Viva Voce: Vicissitudes of the Spoken Word in Hebrew Literature

Alan Mintz


One advantage Yiddish writers had in transforming Yiddish into a modern literary language was that the language was already a vehicle for natural speech. In this area, Hebrew literature had to play catch-up during the course of the long twentieth century. The relationship between the spoken word and the written word in Jewish culture is tangled and shifting. That relationship was clarified and inverted with the emergence of the Hebrew Haskalah, at the center of which stood sifrut (literature), which asserted the primacy of the written word. Initially, the maskilim modeled Hebrew dialogue on Biblical examples. This essay examines two early texts in order to analyze their different responses to the problem of representing speech in Hebrew: Abramovitsh’s story “Hanisrafim” and Y. H. Brenner’s Baoref. Abramovitsh opts to employ the mode of Rabbinic Hebrew to render Yiddish conversation, provocatively implying that the two represent equivalent language systems, and that the former provided the original source for some of the latter’s essential features. Brenner, on the other hand, through his use of internal monologue, his marked borrowing from Yiddish, and his decontextualized Biblical quotation problematizes the non-spoken essence and isolation of modern Hebrew language and literature. Even today this problem has not been solved; Israeli literature—as well as the society it writes about—is conspicuously non-dialogical. Instead, its writers can be divided into two categories: those who paint word pictures by exploiting the far-reaching resources of the Hebrew language, and those who find reality vividly revealed in the idiolect of individual human voice distilled on the page.

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In the kulturkampf that raged between Hebrew and Yiddish at the turn of the twentieth century, Hebrew, despite its aristocratic lineage, was at a pronounced disadvantage when it came to representing speech. The deficit was less noticeable in poetry, but when prose writers sought to convey the fullness of the lived life, including the way people conversed with one another, they had few models to imitate. If no one really spoke Hebrew at the time, it might be said that in the case of Yiddish all people did. The givenness of natural speech in Yiddish was indisputably the great asset in creating a modern literary language. In this area Hebrew literature had to play catch-up during the course of the long twentieth century. I will first attempt to define the contours of the challenge and then discuss several exemplary stations along the way toward naturalizing speech in Hebrew literature.

The invention of a modern Hebrew literature, to begin with, necessarily entailed an inversion of the relationship between writing and speaking in the classical tradition. During the formation of Judaism in Late Antiquity, the continuing relevance of the written Torah was guaranteed and extended on the strength of the oral Torah. This Torah shebe’al peh, which was held to have been revealed to Moses at Sinai, was transmitted orally from one generation of authorities to another, and it was from this privileged oral wisdom that sacred texts could be endowed with supplements of meaning. Torah sages, especially during the time of the Mishnah, were scholars who were adept not only in interpreting the law but in transmitting it accurately through memorization and accurate repetition. Surely expense was a factor; scrolls were largely reserved for canonical texts, not the belated exegesis of them. When teachings are eventually committed to writing, whether Yehudah Hanasi’s Mishnah at the end of the second century C.E. or Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah one thousand years later, it is always in response to a crisis in the reliability of oral transmission, whether because of dispersion or persecution. And it is always second best. Even after the Guttenberg revolution, the written, now printed, word remained suspect. The reputation of a great personage, whether a Talmud scholar or a Hasidic rebbe, was established by making disciples, who in turn disseminated the words of the master. It was usually only after his death that the teachings were collected, written down, and published abroad. Epistles and responsa, documents written by hand and intended for immediate circulation for pragmatic or controversial ends, belong to an in-between category; and they illustrate how tangled and shifting was the relationship between the spoken word and the written word as Jewish culture moves into the early modern period and beyond.

That relationship was clarified and inverted with the emergence of the Hebrew Haskalah. At the center of the Haskalah stood the concept of literature in all its glory. Sifrut is the term that was coined in the nineteenth century as a Hebrew equivalent for “literature” (German, Literatur, Italian: letterture), referring to written works considered to be very good or of lasting importance. Letters, books, and the act of inscription are woven into the etymology of both “literature” and sifrut 1 1 The Aramaic term safruta refers to the craft of the scribe. . The very idea of literature presupposes the superiority of written words over spoken words. In the Tradition, authority is founded upon God’s creative word embodied in Scripture, which in turn is interpreted orally and then, only reluctantly, written down. In literature, it is human utterance in written form that unapologetically creates meaning and demands devotion; and that is why literature, no matter how domesticated, will always—and correctly—be perceived as a threat to Orthodoxy.

