Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry
By Alan Mintz
(Stanford University Press, 520 pp., $65)
ON DECEMBER 17, 2007, on the storied stage of the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y in New York, the Hebrew language—its essence, its structure, its metaphysic— entered American discourse in so urgent a manner as to renew, if not to inflame, an ancient argument. The occasion was a public conversation between Marilynne Robinson and Robert Alter: a not uncommon match of novelist with literary scholar. In this instance, though, the scholar is an English Department anomaly: not only a master of the Anglo-American corpus, but a profoundly engaged Hebraist and Bible translator and expositor, whose newly published volume of Englished psalms is the evening’s subject. The novelist, too, is exceptional among her contemporaries—a writer of religious inclination, open to history and wit, yet not dogged by piety, if piety implies an unthinking mechanics of belief. Robinson may rightly be termed a Protestant novelist, in a way we might hesitate to characterize even the consciously Protestant Updike. Certainly it is impossible to conceive of any other American writer of fiction who could be drawn, as Robinson has been drawn, to an illuminating reconsideration of Calvinism.
Protestant and Jew, writer and translator: such a juxtaposition is already an argument. The expectation of one may not be the expectation of the other. The novelist’s intuition for the sacred differs from the translator’s interrogation of the sacred. And beyond this disparity stands the inveterate perplexity, for English speakers, of the seventeenth century biblical sonorities of the King James Version (KJV): can they, should they, be cast out as superannuated? The question is not so much whether the KJV can be surpassed as whether it can be escaped. From that very platform where Robinson and Alter sit amiably contending, a procession of the great modernists of the twentieth century (among them Eliot and Auden and Marianne Moore and Dylan Thomas) once sent out their indelible voices—voices inexorably reflecting the pulsings and locutions that are the KJV’s venerable legacy to poets. And not only to poets: everyone for whom English is a mother tongue is indebted to the idiom and cadences of the KJV. For Americans, they are the Bible, and the Bible, even now, remains a commanding thread in the American language.
It is that thread, or call it a bright ribbon of feeling, that animates Robinson as she confronts Alter’s rendering of Psalm 30, marveling at its “sacred quality of being,” and at the Psalmist’s “I, this amazing universal human singular who integrates experience and interprets it profoundly.” Any translation, she concludes, “is always another testimony.” Here the novelist invokes exaltation in phrases that are themselves exalting, as if dazzled by a vast inner light washing out both the visual and the tactile: hence “testimony,” an ecstatic internal urge. But Alter responds with an illustration that hints at dissent. The KJV, he points out, has “I will extol thee, O Lord; for thou hast lifted me up,” while for “lifted me up” Alter chooses, instead, “drew me up.” The Hebrew word dolah, he explains, refers to drawing water from a well; the image is of a bottomless crevasse in the earth, fearfully identified in a later verse as “the Pit.” Rather than turning inward, the translator uncovers sacral presence in the concrete meaning of the Hebrew, so that the metaphor of the well instantly seizes on weight and depth and muscle. Which approach is truer, which more authentic?
This, then, is the marrow—the unacknowledged pit—of the argument. And it becomes explicit only moments afterward, in Robinson’s beautiful recitation of Alter’s translation of Psalm 8, followed by Alter’s reading of the Hebrew original. The contrast in sound is so arresting that Robinson is asked to comment on it. She hesitates: it is clear that to American ears the Hebrew guttural is as uncongenial as it is unfamiliar. Diffidently, courteously, she concedes, “I have no Hebrew.” “Well, I have,” says Alter.
And there it is, the awful cut exposed: the baleful question of birthright. The translator asserts his possession of the language of the Psalms: is this equal to a claim that he alone is their rightful heir? Perhaps yes; but also perhaps not. The novelist, meanwhile, has embraced and passionately internalized those selfsame verses, though in their English dress—then is she too not a genuine heir to their intimacies and majesties? Never mind that Alter, wryly qualifying, goes on to address the issue of vocal disparity: “And if anyone thinks that he is reproducing the sound of Hebrew in English, he is seriously deluded.” A translator’s gesture of humility—the two musical systems cannot be made to meet; it cannot be done. But this comes as an aside and a distraction. What continues to hang in the air is Alter’s emphatic declaration of ownership.
