[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Judaic]: Drori on Sokoloff and Berg, 'What We Talk about When We Talk about Hebrew (and What It Means to Americans)'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Mon Jan 27 11:38:03 MST 2020

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Andrew Stewart 
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> From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
> Date: January 27, 2020 at 4:29:11 AM EST
> To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>
> Subject: H-Net Review [H-Judaic]:  Drori on Sokoloff and  Berg, 'What We Talk about When We Talk about Hebrew (and What It Means to Americans)'
> Reply-To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> Naomi B. Sokoloff, Nancy E. Berg, eds.  What We Talk about When We 
> Talk about Hebrew (and What It Means to Americans).  Seattle  
> University of Washington Press, 2018.  x + 238 pp.  $30.00 (paper), 
> ISBN 978-0-295-74376-9.
> Reviewed by Danielle Drori (Oxford University)
> Published on H-Judaic (January, 2020)
> Commissioned by Barbara Krawcowicz
> In her 2018 novella, "The Hebrew Teacher," the California-based 
> Hebrew writer Maya Arad animates the debate at the heart of the 
> same-year anthology, What We Talk about When We Talk about Hebrew. 
> Edited by Naomi B. Sokoloff and Nancy E. Berg, this anthology 
> explores what it means to teach and learn modern Hebrew in the United 
> States today and why the number of Hebrew students in universities 
> across the Anglo-American world has dwindled over the past few 
> decades. Arad's satirical novella deals with similar questions and 
> could have easily made it into the anthology had it not been written 
> in Hebrew, primarily for an Israeli readership. Both the novella and 
> anthology engage with questions of language politics and cultural 
> transfer, examining the changes that Hebrew studies in North America 
> have undergone in the past few decades. Yet while Arad's protagonist 
> is an Israeli expat who fails to reckon with the impact of 
> globalization and war in the Middle East on Hebrew studies in the 
> United States, most contributors to What We Talk about When We Talk 
> about Hebrew are American professors of Hebrew willing to tackle, 
> some more explicitly than others, the ties between international 
> politics and foreign-language study. Their essays are complemented by 
> the personal accounts of three literary figures, Dara Horn, Ilan 
> Stavans, and Robert Whitehill-Bashan, who tell their stories of 
> living with or through Hebrew in non-Hebrew-speaking contexts. 
> As Arad's protagonist gradually understands in "The Hebrew Teacher," 
> competing perceptions of Israel and of Jewish history inevitably 
> shape much of the debate around studying modern Hebrew in the United 
> States today. When faced with a decline in enrollment in her Hebrew 
> courses, this protagonist wonders whether the reason behind the 
> waning numbers goes beyond the general weakening of the humanities in 
> our age of professionalism and neoliberal economics. Had this 
> fictional character read Sokoloff and Berg's introduction to _What We 
> Talk about When We Talk about Hebrew_, she would have been given a 
> multilayered explanation: First, there is "assimilation," which has 
> "pulled" American Jews "in many disparate directions" (p. 8). Then, 
> there is the growing interest in Arabic, a language Berg and Sokoloff 
> discuss as seemingly more useful from the dual viewpoint of world 
> demographics and national security. Finally, there is the ascendancy 
> of English as a borderless _lingua franca_ and a broadly understood 
> language in present-day Israel. All of these factors turn Hebrew 
> literacy and proficiency into redundant goals in the eyes of many 
> Americans.  
> In Alan Mintz's essay for the anthology, written as a memoir, the 
> very notion of proficiency is broken down into its components: 
> "understanding speech, producing speech, reading comprehension, and 
> writing." Mintz shows how open-ended each of these skills can be, 
> reflecting on his own struggle to attain what others may call "near 
> native" knowledge of Hebrew. He also boldly challenges the idea that 
> Hebrew is "native" to modern Israel more than it belongs to other 
> locales: "When it comes to Hebrew," Mintz proclaims, "nativeness is 
> an invention.... A particular style of orientalized Hebrew spoken in 
> the youth movements in the Yishuv in the 1930s and 1940s succeeded in 
> conferring upon itself the designation 'native.' Other styles of 
> Hebrew spoken in Europe and America were marginalized and deemed less 
> authentic" (p. 222).  