The primacy of the written word is reflected in the sitz im leben of the new Hebrew literature. Aside from Odessa in the late part of the nineteenth century, there was no literary center where writers or readers interacted face to face. Young men scattered across Lithuania, White Russia, and Galicia wrote poems and penned sketches that they hoped to have published in periodicals such as Hamagid. They viewed their literary work as a sacred act, and publication in print was the means by which they could make contact with other communicants. This was a motley group of doubting yeshiva students, principled maskilim, merchants with a smattering of European culture, and lovers of Zion who were drawn together into a community that remained largely virtual and invisible, living on and from the letter alone.

We often point with pride and wonderment to the fact that modern Hebrew literature emerged nearly a century before organized Zionism and the settlement of the Land of Israel and even the beginnings of a critical mass of Hebrew speakers. This is indeed a confirmation of the power of the linguistic dimension of the Jewish national idea to take hold at a time when its territorial realization was only a dream. Yet the early success of modern literary Hebrew can draw our attention away from the difficulties imposed by the absence of communities in which Hebrew was spoken. Because of the eventual triumph of spoken Hebrew, moreover, we sometimes locate signs of its ascendency too early, as if it was already always there. Even once the main producers and institutions of Hebrew literature had been transferred to Palestine by the mid-1920s and Hebrew had become the official medium of the Yishuv, the number of people speaking it on a day-to-day basis in their private lives was quite small. At home most people spoke Yiddish or Russian or Polish, because being “at home” in Hebrew remained an unnatural thing. No greater proponent of the Hebrew renaissance than Bialik famously quipped: Hebreyish redt men; yidish redt zikh (One speaks Hebrew; Yiddish speaks itself). The real naturalization of Hebrew began with the children born to these immigrants, especially those who grew up in agricultural settlements and youth movements.

Which is to say that the problem of representing speech in Hebrew prose began early and lasted for a very long time. Hebrew writers, to the extent that they aspired to write mimetically, had to find ways to express in Hebrew conversation that took place in other languages, typically Yiddish or Russian. For much of the nineteenth century, the normative solution was to appropriate models of dialogue from the Hebrew Bible, where they can be found in great variety. This practice worked well for the maskilim for both ideological and rhetorical purposes. They viewed biblical Hebrew much in the way Greek and Latin were viewed in the Renaissance as pure, foundational classical languages worthy of serving as a basis for a renewed culture. The elevated diction of the Bible further aligned nicely with their conception of the decorum befitting literature written in Hebrew. The great exception to this rule is the maskil whose audacious masterpiece has only recently begun to get the attention it deserves. Josef Perl’s Megaleh temirin [Revealer of Secrets, 1819] is instructive for the purposes of this inquiry precisely because it stoops to conquer. In order to ridicule the superstitions and inanities of Hasidism, Perl parodies the coarse and ungrammatical Hebrew, replete with Yiddishisms and Germanisms, used by Hasidim in their correspondence. Because it is epistolary in its conception, Megaleh temirin is made up wholly of letters exchanged by its Hasidic correspondents, and Perl’s own proper maskilic Hebrew is nowhere to be found. Yet in a way Perl could not have anticipated, the tables are turned. The parodies of Hasidim end up delivering the kind of boorish and even bawdy vitality that was entirely lacking in the overly refined Hebrew of the Haskalah. To complicate things, this contribution is made by what might be called the Yiddishizing of Hebrew. Although such epistles were regularly written in loshn koydesh, their Hebrew is a transcription of Yiddish syntax and thought patterns. This was indeed how people truly spoke and thought, hastily and roughly transcribed into Hebrew.