Hebrew in America has a bemusing past. The Puritans, out of scriptural piety, once dreamed of establishing Hebrew as the national language. Harvard and Yale in their early years required the study of Hebrew together with Latin and Greek; Yale even now retains its Hebrew motto. Divinity school Hebrew may be diminished, but it endures. And though the Hebrew Bible is embedded in the Old Testament, its native tongue is silenced. “We have no Hebrew,” admits biblically faithful America. Then can Hebrew, however unheard, be said to be an integral American birthright? Was Alter, on that uneasy evening in New York, enacting a kind of triumphalism, or was he, instead, urging a deeper affinity? Deeper, because the well of Hebrew yields more than the transports of what we have come to call the “spiritual.” Send down a bucket, and up comes a manifold history—the history of a particular people, but also the history of the language itself. An old, old tongue, the enduring vehicle of study and scholarship, public liturgy and private prayer, geographically displaced and dispersed but never abandoned, never fallen into irretrievable disuse, continually renewed, and at the last restored to the utilitarian and the commonplace. Hebrew as a contemporary language, especially for poetry, is no longer the language of the Bible; but neither is it not the language of the Bible. And despite translation’s heroic bridging, despite its every effort to narrow the idiomatic divide by disclosing the true names of things (the word itself, not merely the halo of the word), we may never see an America steeped in Hebrew melodies.
Yet once, for a little time, we did.
THERE WAS A PERIOD, in the first half of the twentieth century, when America—the land, its literature, its varied inhabitants and their histories—was sung in the Hebrew alphabet. Long epic poems on American Indians, the California Gold Rush, the predicament and religious expression of blacks in the American South, the farms and villages and churchgoers of New England, the landscape of Maine—these were the Whitmanesque explorations and celebrations of a rapturous cenacle of Hebrew poets who flourished from before World War I until the aftermath of World War II. But both “cenacle” and “flourished” must be severely qualified. Strewn as they were among a handful of cities—New York, Cleveland, Boston, Baltimore, Chicago—they rarely met as an established group; and if they flourished, it was in driven pursuit of an elitist art sequestered in nearly hermetic obscurity. They were more a fever and a flowering than a movement: they issued neither pronouncements nor provocations. They had no unified credo. What they had was Hebrew—Hebrew for its own sake, Hebrew as a burning bush in the brain. Apart from those socio-historic narratives on purely American themes, they also wrote in a lyrical vein, or a metaphysical, or a romantic.
Though modernism was accelerating all around them, and had taken root through European influences in the burgeoning Hebrew poetry of Palestine/ Israel, the American Hebraists almost uniformly turned away from the staccato innovations of the modernists. They were, with one or two exceptions, classicists who repudiated make-it-new manifestos as a type of reductive barbarism. Rather than pare the language down, or compress it through imagism and other prosodic maneuvers, they sought to plumb its inexhaustible deeps. And when their hour of conflagration ebbed, it was not only because their readers were destined to be few. Hebrew had returned to its natural home in a Hebrew-speaking sovereign polity: a fulfillment that for the American Hebraists was, unwaveringly, the guiding nerve of their linguistic conviction.
Who, then, were these possessed and unheralded aristocrats, these priestly celebrants unencumbered by a congregation, these monarchs in want of a kingdom? Were they no more than a Diaspora chimera? In a revelatory work of scholarly grandeur that is in itself a hymn to Hebrew, Alan Mintz has revivified both the period and the poets. The capacious volume he calls Sanctuary in the Wilderness is history, biography, translation, criticism, and more—a “more” that is, after all, an evocation of regret. The regret is pervasive and tragic. Think not of some mute inglorious Milton, but of a living and achieving Milton set down in a society unable to decipher so much as a-b-c, and unaware of either the poet’s presence or his significance. Yet Mintz never condescends; with honorable diffidence, he repeatedly refers to this majestic study as merely introductory, an opening for others to come.
HERE LET ME OFFER a far smaller opening into that long-ago reach for the sublime. From a shelf harboring a row of bilingual Yiddish and Hebrew dictionaries, I pluck out a curious little Hebrew book that has journeyed with me since childhood. It is so old that its pages are brittle and browning at the margins. The brownish-gray cover announces title and provenance: RIVON KATAN, A Little Quarterly of POETRY and THOUGHT, Volume I, Number 1. Issued by the Hebrew Poetry Society of America. Three Dollars Yearly. Spring, 5704 (1944). Editor: A. Regelson.
