From medieval Spain to twentieth-century America, from Enlightenment Europe to today’s Israel, examples abound of Hebrew poetry about the Hebrew language. With its remarkable history, Hebrew has inspired a broad range of emotions: from love to outrage, from reverence to alienation, and so many more. These sentiments have been conveyed in a range of aesthetic forms.
Perhaps none of these poems is more passionate than “Ḥakukot otiyotayikh” (“Engraved are Your Letters,” 1946) by Abraham Regelson of the American Tarbut Ivrit movement — though scholar Alan Mintz identifies a romantically charged precursor in the fourteenth-century rhymed prose of Yehuda Al Harizi’s Sefer taḥkemoni. Both Regelson and Al Harizi were besotted with love for Hebrew. Ruvik Rosenthal’s “‘Al ḥet” (“For the sins”, 2006) also celebrates the Hebrew language, but with a tone more comical than exalted; invoking the confessional prayers of Yom Kippur, Rosenthal humorously highlights how contemporary Hebrew speakers have sinned against the formal rules of Hebrew grammar. These texts all contrast notably with Yona Wallach’s ardent condemnation of Hebrew grammar in her poem “‘Ivrit” (“Hebrew,” 1985). Incensed by its highly gendered nouns, verbs, and pronouns, she dismisses Hebrew as a “sex maniac” who always “wants to know who’s talking” — male or female? — and who according to gender “discriminates for and against.”
Other poets have approached Hebrew warily, as a non-native tongue that can afford both opportunity and obstacles. Salman Masalha, a Druze citizen of Israel, expresses an exploratory view in “I Write Hebrew” (2004, trans. Vivian Eden). He declares,
I write in the Hebrew language
which is not my mother tongue, to
lose myself in the world. He who doesn’t
get lost, will never find the whole.
Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel have wrestled with how much to embrace the language of the Jewish majority and yet maintain a sense of their own integrity as members of a minority group. Ayat Abou Shmeiss, for instance, writes that Arabic and Hebrew pull her in opposite directions, although she is close to both. Jewish minorities, too, have voiced alienation. Erez Bitton — an immigrant to Israel from Morocco — mixed Arabic and Hebrew in his poetry, and so from the 1970s on, boldly declared a place for Mizrachi expression within the idiom of the nation.
Erez Bitton — an immigrant to Israel from Morocco — mixed Arabic and Hebrew in his poetry, and so from the 1970s on, boldly declared a place for Mizrachi expression within the idiom of the nation.
His poem “A Purchase on Dizengov” (“Shir kni’ah bedizengov”) features a speaker of North African background who opens a store in the upscale center of Tel Aviv. The shopkeeper relates how he interacts with his Ashkenazi customers in “clean words/the most up-to-date Hebrew”/Yes, sir/Welcome, sir”. The sarcasm in these lines is distinctly subversive. The use of standard, formal Hebrew — in its exaggerated obsequiousness — exposes the condescension that established Israelis had assumed toward Mizrachi newcomers. Tsipi Keller’s apt translation of the poem’s title encapsulates that point. The word “purchase” means acquisition, but it can also refer to securing a hold on something; for example, finding a foothold on slippery ground. Bitton, through his poetry, stakes out a claim of belonging. He declares a right to be part of Tel Aviv, along with the veteran frequenters of expensive cafes. Note, too, that the verb liknot, to buy or acquire, in Hebrew slang can also mean to accept or buy into. The speaker here buys into the system — the prevailing norm of deference to the Ashkenazi customers — but the poem at the same time protests against and undermines the status quo. Indeed, at the end of the poem, the speaker announces that he prefers to return to his own neighborhood and “to the other Hebrew,” which has pronunciations and locutions familiar to him and his community.