Tracing the representation of human speech in Hebrew literature would be a rewarding but ambitious undertaking. For the purposes of this essay, I’ve chosen two early examples that convey different responses to the challenge. It is important to point out at the outset that positing a naturalistic representation of speech, conversation, or discourse as a goal is more complex and elusive than may first appear. One factor, which has been mentioned, is that the very object of representation is going through many changes as speakers switch languages—with many hybrid combinations along the way—and Hebrew itself becomes adapted to actuality and thereby more serviceable as a pragmatic mode of communication. The other factor is a universal consideration about what writers do with dialogue in fiction. The representation of speech, no matter how authentic, is always critical and selective and never a transcription of the phenomenon itself. Writers strive for the effect of the authentic by artful compression and stylization aimed at conveying the essence of a character. Hesitations, repetitions, and banalities may sometimes be used for strategic purposes but not out of fidelity to “reality.”

My first example is taken from Abramovitsh’s story “Hanisrafim” [Burnt Out, 1897]. The story describes the encounter between Mendele the Bookseller and a caravan of Jews from his native town Beggarsburg (Kabtsiel), who have taken to the road to beg for alms after a portion of the town was destroyed by fire. Whereas the first part of the story skewers the Beggarsburghers for their primitive sanitation and their avoidance of responsibility for their woes, the second part pivots and assails the Jewish community for failing to come to the aid of their brethren. In this selection, taken from the second part, Mendele converses with Yehieh-Mordechia, described as a “good and honest man and learned in Torah.” The translation is by Jeffrey M. Green.

“Tell me please, Reb Yehiel-Mordecai, how you found nourishment and sustenance in the bad times that rose up and beset you?”

“Blessed be our God, who has done miracles for us and sustained us, for in His goodness do we live,” answered Reb Yehiel-Mordecai, raising his eyes to the heavens in praise and thanksgiving. “What does a Jew need for nourishment and to keep his soul alive? A bushel of potatoes from one sabbath eve to the next. We made do with little and trusted in His great name, may He be praised, and in the mercy of our Jewish brethren.”

“And did our Jewish brethren come to your assistance from their homes and dwellings?”

“From one city and from the nearby villages they sent a few wagons full of bread right after the fire, and from the rest of the cities came nothing except some personal contributions, and they were few.”

“Why were you not diligent in informing them of your troubles in writing, telling them you were in great distress?”

“We wrote, Reb Mendele, we wrote. We also sent special delegations to Jews all over, to gather contributions for us, and neither voice nor answer, has come from them all! When we saw that no help came from our brethren, and we could no longer sustain ourselves, we followed the maxim of our Rabbis, ‘Judge not thy friend till thou art in his place,’ and now we are walking to our friends’ place, with our children and our old people, our sons and our daughters, and perhaps they will take pity on us. Perhaps they will have mercy. And what is your opinion, Reb Mendele? Will our journey succeed?” 2 2 David G. Roskies (ed), The Literature of Destruction (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1988), 142.

In this passage, Mendele gently maneuvers his interlocutor away from pious sentiments about making do with little and being reconciled to God’s judgments, and he succeeds in moving him toward an indictment of communal hard-heartedness. When it comes to language, it is important to point out that “Hanisrafim” is part of a group of stories Abramovitsh wrote in the 1890s originally in Hebrew. This was a departure from earlier works composed in Yiddish and then translated by Abramovitsh himself or, later, by Bialik. So that even though the exchange between Mendele and Yehiel-Mordechai would have taken place in the “real world” in Yiddish, the Hebrew text before us is the primary representation of the exchange rather than a translation of an already existing Yiddish literary model.

Abramovitsh’s approach to rendering a Yiddish conversation in Hebrew might be called preemptive compensation. He seems intuitively to understand that it makes no sense to try to imitate the timbre, syntax, and intonation of Yiddish speech. (There may be something of that in “We wrote, Reb Mendele, we wrote.”) Instead of a wan simulacrum, Abramovitsh chooses a different mode altogether: rabbinic Hebrew. In a departure from his maskilic predecessors and from his own early practice, he abandons biblical Hebrew and shifts into what historians of the Hebrew language call leshon hakhamim, with its distinct syntax and semantics modeled on the Mishnah. It is an option open to Abramovitsh in this passage because both interlocutors are at home in traditional texts. (Mendele is no talmid hakham, but he knows his way around the curriculum of the heder and beit midrash.) To be sure, in a real-life encounter between two such figures their Yiddish would likely have been studded with lomdish Hebraisms. But the medium in which these bits of Hebrew erudition were embedded would have been distinctly Yiddish.