As for the Table of Contents, its preoccupations and aspirations are self-evident:
Henry A. Wallace: Century of the Common Man
N. Touroff: Can a Nation Become Insane?
S. Hillel’s: Leo Tolstoy
Ben Hanagar: Walt Whitman’s Native Island
Elinor Wylie: Velasquez (Hebrew by G. Preil)
A. Regelson: Poetry of Ibn Gabirol
A. Regelson: Saul Tchernichovsky
Ilya Ehrenburg: Plant and Child
Henry Wallace, Elinor Wylie, and Ilya Ehrenburg, all declaiming in Hebrew! And the Hebrew Poetry Society of America? It may be that A. [Abraham] Regelson, all on his own, comprised president, secretary, translation committee, and possibly the entire membership. Striving publications of this kind were proliferating at the time, many of larger note and longer duration. Most appeared exclusively in Hebrew, bearing redolent names: Haderor (“The Swallow”), Hatoren (“The Mast”), Miqlat (“Refuge”)—although Hadoar (“The Post”), despite its more mundane designation and wider circulation, was as unstintingly literary as the others.
Like the editor of A Little Quarterly, the poets who filled these periodicals were, without exception, a part of the great flood of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Eastern European Jewish immigration. Arriving as children or adolescents or in their early twenties, they came with a traditional Hebrew grounding behind them and an American education before them; and since their foundational tongue was Yiddish, they soon were easily and fluently trilingual. But to describe them merely as trilingual is to obscure their mastery. Any one of these poets might have leaped, if he chose, into the vigorous roil of Yiddish belles-lettres and its burgeoning American journals. Or, even more prominently, there was the possibility of aspiring to the canon of English-language poets—to stand, in that era, beside Edwin Arlington Robinson, Wallace Stevens, and Robinson Jeffers. Instead, what the Hebraists chose was patrimony—patrimony in the sense of rootedness in a primordial continuum.
From the promise of Yiddish, long a quintessential component of Jewish civilization, the Hebraists markedly turned away. Though Yiddish, too, reveres and incorporates the legacy of Hebrew, it is nevertheless not Hebrew. Despite its evolving high culture and literary achievements, this European-derived language had its origins in an everyday vernacular, and—in the tumult and bustle of American acculturation—concerned itself less with the empyrean than with the tangles of daily life. Nor could these linguistic patricians be tempted by the powerful elasticity and breadth of English, however swept away they might be by the great English and American poets. Whitman in particular quickly became a kind of model and mentor, as well as a portal to a visionary America. Influences and tutelary spirits abounded, sometimes surprisingly. A case in point: Regelson felt himself so seized and claimed by Yeats that he composed an “Irish” poem in homage to the friendship of Yeats and Gogarty: Shney Barburim v’Nahar (“Two Swans and a River”). To experience the dazzlements of Regelson’s own Englishing of this extraordinary narrative ode is to recognize how the choice of Hebrew may have occasioned a genuine loss to American (and Irish) literature.
Nor was it, astonishingly, a gain to Israeli letters. It may be a natural irony of history—natural because inexorable— that the establishment of Israel as a modern Hebrew-speaking nation in possession of an acclaimed and robustly expanding literature should have shut out the American Hebraists. It was not even that they were considered marginal to the Hebrew center, and on that account excluded. Worse yet, their very existence was unknown. Mintz opens his study by citing the dumbfounded observations of Zalman Shazar, Israel’s third president and a literary figure in his own right, when on his first visit to America in the 1930s he discovered, like some Columbus encountering an unsuspected tribe, a Hebrew-intoxicated band of ascetics.
IN THEIR ISOLATED nobility [he wrote], they attached themselves only to the intangible and absolute in the national spirit. They had complete mastery over the Hebrew language ... as if they lived in the Land of Israel, and they were utterly unreconciled and even oblivious to the surroundings in which they actually lived. In their loneliness, there was the sadness of being the chosen few, and in their sadness there was a marked but unexpressed pride. Just as they were alienated from their surroundings, so were they also separated from each other.... Most of them were scattered among various cities, a few here and a few there, as if no single Jewish community in America could handle them as a group. They appeared like a phalanx of knights loyal to the Hebrew language whose pride forbade them both from admitting the least hint of their difficulties to a Jew from Palestine and from paying the least heed to the seductions of English.... In this conscious renunciation of popular attention there was something of the self-gratification that proud artists allow themselves, something of the feeling of superiority enjoyed by monks offering obeisance to a Hebrew Princess and serving her with no expectation of reward either in this world or in the world to come, either in the Diaspora or in the Land of Israel.
