On Transformative Works
Continuing adventures in etrog preservation

Ilán Stavans on eros, Hebrew, translation, and language

Sometimes there are happenings in my town that I just can't pass up. When I saw that there was a lecture happening at my alma mater called "Resurrecting Hebrew: How an Erotic Dream Led Me to Reflect on the Lasting Power of the Sacred Language" -- by Ilán Stavans, no less, whose work I've admired for years -- how could I fail to attend?

I first encountered Stavans' work back when I was a student at Bennington. As the culmination of an independent study on Jewish literature, I wrote and delivered a paper called What makes Jewish literature so Jewish, anyway? I drew heavily on the Jewish Latin America series which Stavans edited -- a useful reminder that the Ashkenazic immigrant story with which most north American Jews are familiar is only one side of the coin. (For a taste of what Stavans has been writing and thinking lately, I recommend Resurrecting and Embracing Hebrew, published at Nextbook.) Anyway: I went to hear Stavans speak at Williams. He didn't disappoint.

The official bio says that Ilán Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture and Five College 40th Anniversary Professor at Amherst College. (That's a mouthful.) He's most recently author of Resurrecting Hebrew, "the story of how Hebrew was rescued from extinction to become the living language of a modern nation," as well as two collections of short stories and 15 works of nonfiction. (For more on the new book: Amherst College Professor Ilán Stavans Publishes Book on Reviving the Hebrew Language.) Here's the blurb that got me in the door:

As Stavans tells it, a dream of a beautiful woman speaking an unknown tongue sent him in search of a language he later discovers to be Hebrew. The quest for his own forgotten tongue becomes the search for the man who led the revival of Hebrew at the end of the 19th century, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Journeying to Israel to learn about this amateur lexicographer, Stavans finds that the modern vernacular of spoken Hebrew has absorbed the politics and structure of Arabic, English and even Russian. Surrounding the story of Ben-Yehuda, Stavans finds questions about the role of language in contemporary Israeli politics. All the tensions between the Diaspora and the idea of a "promised land" pulse beneath the surface of Stavans' intellectual and personal search for origins of Modern Hebrew.

"I was born and raised in Mexico," Stavans began. "It's so exciting to be here now, in the wake of Obama's victory. Obama means respect for the English language! The war on syntax will be over."

"I'm reluctant to put my finger on exactly how a book is born. I originally committed to writing a book about the Hebrew alphabet. I thought I would wait for inspiration, the first line or image or metaphor to come to me. Editors would ask, where is the manuscript? And I would do what writers do best: I would lie. 'It's coming!' Until the editor's frustration became mine."

"And then I had a dream."

He read us a few pages from the book, about the erotic dream that led him to renewed immersion in Hebrew. "The Talmud tells us an uninterpreted dream is like an unread letter," he said (shades of Rodger Kamenetz!) The dream -- featuring a voluptuous curly-headed woman whose language is peppered with foreign terms; fanciful animals; and a gaggle of rabbis arguing arcane points of Talmud at a dinner party -- is quite wonderful. Anyway, a friend diagnosed the dream as a sign of language withdrawal. "Losing one's Hebrew, Ilán, might be a synonym for losing one's soul." The friend sent him a paperback copy of A Dream Come True by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, about whom more anon.

Stavans was born into a small Yiddish-speaking community in Mexico. Yiddish was a domestic language, a private language. The public language of the street was Spanish. "If Yiddish made me Jewish, Spanish established a connection with my national identity." (My grandmother Rachel Barenblat, of blessed memory, was a Yiddish speaking Jew who emigrated from Poland to Mexico...though when she married my grandfather, she emigrated again, to San Antonio where her children were born. So I feel a certain connection with Stavans in that regard, even though my family didn't stay in Mexico.)

Yiddish, he noted, was not forward-looking. "The language that would inspire us as young Jews was Hebrew." Mexico was understood as a kind of waystation for young Jews; the ultimate destination was Israel, "where we would finally resolve the conflict at the core of Jewish Diaspora experience: what were you first, Jewish or Mexican?" The goal was to become normal Jewish citizens in a normal Jewish state. That was the path out of being a religious minority. Hebrew became the way of connecting with other Jews.

So Stavans moved to Israel, and lived for a while on a kibbutz. "Real pioneering, or at least we thought it that way; and it was all in Hebrew." Reading the poets of the Hebrew renaissance appeared at the time, he says, to be "a real redemption; a tikkun, a way to fix the world. But it wasn't so." He came to realize that he missed the experience of being in the minority in Mexico; "it's good to be a Jew who looks at the culture from the outside." So he made yeridah, descent: moved back out of Israel again.

And as a result, Hebrew became less important. "I made my real aliyah, first to New York -- the Jerusalem of this side of the world -- and then to Amherst, which I guess would be Haifa! Because of that, languages began playing a game of attraction and rejection. English became the way I recreated myself, as all immigrants do."