And yet. Abramovitsh’s switching out Yiddish for rabbinic Hebrew implies a provocative possibility. Is there perhaps some deeper link between these two languages, if for the moment we consider rabbinic Hebrew as a language separate from biblical Hebrew? We think of as fundamental to Yiddish speech that a sentence has the tonality and shape of a question. But is it not possible that the provenance of this phenomenon is in truth the give-and-take of talmudic argument? If Yiddish is indeed drinking deeply from that well, then what Abramovitsh is doing is not translating so much as using as an equivalent language system, one that provided the original source for some of Yiddish’s essential features.

The real compensation comes in the form of a witty, even wicked, play with textual allusions. This is of course not the monopoly of Hebrew; contemporaneously, Sholem Aleichem is doing the same thing with Tevye’s artfully mangled quotations. But it is the proper domain of Hebrew. It’s as if Abramowitch is saying to his readers, “Since I can’t give you the verve and feel of real Yiddish dialogue, then you at least deserve entertainments of a different order.” As in Tevye’s case, the allusions are not erudite but rather familiar to any Jew of the time who attends synagogue. In the passage above, these are all clustered in the last paragraph. When Yehiel-Mordechai says that there was “no voice or answer” [ein qol ve’ein ‘oneh] to their troubles from neighboring Jewish communities, he is invoking the contest between Elijah and the priests of Baal in I Kings 18:26 and not so subtly associating the apathy of the Beggarburghers’ supposed brethren with heathen delusions. In the case of his own townspeople, Yehiel-Mordechai makes a far more positive association when, echoing Exodus 10:9, he declares that they are marching forward “with our children and our old people.” Like the Children of Israel confronting Pharaoh, they will not be deterred.

Abramovitsh’s most gratifying gift to his Hebrew readers is surely the citation from Avot 2:4, “Judge not they neighbor till thou art in his place.” In its context among a number of statements in the name of Hillel, this maxim urges a tolerant moral empathy. You cannot truly take a man’s measure until you have stood in his shoes. Placed by Abramovitsh in Yehiel-Mordechai’s mouth, the dictum is turned on its head by literalizing the word place. Rather than connoting circumstance or situation, place is now taken to mean the physical locality in which your neighbor lives. With this revised meaning established, the saying from Avot now becomes a piece of winking, pragmatic guidance: If you want to succeed in getting something from reluctant neighbors, then the best thing you can do is travel to where they live and place yourself in their faces. And, having taken to the road to beg for alms, this is precisely what the Beggarburghers have done, and all with the approbation of the ancient sages.

The other example is taken from Y. H. Brenner’s first novel Baoref [In Winter, 1904]. Although it appeared only seven years after Abramovitsh’s story, the gap between the two texts is enormous. Brenner’s world-weary autobiographical narrator, writing retrospectively from his early twenties, has already cycled through all the major phases of the late nineteenth-century Jewish drama: small-town poverty, yeshiva study as a breeding ground for exposure to the Haskalah and Hebrew literature, the down-and-out life of an extern in a Russian metropolis, a tortured relationship to women, self-exile to the provinces to make money as a tutor. In the following passage, the narrator Yirmiah Feuerman is sitting among a party of fellow students in the Russian city in which the middle portions of the novel take place. While the buzz of conversation takes place around him, conversation that recirculates the same tired slogans and declarations, Feuerman “speaks” to himself in the form of an interior monologue. Only the last sentence is said aloud.