The tone of this anthropological survey as seen from the confident center is sympathetic and pitying—and condescending. What the visitor saw was achingly partial, and may have derived from the early Zionist “negation of the Diaspora,” which viewed the continuing presence of Jewish communities elsewhere as poignantly superfluous if not tragically mistaken.
And unlike self-denying monks or quixotically deluded knights alienated from their surroundings, these striving newcomers seized on whatever bounty America held out, its public high schools and universities, its landscapes and lore, above all its freedom of self-invention. (What could be more self-invented than, say, a poet residing in Cleveland raptly composing sonnets in Hebrew?) Rejection of English as a literary vehicle did not mean rejection of English as the fulcrum of advancement in the professions. Many, if not most, were engaged in building secular cultural institutions, including teachers colleges, for the rigorous study of Hebrew language and literature, though always with a wall of separation between the communal and the transcendent. The poetry was to be kept immaculately apart from the pedagogy, and if the American Hebraists could be defined by a common motif, it might be by the idea of separation.
As scholars and intellectuals, they were perforce set apart from the mass of immigrant Jews, whose cultural attitudes and aptitudes they disdained. Their recoil, and often their satire, was, curiously, not very different from that of Henry James during his excursion in 1905 among the streets and cafés of the Lower East Side, where he observed “the hard glitter of Israel,” and predicted, thanks to Jewish linguistic infiltration, the debasement of English. “It was in the light of letters,” he wrote, “that is in the light of our language as literature has hitherto known it, that one stared at all this unconscious impudence of the agency of future ravage.” He could not have imagined, as irony has since abundantly noted, that out of those cacaphonous streets and cafés would one day arise an army of Jamesian critics and scholars, bringing not ravage but homage. In scorning what he called the New Jerusalem, James saw a fallen nation; assessing the same population, so did the Hebraists. But while James proved to be a poor seer, the poets in their pridefulness may have intuited the heartbreak and hurt to come: the immigrants’ children who became esoteric theorists and interpreters of Henry James (and Emerson and Hawthorne and all the rest) were at the same time Hebrew illiterates. As for the poets themselves, they were a prodigious generational accident, a miracle of literary confluence: who could have foretold an eruption of Hebrew-generative genius on the American continent—which, having no offspring, then came to nothing?
FOR HIS AMBITIOUS overview of this remarkable period, Mintz has chosen twelve out of the Hebraist cohort to contemplate in the round: the life, the work, the influences on the work, and each poet’s particularized interiority. The twelve are not meant to be taken as representative of the whole: among such fiercely individuated minds, there can be no “type.” Eisig Silberschlag, a professor of Hebrew literature at the University of Texas and a classical scholar who translated Aristophanes into Hebrew, had little in common with Gabriel Preil, an outlier singled out for his forays into modernism—the sole American Hebraist to achieve recognition in Israel, even as he lived out his days in the Bronx. Though both wrote short lyric verses, Silberschlag’s mature outlook was formed in Europe, where, in the 1920s, he earned a doctorate from the University of Vienna with a thesis, Mintz tells us, “on the economic relations between England and Russia during the reign of Catherine II.” Israel Efros, a specialist in medieval philosophy and a translator of Shakespeare, was consistently associated with universities; he founded Baltimore Hebrew College and was eventually called to be president of Tel Aviv University. As an ordained rabbi, Efros was singular among the Hebraists. Most had left traditional piety behind, no longer observing the punctilios of Jewish practice—a worldliness that led some to law and medicine, and others to journalism. Like the American poets who were their close contemporaries, Wallace Stevens in his insurance office and William Carlos Williams on his doctor’s rounds, they sought useful livelihoods. Preil alone appeared to cultivate an Emily Dickinsonian isolation.