While Bitton writes a poem of resistance, Tuvia Ruebner writes of overcoming his own personal resistance to Hebrew. Ruebner’s poem “‘Ivrit, ahuvati” (“Hebrew, My Love,” 2011) opens by stating, “It’s been a lifetime together — 50 or 60 years.” This is a late poem that acknowledges the poet’s delayed decision to write in his adopted language. Born in Slovakia in 1924, Ruebner made aliyah in 1941 yet for a number of years published in German. His first book of Hebrew poems appeared only in 1953. In “Hebrew, My Love” ambivalence toward Hebrew emerges decidedly in the second stanza, where the poet describes his relationship with the language as that of lovers who have turned their backs on one another. They feel an undeniable tug of mutual attraction, but they have never been fully united. The third stanza then resolves those difficulties with a series of statements that defy literal translation. Here is Rachel Tzvia Back’s very helpful rendition of some lines that beg to be explained into English:
I conjugated at your will, I accepted your grammatical sentences
I queried your roots,
I stuttered, became silent, I begged and whispered
In the original, “I conjugated at your will” is stated as “natiti linetiotayikh”—words thatcould refer to grammar, but that could also suggest acquiescing to the whim of another. They might be rendered as, “I was inclined to do what you did, I bent to your will.” The next statement, “I accepted your grammatical sentences” appears in Hebrew as “kibalti et din gzerotayikh.” This phrase plays on the definition of gizrah as referring to the declension of nouns but also to legal decrees. For this reason, the translator’s choice to use the English word “sentences” proves felicitous; it subtly evokes connotations from the legal realm, conjuring up the notion of punishing dictates or judgments. The poem thereby hints that Hebrew metes out harsh discipline on newcomers who try to learn it. As for the next line, the word “roots” works well in both Hebrew and English; it suggests a caring lover who inquires into the heritage, history, or personal origins of the beloved. In the original, however, the reference to roots also points to the verb system of Hebrew based on three-letter shorashim.
The poem thereby hints that Hebrew metes out harsh discipline on newcomers who try to learn it.
Following that, the third line in the stanza highlights stuttering and so conveys the inadequacies the suitor feels. In Hebrew the line takes on another dimension; its repetitive sounds—gimgamti, damamti, bikashti, laḥashti—echo the Yom Kippur confessional prayer Ashamnu (“we have sinned”). The string of verbs makes for gentle parody, wryly suggesting the shortcomings of a poet who feels he is guilty of not doing justice to the Hebrew language. The final lines of the poem provide something of a happy ending. The lovers have reached a new state of union; the voice of Hebrew issues from the speaker’s own throat. This conclusion suggests the lovers now speak in unison, and so the poem invites us to return to the first stanza and reread the opening, “It’s been a lifetime together.” Those words provide an effective translation of “Ḥayim shlemim beyaḥad” — they are accurate, they introduce a conversational tone, and they set the stage for a trip down memory lane. But ḥayim shlemim could also be understood as a “whole life” or a “full life”, not just as reference to an extended period of shared experience.
Altogether, Ruebner’s love of Hebrew is hard-won, even a bit tortured. The poem’s declaration of feeling is not like the effusive adoration of Hebrew expressed by the American poet, Regelson. Neither, though, does it resemble the despair of Enlightenment writer Yehuda Leib Gordon, who famously lamented the demise of Hebrew in his 1871 poem “For Whom Do I Toil?” There, Gordon plaintively wondered if he might be “the last of Zion’s poets,” writing for a handful of remaining Hebrew readers. As it turned out, of course, he was far from the last. Poets till this day continue to create in Hebrew — an extraordinarily dynamic language. In its revitalized, modern stage, Hebrew has found exceptional new vibrancy in written works by individuals from many backgrounds and from geographically diverse locations. Any number of Hebrew poems, in addition to the ones mentioned here, highlight the very medium in which they were composed.
Naomi B. Sokoloff is a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of Washington. She is co-editor with Nancy E. Berg of What We Talk About When We talk About Hebrew (And What It Means to Americans), winner of a 2019 National Jewish Book Award.