Who are these people sitting here with me? Why did they come? Why don’t they leave me to myself? But what difference does it make?… Ah, at last I am able to think about my own inner affairs… . Like a child idiot… .Absorbed in small-mindedness… .Small-mindedness—then what is large-mindedness? Yes, yes, yes, it is hard to live, life is hard, a life like this… . My room is full of spider webs… . A lizard sucks the brains of flies… . It’s cold, cold living without God… . Cold—but bourgeois warmth, what help is it to me?… . If this means living for the true and exalted, isn’t all life the same?… . “Should”—that familiar should… . “Afflictions”—which afflictions?… “Courageously”—what courage? What am I doing putting on air to myself?… Ohhh, all my thoughts are purposeless… There is no “should.” … It’s all one, one, one… . A total wasteland… “Wasteland”—What wasteland? No, no, no…
“Nothingness!” I suddenly cry out with a loud laugh.

One cannot understand the chain of associations here without understanding the theological and existential crisis Feuerman undergoes in In Winter, which I have described elsewhere. 3 3 See my Banished From Their Father’s Table: Loss of Faith and Hebrew Autobiography (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), 171 on this passage. The Hebrew source can be found in Yosef Brenner: ketavim [The Works of Yosef Brenner] (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad and Sifriat Poalim, 1978) Vol. 1, 193. The translation of the passage is my own. Feuerman has already thrown off the yoke of Torah in a heroic gesture modeled on such Haskalah heroes in the autobiographical tradition as Moshe Leib Lilienblum. The romance of apostasy has worn off, and he is now reckoning with the true bleakness of life in the void. He sees through the shallowness of bourgeois warmth [hahmimut ha”ba’al-habatit”), and he deconstructs the platitudes that have been thrown at him about the need to face one’s afflictions with courage. Finally, he shouts out the word “Nothingness!” [re’ut-ruah]. The young people sitting around him, having no context for his outcry, think he is crazy, while we the readers, privy to the internal monologue, understand his negation as a profound, and profoundly distressing, description of the philosophical-existential cul-de-sac he finds himself in.

The use of interior or internal monologue is familiar to all readers of modern fiction, but it is surprising to learn that Brenner (and Gnessin) were deploying it before it became current in European literature. The earliest works of Joyce and Woolf using this technique come more than a decade later. Interior monologue is related to but distinct from free indirect discourse, which presents the thoughts of a character in the third person. Interior monologue is a variety of speech rather than thought; it is unvoiced speech spoken by a character to himself. Why Brenner had recourse to this technique in the absence of evident literary models is the result of the interplay of a number of factors. The fundamental choice to write in Hebrew at a time—and a place—when it was not spoken entailed the challenges described above. Perhaps the bigger problem is not the language in which conversation takes place in life but the very possibility of real conversation. It may not be possible to converse—that is, to share feelings through speech with another person—for someone like Feuerman who has lived through the collapse of the metaphysical security of traditional belief and sees through the pretensions of Haskalah rationalism and socialism and Zionism to replace what has been lost. He has nowhere to go but inside himself, and when it comes to speaking his thoughts, he himself is the only one who can listen.

Because Feuerman does not have to make himself intelligible to anyone other than himself, his speech has the thrilling effect of the real. It is, of course, a kind of mad discourse. The abundant use of ellipsis indicates the compression of a mind that is thinking in spurts and leaps. Brenner relies on our familiarity with the turmoil of the times to fill in the gaps, and so there is no need to unpack ideas and offer explanations. What is most exciting, to my mind, is the creative hodgepodge of languages. In the real-life mimetic situation, Feuerman would be speaking Yiddish; but the Hebrew speech we have before us is not a translation but a thing unto itself. Although it is written in updated modern literary Hebrew, the question-and-answer pattern harks back to the dialectic of Talmud study. The analytic exegesis that was once trained on sacred texts is now applied to deconstructing the sententious slogans of modern existential moralism; every term contained in exhortation that “one must bear affliction and live with courage” is taken apart, examined, and vitiated. Significantly, Yiddish is not erased. Hamimut “ba’al habatit,” which I’ve rendered as “bourgeois warmth,” is an awkward Hebrew equivalent for balebatishkayt; by putting quotation marks around the term, Brenner is indicating that it has not been domesticated, as it were, into Hebrew, and he is signaling to the reader to recognize it or to translate it back into the familiar Yiddish concept, for which there is no real Hebrew equivalent. To indicate his distracted and constricted state of mind, Feuerman uses qatnut (small-mindedness), a Hebrew term borrowed and psychologized from kabbalistic and Hasidic thought. To deliver the summary negation, the utterance that finally explodes into voiced speech, Feuerman appropriates the term re’ut-ruah, which is paired with hevel throughout Kohelet. Detaching re’ut-ruah from its better known twin has the effect of dulling the gloss connected to biblical terms and focusing on the power of a Nietzschean or Schoperhauerean undermining of all received values.