Mintz illuminates the poets’ biographies, brief as they are, with the skill of a pointillist. But it is in his analysis of the poems themselves that he is most masterly. “Analysis” is Mintz’s word; it is inadequate to the reader’s experience of what he brings off. Each central section of this massive volume is devoted to the body of work of a single poet, and culminates in the close reading of a single poem. Each poem is presented first in Hebrew, followed by Mintz’s lucid English translation. But even “close reading” fails to approximate what is achieved here. A modesty—a felt trustworthiness— inhabits these multiple renderings: the goal is honest replication without embroidery. There is no intent to rival the original musically or sensuously. Mintz means the poem to be understood both for its inwardness and for the air it breathes; his critical vocabulary has the discerning force of insight. Analysis defines. Insight conveys.
And beyond insight is sympathy—sympathy as praise, as homage, and also as the kind of immersion in a writer’s reason-for-being that will deliver him over to the reader as the writer himself would wish to be delivered. This requires a rare critical confidence that is crucially linked to critical humility. And nowhere is the fusion of confidence and amplitude more acutely displayed than in an extended preamble titled “The Apotheosis of Hebrew,” which purposefully follows Mintz’s more generalized introduction. Here Mintz concentrates, as he does elsewhere, on one poem by one poet, but with a difference. The poet is Regelson, and the poem is Haquqot otiyotayikh (“Engraved are Thy Letters”), an intricately crafted paean to the Hebrew language: metaphysical, erotic, hubristic, fanatical. It aspires to steal, in effect, the recondite procreative fire of the Creator of the Universe, if that universe is seen as co-equal with Hebrew in its infinite mystical manifestations and its internal morphological permutations. Mintz sets this poem apart for scrutiny neither as linguistically representative of the American Hebraists, nor as aspirationally typical. He intends it, rather, as a touchstone, or what he identifies as “a privileged hermeneutical key,” “the secret spring of American Hebraism,” “a passion that could not speak its name.” In Haquqot otiyotayikh, Mintz sees the repressed “religious-libidinal attachment” that underlies the whole of the American Hebraist enterprise. “Yet without predicating this motor of desire,” he writes, “it would be difficult indeed to understand the pertinacity and profusion of American Hebrew poetry. Were it not for the existence of an extraordinary exception to the general lack of self-awareness on this score, it would be presumptuous to ‘psychoanalyze’ a cultural phenomenon.”
Regelson is that exception:
Regelson’s hymn to Hebrew is a dazzling work that is unlike any other poem in the corpus of modern Hebrew literature. It is an extravagant ode to a language offered by a lover in thrall to the object of his desire, which is figured as a beautiful woman. It is a classic anatomy, a literary form that exhaustively inventories the categories and components of its subject. It is a theological treatise on the divinity of Hebrew that advances an argument for linguistic pantheism. Written at the great hinge of the twentieth century, it is a historiosophical work that uses Hebrew as a marker for both the murder of European Jewry and the struggle for Jewish statehood. It is a polemic about the course of the revival of Hebrew and an attack on the purported guardians of its purity. It is an apologia for the life of a poet who, at the time of the writing, was stranded far from Zion. Above all else, the poem is a performance of virtuosity that, in its maximalist poetics, seeks to conjure up and demonstrate the full plastic and arcane resources of the Hebrew language.... Its explanatory power is crucial for an understanding of the project of American Hebraism as a whole.... a way into the inner spiritual and psychological world of American Hebrew poetry.
Mintz’s speculative yet tantalizing thesis—that a driven though submerged and surrogate eros accounts for the Hebrew intoxications of these poets—may or may not be true. But rivalry, whether underground or overt, can also be a sustaining engine. Gabriel Preil’s turn to styles of modernism: was it an innate expression or a competitive urge? An unwilled imprint of the zeitgeist or an opportunistic choice? It is tempting to ask why Preil, alone among the Hebraists, was drawn to join the great contemporary wave of imagism and symbolism, the new formless forms, the solitary and alienated consciousness. The winner of an undeclared contest, he remains the only American Hebraist to have attained a modicum of ongoing posthumous notice. Surrounded by a culture wherein modernism was supreme, the others, faithful to the idioms of transcendence and eschewing dissonance and brokenness, may have appeared to be archaists. Preil fit in, and was welcomed. It is rivalry that determines who shall be prince and who pauper.
