Zutra on Brenner, 'Lingering Bilingualism: Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literatures in Contact'

Naomi Brenner. Lingering Bilingualism: Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literatures in Contact. Judaic Traditions in Literature, Music, and Art Series. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2016. 320 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8156-3409-6; $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8156-3423-2.

Reviewed by Itay Zutra (University of Manitoba)
Published on H-Judaic (October, 2019)
Commissioned by Katja Vehlow (University of South Carolina)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=50859

In this fabulous and inspirational new book, literary scholar Naomi Brenner points out the obvious: Hebrew and Yiddish literati, all stemming from the Ashkenazi (European) Diaspora, not only remained bilingual long into the second half of the twentieth century (Brenner concludes her study with poems written in the 1980s by Israeli poet Avot Yeshurun) but also kept finding original and exciting new ways to explore their internal and external “translingualism” as an expression of their personal existence as modern Jewish men and women. Brenner does not accept, and rightfully so, the binary past narratives of Zionist scholarship focusing on such slogans as exile and redemption, on the shift from centers to center, and on the shift from the decaying Diaspora to the eternal “Promised Land.” As an American scholar of both Hebrew and Yiddish literary history, versed in transnational theories of bilingualism and with a good command of the fluid nature of cultural production, Brenner rejects the negation of diasporic culture in the name of nationalistic ideologies. She wishes to replace the monolithic, outdated, and overly nationalistic concept of “bilingualism” with the more open, nuanced, and dynamic “translingualism.” Bilingual writers, or bilingualism itself, did not disappear in the interwar period, nor did they become anachronistic and ephemeral, and hence non-modern. On the contrary, both monolingual and bilingual writers of the time overcame their bilingual anxiety and embraced, due to historical necessities and personal character, the brave new world of translingualism.

Brenner begins her book with the history of modern Jewish bilingualism and the changes this concept went through in the 1920s onward when nationalistic ideas favoring monolingualismin in the formation of national identity became normative. She sets the stage for her discussion by articulating the theoretical framework of “translingualism” as follows: “In adopting the term ‘translingualism,’ I emphasize the movement across languages, that is to say, the movement of people, ideas, and institutions across linguistic boundaries.... Rather than viewing translingualism as the process of writing in a nonnative tongue, I understand literary translingualism as the cultural politics and poetics of language-crossing. A focus on translingual dynamics shifts attention away from bilingualism—as the possession of or competence in two or more languages—to the movement between two or more languages on individual, textual, institutional, and social levels. Bilingualism becomes a subset of broader translingual practices, an intense form of translingual contact but not the only way in which languages intersect” (pp. 15-16).

Brenner’s insistence on soft and useful keywords, such as “transition,” “movement,” “border crossing,” and “contact,” succeeds in replacing the static nature of outdated national theories of literary production culminating in the so-called organic unity of one people, one territory, and one language (p. 17). She exposes translingual dynamics not only in the writings of explicit bilingual writers, such as Zalman Shneour or Y. D. Berkovitz (in the third chapter of the book), but also in subtler and unconventional manifestations: “Literary translingualism can be manifested in a single text that incorporates more than one language; multiple texts in a given writer’s oeuvre or published in a shared framework like a literary journal or anthology; and translations and other interlingual negotiations between texts. Linguistic difference has often delineated national, cultural, and hegemonic borders. Translingual contact challenges these boundaries and contends that cultural spheres are far more fluid and interconnected than has typically been acknowledged” (p. 17).

The book’s four insightful chapters, following its concise theoretical introduction, not only exemplify the particular cultural dynamic of translingualism but also follow a chronological historical order beginning with the bilingual Berlin-based literary journal “Rimon/Milgroym” (Pomegranate, published between 1922 and 1924; chapter 1), moving to the status of Hebrew and Yiddish in mandatory Palestine (chapter 2) and the bilingual writers Shneour and Berkovitz (chapter 3), and concluding with Yiddish and Hebrew translation projects in the 1940s before and after the Holocaust and in Israel and New York (chapter 4). In her analysis of Rimon/Milgroym, Brenner traces the lingering dynamics of Hebrew and Yiddish bilingualism in the journal’s formal juxtaposition between the two languages (dedicating issues to both separately) and in the literary texts published in each version of the journal. Even though the Yiddish and Hebrew texts appear to be monolingual, a closer look shows their fundamental bilingual nature expressed in their use of language, syntax, and modernist poetics. The book’s third chapter shows how in spite of the anti-Yiddish campaign in mandatory Palestine (the formation of the “Brigade of the Defenders of Language”), Hebrew and Yiddish writers continued their past connections as writers, readers, translators, and editors. The Hebrew writer Eliezer Shteinman wrote articles in the diasporic Yiddish press to sponsor his ambitious modernist Hebrew novels, while the Hebrew poet Avraham Shlonsky chose to spice up his avant-garde Hebrew modernism with Yiddish idioms and syntax. Replacing bilingualism with translingualism allows Brenner to showcase the strong and lingering ties these highly Zionist writers kept with their Yiddish mother tongue.