He mastered English by memorizing poems by Whitman and Dickinson, and by reading Moby Dick at night with a dictionary. "The real excitement was on the subway, going from 96th to 106th street. That subway was a return to the last section of the Tower of Babel. English, Spanish, Portuguese, Latvian, Arabic...and what was also there was an erasing of borders." A nightmare for purists, but vibrating before his ears. "I loved it, especially Spanglish," he said with palpable joy. "So I forgot my Hebrew. And I forgot Israel as well."

Until the dream -- and the book which arrived in the mail, about Elizer Ben-Yehuda, who was instrumental in "the revival or resurrection or return of Hebrew from the ashes, the grave, the dumpster." The book seemed to him like medicine for his illness. Though it was poorly-written ("Ben-Yehuda was no stylist"), it held something he needed.

He had the temptation, he said, to compare Ben-Yehuda to Ben Jonson -- though, as he notes, Jonson was an essayist and man of letters while Ben-Yehuda was an ideologue! But there was something about Ben-Yehuda which drew him. "Ben-Yehuda was presenting language as if it was geography." It became clear that he needed to embark on a study of Hebrew, as though the language were landscape.

So he emailed his buddy Hillel Halkin (translator of Sholom Aleichem into English in a truly gorgeous way) and an Argentine friend who is now an active citizen of Israel ("he is the me I didn't become") and asked them to spend some time with him traveling around the country and the language. "I wanted to see what a people who had gone through language withdrawal had done in order to return back to their own language."

He told stories about the young Ben-Yehuda opening a copy of Robinson Crusoe in Hebrew (proof that Ben-Yehuda didn't begin the work of reviving Hebrew, but rather inherited it -- and also a beautiful metaphor for the man himself as an island in a sea of other languages.) It wasn't obvious when Israel was founded, Stavans notes, that Hebrew should be its tongue. There was already a Jewish language, and it was Yiddish. Why choose Hebrew?

The Ottoman Jews, though, spoke Ladino. And even if only one in five Diaspora Jews spoke Ladino, that was enough to make clear that there were other Jewish languages. Actually there were several: Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Arabic. There were three dozen Jewish languages, in fact: languages Jews used to identify themselves as Jews and distinguish themselves from their environments.

Ben-Yehuda actually suggested French as an option for the new Jewish state. (Can you imagine?) And apparently Herzl had imagined that the Jewish state would speak German. So though Hebrew is a given for us, today, it wasn't a given for them then. That's part of what intrigued Stavans in the first place.

It's also clear, from Stavans' remarks, that Ben-Yehuda was a nut. (He forbade his son to speak anything but Hebrew, though no one else in Jerusalem spoke the language at that time.) But that's part of what makes him interesting fodder. Ben-Yehuda's task was to bring Hebrew back from Biblical times to the present, despite the 2000+ years in the interim. Train, electricity, computer: none of those words existed in the original tongue. So he resolved to use the classical Hebrew roots, and to adapt them into new words. In this way he aimed to prove Hebrew's richness.

Today's Hebrew is full of Anglicisms, Stavans tells us. Arabic is not the second language of Israel; English is. Russians, too, have revamped the Hebrew language. Today you turn on Israeli TV and Spanish soap operas are subtitled in Hebrew and Russian. And the Russians have resisted the immigrant pattern; Israeli and Hebrew culture seems lowbrow to them. They Russify their Hebrew, and they draw on Russia for their culture.

And then there's the borrowing from Arabic. Israelis don't generally learn Arabic (apparently Israeli interest in Arabic declines year by year), but Arabs have to learn Hebrew "because it's the language of the occupier; it's essential." Stavans told us about a scholar who studies Hebriya, the Spanglish of the region -- the mixing of Hebrew and Arabic, which shapes local Arab identity. "I think that Spanglish in the United States is a metaphor for Latino identity in this country," he said, "and Hebriya is an Arab-Israeli identity that you won't find in politics."

Ben-Yehuda, he told us, is said to have died while writing the encyclopedia entry for nefesh, "soul." It's clear that Stavans has a love-hate relationship with the guy. For Ben Yehuda, Yiddish was the language of victimhood; he expurgated all of his Yiddish books from his library, and Yiddish words from his etymology. "That tells you a lot," Stavans said, and I heard real exasperation in his voice. (No surprise from a man who grew up speaking Yiddish in Mexico.) For Ben-Yehuda, Yiddish led to the gas chambers, not to power. For Stavans, I think, that dichotomy demands an inevitable synthesis.

One of last stories he told us was about Ben-Yehuda's grave, which is repeatedly desecrated with graffiti from ultra-Orthodox Jews who can't stand the man or what he stood for. But the graffiti...? Is in modern Hebrew.

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