SHIMON HALKIN was among the princes. His beginning was as favored as his years of consummation. Mintz describes him at the acme of his repute:
As the occupant of the chair of Hebrew Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem during the 1950s and 1960s, Halkin taught virtually every important writer and critic in the young state until his death at the age of eighty-eight in 1987. The force of his presence compelled attention to the body of his own poetry and fiction in face of the fact that his own writing flouted almost all the norms of the new Israeli literature of the time. Where the younger poets ... sought to bring the language of poetry closer to everyday speech, Halkin wrote in a high register using extreme figuration and a rarefied literary lexicon. Where they prized simplicity and the brief lyric, he championed complexity and the ambitious long poem. Where they took for granted that modern man is living in a world after faith, Halkin made the search for God a central preoccupation of his poetic endeavor.... Halkin’s poetry was accorded respect as much for the august power of the verse itself as for the influential figure of the poet who wrote it.
But Halkin was long accustomed to acclaim. On his arrival in New York at fifteen, he was already known to be prodigious in Hebrew, a reputation that accelerated even as Tennyson and Browning continued to stir him. His earliest poems were published in prestigious Hebrew journals during his high school years, and soon after college he was offered a stipend for literary translation and, more significantly, for the freedom to concentrate on his poetry. Still later, he won a competition for yet another stipend, this one awarded by Salman Schocken, the publisher of Kafka. He was financially liberated from the start.
He also won a more intimate competition. At Morris High School in the Bronx he met the young Regelson, a boy three years his senior, who turned out, astonishingly, to be his double: a secret sharer of the elixir of Hebrew. Regelson too had been a prodigy: as a child in the cheder, the rabbi’s schoolroom, he had composed, in fluent Hebrew, an interpretive synopsis of the thought of Rashi, the great medieval biblical annotator. At Morris High, the two teens conversed in Hebrew, and fell into passionate discussions of poetry and philosophy. Both were steeped in the English Romantics, and each early on knew himself destined for poetry: it was an idyll of elective affinities. Where they were most alike was in the style of their mature work, in what Mintz characterizes as “cascading sheets of electrifying figurative writing,” and in the metaphysical/mystical/lyrical cast of their abiding inspirations. Their lives ran parallel also in other ways. Both experienced interrupted sojourns in 1930s Palestine before settling there after the formal establishment of the Jewish state. Like Halkin, Regelson translated widely: Shakespeare, Milton, Herrick, Blake, Browning, Whitman, countless canonical others. Halkin, meanwhile, had already conveyed into Hebrew The Merchant of Venice and the whole of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. In 1975, Halkin was awarded the Israel Prize for Literature. In 1972, Regelson was the recipient of the Chaim Nachman Bialik Prize, given in the name of the most illustrious Hebrew poet of the age.
IN THE END—RATHER, toward the middle—the parallels dissolved, the idyll cracked. The first telltale fissure began in boyhood, and came in the guise of an act of magnanimity, indeed an act of youthful noblesse oblige. As Halkin recounted it in a late memoir, he had received a letter from Regelson, written in an elegantly elevated Hebrew, and sent it on to his editor at Miqlat, where Halkin’s verses were already appearing. Impressed, the editor solicited and brought into print Regelson’s first published poem. The younger poet had favored the older; but in becoming, through superior influence, Regelson’s patron, he had also bested him.
And what had begun as affinity disintegrated further when the two young men entered City College together. After a year, Regelson dropped out for reasons that remain unrecorded, though he was soon married and sooner yet the father of a son, the first of five children. Halkin went on to advanced degrees and a princely career as a revered professor of literature, while Regelson became, quite literally, a pauper who struggled to live by his pen, hoping to feed his children by the force of his imagination. But here Mintz, identifying Halkin’s magisterial role as “a kind of tribune” in the republic of Hebrew letters, takes quizzical note of a problematical omission. Halkin was lavish in “maintaining relations in person or by letter with writers scattered across several generations and writing about their work out of a sense of responsibility to the larger endeavor.” “To the best of my knowledge,” Mintz adds, “the only real notice that this prolific critic gave to Regelson and his body of work” was that single passing mention in Halkin’s memoir of his own boyhood benevolence.
