[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)'
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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
> 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.
> 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."
> 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.
> 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.
> _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.
> . Walter Benjamin, "The Task of the Translator," in _Walter
> Benjamin: Selected Writings 1913-1926 _(Cambridge, MA: Harvard
> University Press, 1996), 253-63.
> . Quoted in Menuha Gilboa, _Ben realizm le'romantiqa: al darko
> shel David Frishman ba'biqoret_ (Tel Aviv: Ha-qibuts Ha-meuḥad,
> 1975), 155.
> . 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):
> _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
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