> Mintz's persuasive claim about Hebrew's history is developed in Nancy 
> E. Berg's essay, "The Anxiety of Authenticity." Berg confesses her 
> inferiority complex vis-à-vis Israeli scholars of Hebrew language 
> and literature, eventually determining that as "non-natives," those 
> who came late to modern Hebrew are uniquely positioned to investigate 
> its vibrant literary canon from afar. Berg intimates that the entry 
> of a larger number of Israeli scholars and language instructors into 
> the realm of American Hebrew and Jewish studies has generated anxiety 
> among the "non-natives." Yet it can be as liberating for Israelis as 
> it is for Americans to view Hebrew the way Mintz does, as a language 
> whose history is long and multifaceted and whose study unavoidably 
> shifts as it moves across time and space. 
> _What We Talk about When We Talk about Hebrew_ wages a campaign 
> against parochialism. Adriana X. Jacobs and Adam Rovner present 
> particularly strong narratives about shifting perspectives, analyzing 
> poems they have discussed with disparate groups of students in the 
> United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel. Both Jacobs and Rovner 
> show that talking about Hebrew means talking about translation, 
> dwelling on the transition of specific words and phrases from one 
> language to another and tackling the social and political history of 
> Hebrew translation.  
> Indeed, _What We Talk about When We Talk about Hebrew_ is an 
> illuminating book for translation studies scholars, or for anyone 
> interested in the global circulation of texts, contexts, and 
> ideology. Ilan Stavans's essay, "Dying in Hebrew," opens with a brief 
> yet instructive discussion of translation, focusing on the English 
> title of Stavans's Spanish short story "Morirse está en hebreo." 
> When this story was adapted into a film, as Stavans recounts, the 
> filmmakers marketed it as "My Mexican _Shiva_," a title that assumes 
> knowledge of Jewish rites. The same assumption could not be made in 
> the Spanish-speaking world, as Spanish speakers often use the phrase 
> "it's in Hebrew" to convey that something is incomprehensible (p. 
> 36).  
> Stavans also highlights one of the anthology's overarching 
> presuppositions: not all languages are born equal (p. 37). Some 
> languages have accrued more symbolic capital than others throughout 
> history; others have had to be formed and reformed by political 
> leaders; still others have been revived, reinvigorated, standardized, 
> or banned. Languages are also commonly perceived as more than tools 
> for communication, representing identity, emotional familiarity, and 
> cultural memory. While Stavans acknowledges the key place Hebrew 
> occupies in his own mental landscape, he seeks to empty it of its 
> psycho-political baggage when looking at it from the viewpoint of an 
> activist for Palestinian rights: "I am dismayed by the fact that 
> Hebrew, to its enemies, implies death. Actually, I hate that 'it has 
> enemies,' as an activist told me in Gaza. How can a language have 
> enemies?" (p. 49). If a language can be compared to one's friend or 
> kin, as Stavans argues in his essay, it can surely have enemies. 
> In another essay in the anthology about reconciling Hebrew's 
> contradictory "identities," Wendy Zierler acts out compellingly her 
> ongoing attempt to understand what motivates Americans to study 
> Hebrew. Wrestling with the concept of "heritage-related motivation" 
> for language study, Zierler asks what Hebrew's heritage is and why it 
> does not appeal to all Jews. She notes that ambivalence about 
> Israel's "political and religious values" has distanced large parts 
> of the American liberal Jewish community from Hebrew, suggesting that 
> foreign language study both marks and is marked by one's moral and 
> ideological principles (p. 94).  
> Like Zierler, the novelist Dara Horn contemplates the ties between 
> her religious-cultural background and her long-standing love of 
> Hebrew. She tells the story of her career as a "professional Jewish 
> nerd," beginning with her habitual reading of the weekly Torah 
> portion as a young girl and ending with her alleged revelation that 
> her English novels' Hebrew translations are in fact "the original" 
> versions of the same texts (p. 35). Translation studies scholars may 
> once again rejoice in the questions this statement raises. Horn seems 
> to believe that Hebrew's roots (pun intended) elevate it to the 
> status of what Walter Benjamin has dubbed "pure language."[1] 
> Fetishizing Hebrew, Horn's essay echoes the exclusionary poetics of 
> canonical Hebrew writers like David Frishman, who insisted in the 
> early 1900s that his translations of Friedrich Nietzsche and Lord 
> Byron's Bible-inspired works are "restorations" rather than 
> derivative iterations.[2] 
> Less psychologically and politically loaded are Naomi Sokoloff, 
> Hannah S. Pressman, and Sarah Bunin-Benor's essays about learning, 
> teaching, and disseminating Hebrew in the United States today. 
> Sokoloff issues a call for the production of more language memoirs 
> about Hebrew (in English), while Pressman and Bunin-Benor share 
> pedagogical and research advice through their respective accounts of 
> using digital tools for advancing Hebrew studies and of understanding 
> the function of "immersion" and "infusion" in Hebrew-education 
> programs. Bunin-Benor criticizes purism as an approach to language 
> teaching, yet displays what can be deemed a purist view of Jewish 
> national difference. She deploys the term "Jewish languages" 
> uncritically, not taking into account recent works that have shown 
> how this category reifies rather than problematizes the idea of 
> Jewish difference.[3]  
> _What We Talk about When We Talk about Hebrew_ invites the reader to 
> think precisely about such questions of perspective and terminology, 
> joining previous inquiries into Jewish language politics while also 
> expanding them through first-person narratives. The combination of 
> academic investigation and memoir makes this anthology a trove of 
> insights about language, translation, and Jewish history. This 
> combination is at its best in the pair of essays dedicated to Robert 
> Whitehill-Bashan's American Hebrew poetry. Whitehill-Bashan himself 
> explains how writing in Hebrew has required him to strip away his 
> defenses, whereas the scholar Michael Weingrad, interpreting 
> Whitehill-Bashan's work, claims that it embodies a kind of cultural 
> and territorial schizophrenia. Whether one agrees with the use of the 
> term "schizophrenia" to describe a bilingual state of being is beside 
> the point. Like all other parts in What We Talk about When We Talk 
> about Hebrew, Whitehill-Bashan and Weingrad's essays encourage the 
> reader to strip away her own defenses in order to reassess her 
> attachment to any language, "native" or not. 
> Notes 
> [1]. Walter Benjamin, "The Task of the Translator," in _Walter 
> Benjamin: Selected Writings 1913-1926 _(Cambridge, MA: Harvard 
> University Press, 1996), 253-63.   
> [2]. Quoted in Menuha Gilboa, _Ben realizm le'romantiqa: al darko 
> shel David Frishman ba'biqoret_ (Tel Aviv: Ha-qibuts Ha-meuḥad, 
> 1975), 155. 
> [3]. Yasemin Yildiz, _Beyond the Mother Tongue: The Postmonolingual 
> Condition_ (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012); Ella Shohat, 
> "The Invention of Judeo-Arabic," _Interventions_ 19, no. 2 (2016): 
> 153-200. 
> _Danielle Drori holds a PhD in modern Hebrew literature from New York 
> University. She teaches at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research 
> and will be a visiting scholar at the Centre for Hebrew and Jewish 
> Studies at Oxford University in 2020._ 
> Citation: Danielle Drori. Review of Sokoloff, Naomi B.; Berg, Nancy 
> E., eds., _What We Talk about When We Talk about Hebrew (and What It 
> Means to Americans)_. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. January, 2020.
> URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54248
> This work is licensed under a Creative Commons 
> Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States 
> License.

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