A bitter falling out, then. What happened? Before I supply the answer (Mintz leaves the puzzle unresolved), I am obliged to confess that if I have returned to Regelson time and again, while scanting others among this study’s cardinal twelve, it is out of seeming partiality: Abraham Regelson was my uncle, my mother’s brother. I hope before long to show that this apparent predisposition is made of nothing more substantial than air; yet consanguinity’s advantage is ready access to buried knowledge—or call it comic melodrama, or the self-preening misadventures of a pair of contenders. According to Regelson’s daughter, who serves as her father’s archivist, the break erupted out of a volcanic charge of literary theft: Halkin accusing Regelson of plagiarism, Regelson accusing Halkin of plagiarism, each once again the double of the other. Mutual recrimination, smoldering, became mutual contempt. Still, hidden in rivalry is its symbiotic secret; all competitiveness grows out of ferocious affinity.
This star-crossed operetta, however, has no satisfactory coda, and what, after all, is there to choose between Halkin and Regelson? Despite the serpent’s tooth of disrespect, both were enmeshed in the great ancestral Judaic chain of word and idea. Halkin held the scepter of influence, while the often impoverished Regelson toiled in journalism for bread—but who today in America, beyond a minuscule handful of specialists (two, perhaps three) reads the American Hebraists? What does it matter if a spangled recognition enthroned Halkin, or that Regelson knew himself to be self-made in the Hebrew image of William Blake? Neither weighs in an America given to the erasure of a noble literary passage it has no tongue to name.
THEN WHO IS TO BLAME? We are: we have no Hebrew. But who, or what, really, is this culpable “we”? An admission: inescapably, it is the educated American Jewish mentality, insofar as it desires to further self-understanding. The Hebrew Bible has long been the world’s possession, and those who come to it by any means, through whatever language, are equals in ownership, and may not be denied the intimacy of their spiritual claim. Yet spirit is that numinous essence that flies above history, inhabiting the moment’s exquisite experience: it is common to all peoples, hence native to none. History, in contrast, is linked to heritage, and heritage—preeminently its expression in language—is what most particularly defines a civilization. So when, in that emblematic colloquy at the Y, Alter responded to Robinson’s reticent “I have no Hebrew” with his quickly assertive “Well, I have,” it was certainly as a translator in confident command of superior skills—but not only. It was also, irresistibly, a cry of kinship, and, even more powerfully, an appeal to deep memory. Implicit in Alter’s signal “have” is the condition of the have-nots: an absence of Jewish literacy in a population renowned for its enduring reverence for learning.
Rounding off the grand architecture of his formidable study, Mintz concludes with a monitory capstone:
[The American Hebraists] may have been wrong about Hebrew being the measure of all things—this was the monomania that contributed to their eclipse—but they were surely correct in seeing Hebrew as the deep structure of Jewish civilization, its DNA, as it were. They understood the unique role of Hebrew as a bridge that spans many cleavages: between classical Judaism and the present, between religious and secular Jews, and between Israel and the Diaspora. They further understood that any Jewish society that takes place largely in translation runs the risk of floating free of its tether to Jewish authenticity.
But wait. Monomania as a cause of the Hebraists’ eclipse? Never. No monomania, no art. Then who killed Hebrew in America?
I did, with my little bit of Hebrew, so little as to be equivalent to none. I knew Abraham Regelson as the affectionate uncle who gave me a 1910 British edition of Kipling’s Just So Stories (with a gilt elephant and an Indian swastika on the cover); and I recall a postcard sent from 1930s Tel Aviv: a picture of a white building, with an X marked over one window. “Here lives Bialik,” my uncle wrote to his very young niece (who was innocent of the wonder of it). “And did you once see Shelley plain?” asks Edna St. Vincent Millay. I did not truly see my uncle plain until now, long after his death, when Mintz brought home to me “the poet’s virtuosity: his encyclopedic mastery of the historical lexicon of the Hebrew language, his erudition in classical sources, and, most of all, his ability to take the language not just as given but rather to invent and proliferate provocative new words and dazzling constructions.”
Seductive gates these, through which I may not pass, forbidden by the bound feet of ignorance. This is the uncle I did not know, and could not know, and will never know. And though I am removed by the slender distance of a single generation, the civilizational gap between us reveals an abyss of loss. If the American Hebraists are in eclipse, it is because we, their children, have turned out to be incurious illiterates, who, like some intelligent subspecies, gaze at the letters and cannot see their meaning.
Cynthia Ozick is the author, most recently, of Foreign Bodies (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
This article appeared in the June 28, 2012 issue of the magazine.