These examples from Abramovitsh and Brenner reveal some of the ways in which Hebrew literature dealt with the absence of a living, mimetic model for Hebrew speech. One might assume that it was just a matter of time until life and literature could catch up with one another. For the dissemination of spoken Hebrew was so successful in the Yishuv and then the state that it has provoked criticisms of the erasure of the many language cultures that the immigrants brought with them. By mid-century there should have been plenty of real-world material to be represented in literature. But I would argue that this appropriation was never fully successful. We lack, so far as I know, a sustained critical inquiry into the representation of speech in modern Hebrew literature, something much to be desired. In the absence of such research, I put forward the following speculations.

It may well be that Israeli literature—in tandem with the society it writes about—is conspicuously non-dialogical. There is abundant speech but little true conversation. The most characteristic form of speech is therefore the monologue, public and external as well as the interior variety written by Brenner. The monologue is a way—in spoken words—of making statements and mounting arguments and verbalizing states of mind; it presupposes the existence of a listener or audience to whom the discourse is addressed, but it does not expect or make room for responses leading to an exchange of views or feelings. A clarifying example is the well-known story “Haderasha” [The Sermon, 1942] by Haim Hazzaz, in which Yudke, a kibbutz member, hijacks a community meeting and launches into an extended discourse about Zionism and the meaning of Jewish history. The great virtuoso of the monologue is of course A. B. Yehoshua, whose debt to Faulkner has been often acknowledged. His debut novel Hame’ahev [The Lover, 1977] is composed entirely of dramatic monologues, each a first-person refraction of a complex family dynamic. The monologues lack any identifiable interlocutors, in the way in which Pani Shalom Aleichem is importuned by Tevye or the rabbi to whom Yentl brings her pot. Yehoshua’s monologists, like Faulkner’s, simply speak, leaving us the readers as the inferred audience. Yehoshua refined and intensified this strategy in Gerushim me’uharim [A Late Divorce, 1982] by devoting each chapter in the book to a different player in the family drama and according to each a highly idiosyncratic and differentiated style of speaking. The cultivation of oral performance finds its apotheosis in Mar Mani [Mr. Mani, 1990] with its famous half-conversations spoken by five characters in five different languages. Yehoshua’s supplying us with only one half of these conversations—a decision brilliant and annoying in equal measure—nicely dramatizes the preference for monologue over dialogue. David Grossman would seem to be Yehoshua’s brilliant disciple in this regard, as can be seen from many aspects of ‘Ayen ‘erekh: ahavah [See Under: Love, 1986] and from the extraordinary speeches of Ora in Ishah borahat mibesorah [To the End of the Land, 2008].

Which leads me to a final and even more presumptuous speculation: Hebrew writers can be divided between the writerly and the speakerly. By their deepest temperament, some writers like S. Yizhar, Amalia Kahana-Carmon, and Amos Oz seek to paint exquisite word pictures by exploiting the far-reaching resources of the Hebrew language. Other writers, of the sort that have been described here, find reality most vividly revealed in the idiolect of individual human voice, and they devote their talent to distilling it on the page. This is a binary not special to Israeli literature; I see it at work in American Jewish fiction, where it can distinguish between Cynthia Ozick and Philip Roth. But why it is the monologue that is the great achievement of Israeli literature is a subject worth further exploration.

Mintz, Alan. “Viva Voce: Vicissitudes of the Spoken Word in Hebrew Literature.” In geveb, June 2020:
Mintz, Alan. “Viva Voce: Vicissitudes of the Spoken Word in Hebrew Literature.” In geveb (June 2020): Accessed Jul 04, 2020.


Alan Mintz

Alan Mintz, z"l, was the Chana Kekst Professor of Hebrew Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary.