sarah Benor advocates on its behalf. She asserts that the "infusion" of Hebrew into American Jewish life creates a shared cultural legacy through which American Jews can connect to each other.

In contrast with Benor, most of the collection's authors, American-born English speakers who gradually developed Hebrew language proficiency, envision Hebrew as more than just a medium for connecting American Jews one to another. They point to how Hebrew has enriched their lives and can enrich American Jews' lives. English-language novelist Dara Horn explains that she could not imagine her daily life without Hebrew and that her desire to "write Hebrew novels in English" drives her. Thus, she was overjoyed when she read her novel A Guide to the Perplexed in Hebrew, because it seemed so "ordinary, natural, and authentic." In her mind, the translation constituted the true original; it is easy to understand why. Hebrew possesses terms for almost everything about Jewishness that a Jew might want to convey, and the explanatory layer characteristic of American Jewish fiction falls away to yield liberated Jewish expression. Contrary to what contemporary Americans might think, Hebrew is not a provincial or one-dimensional medium. As the editors explain, Hebrew proves able to bridge the ancient and the contemporary, east and west, and the secular and the religious.

It was recognition of Hebrew's ability to bridge disparate elements of his identity that steered American Hebrew poet Robert Whitehill-Bashan away from English in the 1970s. Not only did it expand his spatial horizons by connecting him to Israeli culture, it opened new temporal horizons that connected him to three thousand plus years of Hebrew creativity. This caused him, like scholar Nancy Berg, to struggle with issues of authenticity and legitimacy. Yet...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-5077
Print ISSN
0271-9274
Pages
pp. 218-222
Launched on MUSE
2019-09-27
Open Access
No
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