In the final two chapters, Brenner reaches a climatic pick when she convincingly analyzes the transformation of bilingualism in the 1930s and 1940s. In the third chapter “The Belated Bilingualism of Zalman Shneour and Y. D. Berkovitz,” Brenner investigates the bilingual writings of these forgotten writers, considered, unjustifiably, as writers whose insistence on preserving Mendele Moykher-Sforim’s version of bilingualism deemed them irrelevant in the age of modernist revolution. However, it was these writers’ conservative stand on the question of bilingualism that kept them relevant in Europe, America, and Palestine. Shneour, known in Hebrew mostly as a romantic poet of the “Bialik generation,” made a name for himself as a writer of powerful realistic novels published in the popular Yiddish press, with themes ranging from folkloristic descriptions of his hometown of Shklov (“The Jews of Shklov” [1933]) to ancient Jewish history. While translating himself from Yiddish to Hebrew, Shneour retained the lingering bilingual nature of the original Yiddish, now fused into a translingual and pragmatic Hebrew context.

Berkovitz, famous as Sholem Aleichem’s son-in-law and official Hebrew translator, wrote bilingual short stories and novels depicting the emergence of the Zionist center. In his self-translations (Brenner terms him the “Self-Translator Par Excellence” [p. 146]), Berkovitz created a type of translingual space where all the languages of the Yishuv (organized Jewish settlements in mandatory Palestine), namely, Hebrew and Yiddish, but also Russian, Polish, German, and English, can be equally echoed and represented. Even though Shneour and Berkovitz were regarded, in Brenner’s words “as relics of an earlier time who stubbornly clung to outdated literary-linguistic practices,” nevertheless “they translated their texts between Yiddish and Hebrew.” She notes that “their work registers both lingering literary bilingualism and alternative translingual approaches that defied Hebrew and Yiddish monolingualism” (p. 123).

In the final chapter (followed by a conclusion), “Bound Up in the Bond of Hebrew Literature: Translating Yiddish in the 1940s,” Brenner addresses the topic of translating Yiddish to monolingual audiences in Palestine and New York in the face of the Holocaust. Rachel Feygenberg’s short-lived project of translating Yiddish literature into Hebrew was not, as one might assume, intended at achieving artistically adequate Hebrew translations of the original Yiddish (the obvious role of translations in a monolingual environment) but rather used as a “path to monolingualism, a necessary translingual step on the road to Hebrew acculturation” (p. 189). Feygenberg, a bilingual writer herself, had in mind readers of Yiddish literature, now emigrating to Palestine and in need of familiar reading materials to improve their Hebrew. In reality, these translations became a way for monolingual Hebrew readers to learn about the vanished world of Yiddish-speaking Jews. On the other hand, Shmuel Niger’s anthology “Achisefer,” published in New York in 1943, used a different, less successful method to introduce Hebrew readers in America and Palestine to Yiddish poetry. The best achievements of American Yiddish modernism were translated into a pathetic and elevated Hebrew style, already considered artificial and outdated in Palestine decades ago. Niger’s (a bilingual literary critic himself) insistence on archeological bilingualism, exhibiting vibrant Yiddish life in an eternal fossilized Hebrew, is a sign for the decline of interwar Jewish bilingualism at the outbreak of World War II and the Holocaust.

Brenner wrote a convincing book about lingering bilingual contacts between Hebrew and Yiddish literature in interwar Palestine, America, and Europe. Going beyond the narrow and monolithic path of bilingualism leading to national monolingualism, and adopting the more dynamic, nuanced, and open concept of “translingualism,” her work proves to be insightful and instructional on our way to a better understanding of modern Jewish literature and culture.

Itay Zutra is I. L. Peretz Folk School Yiddish Teaching Fellow at the University of Manitoba.

Citation: Itay Zutra. Review of Brenner, Naomi, Lingering Bilingualism: Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literatures in Contact. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. October, 2019.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=50859

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