diasporic hebrew? diasporizing ivrit

a first line of thinking after reading maya rosen’s fascinating interview with tal hever-chybowski, published this week in Jewish Currents. to be clear, i like what THC (can i resist? no.) has to say a lot, and adore the cultural project he and his journal, Mikan Ve’eylakh [From Here Onwards], are pursuing. i’m thinking my way into the gaps i find in this interview because that helps me understand how it all fits into my own yiddish-anchored diasporist thinking.

in some ways, i think THC is clearer about what “diasporic” means than what “hebrew” means. he speaks eloquently about the two myths that structure most current writing and thinking about hebrew:

this ideological myth, according to which Hebrew simply died, and then Eliezer Ben Yehuda taught his son the language, and Hebrew was revived. And there is another myth that tries to argue precisely the opposite, that Hebrew has had historical continuity without gaps: In every moment in world history, Hebrew was not only written but also spoken.

but (at least in this interview – & see note 2) he maintains the underlying fiction that the two myths are founded on: that the language spoken today by most jews in palestine (and by many non-jewish palestinians) and the language of rabbinic & maskilic discourse (not aramaic, the other one) are one and the same: “hebrew”.

this is just plain not true. for why, see below; i’m gonna stick with why this gap in THC’s thinking matters. for clarity, i’ll be calling the two languages “ivrit” and “loshn koydesh” – terms from within the languages themselves (the latter in yiddish nusakh, because that’s my lineage).

endorsing the myth of a single “hebrew” seems to me to do precisely what THC is trying to avoid: substituting myth for history.

the myth denies ivrit its particularity and its unusual, fascinating history, making it harder to see the language for itself. if you’re looking at a language through the lens of a different grammar and divergent vocabulary, (not to mention a different semantics!), how on earth can you say anything meaningful about it or cultivate it on its own terms? we’ve seen that problem in english often enough for it to be very familiar: the asinine insistence on applying “rules” adopted from latin & greek grammar (“no split infinitives” because a latin infinitive is a single word, for example) has fucked up untold numbers of people’s sense of their ability to write “properly” in the century-plus since it began.

the myth denies loshn koydesh, in all its multiplicity, its place as a language with its own meaningful, active, life even after over a millenium without cradle-tongue speakers. its current forms are influenced by ivrit, certainly, but every earlier form has been similarly influenced by other jewish languages – yiddish, judezmo/ladino, and many more.

and it denies us all a clear understanding of the relationships each language has to the zionist project, and how diasporist uses of them operate. diasporizing ivrit – helping it have a life separate from the genocidal ideology that birthed it – is an exciting and inspiring project. and so is cultivating all the current varieties of loshn koydesh, which has very rarely been “anti-diasporic” (in THC’s terms), as ivrit has often been.

in one of THC’s most compelling passages in the interview, he points out the way that the definite article “ha” is used in ivrit to negate the diaspora: in ivrit, he says, “ha’aretz (“the land”), ha’tzava (“the army”), ha’tikshoret (“the media”)” without added specification can refer only to the territory, army, and media of the israeli state. but to say this is true of “hebrew”, as THC does, is a massive misrepresentation. in loshn-koydesh, there is simply no such connotation. even “ha’arets” – which was used as a shorthand reference to palestine long before herzl dreamed his dreams of settler-colonial statehood – does not exclude other referents [note 2].

there is not much need to diasporize loshn koydesh. it was rejected by zionism, and replaced within their nation-creating project by ivrit, precisely because it was already diasporic. what is needed is much the same as what’s needed in yiddish, in ladino/judezmo, and in other jewish languages: a reckoning with how it has been used for zionist purposes, and active use of it for consciously diasporist purposes.

ivrit is another story. it will take the kind of deep and thoughtful work that THC and Mikan Ve’eylakh are doing to figure out how to disentangle it from zionism and the state that claims to own its every word. that work is, i believe, made harder when ivrit is not seen as itself, but as part of a fictional unitary “hebrew”.


why these languages are not the same

loshn koydesh has an unbroken evolution as a language. as THC says, the versions of it written in the tanakh, in the writings of the khasidey ashkenaz, in the writings of sefardi kabalists, in the responsa of 19th-century rabbis, and in the works of german maskilim are different. but they’re different in the ways that the latins of cicero, augustine of hippo, thomas more, and nazi-turned-pope ratzinger are different (to name writers who both wrote & spoke the language, with a range of different balances between the two that parallels the range found in loshn koydesh writers – in both lists, only the first are cradle-tongue speakers). which is to say: all these versions of loshn koydesh developed, on the page and in the ear, with a complicated continuity by direct transmission through use & study, without any cradle-tongue speakers since the early years of the christian era.

ivrit, on the other hand is a constructed language with interestingly mixed structuring sources. this isn’t a condemnation: it’s a basic linguistic and historical fact. the language movement that ben yehuda’s name usually stands in for (and erases [note 3]) specifically rejected loshn koydesh, which in the 19th century had been broken out of exclusively rabbinic use and brought into use as a “modern” literary language, as tainted by the “degeneracy” of diasporic life. what it created was distinct from any form of loshn koydesh – a newly invented language, despite its ideological framing as “revival”. after more than a century of life, it is even more distinctly separate. if loshn koydesh is latin, ivrit is esperanto: a century-old living language with a worldwide community of speakers, that has evolved based on a constructed starting point built from specific materials (for esperanto, primarily latin-descended languages with influence from germanic and slavic languages; for ivrit, primarily the loshn koydesh of the tanakh and other early texts, with influence from yiddish and arabic).

ghil’ad zuckermann has written extensively on the specificities of ivrit [note 1] as a language based on deliberate construction (he calls it “semi-engineered”). among other things, he demolishes the first fallback position taken by folks committed to the ideology of a single “hebrew” language when confronted with the distinction i’ve laid out: the myth of mutual intelligibility.

in THC’s words: “I am convinced that if the 11th-century rabbinic sage Rashi were to sit with us now in a cafe, it would take him only about two hours to fine tune his ear to be able to converse with us. I would know which words to avoid, and he would know which words to avoid, and we would be able to talk.”

now, to some extent this may be true, but not because of the languages! as THC says, there is a shared literary corpus, primarily of rabbinic writings, that would give him and RaShI some linguistic common ground. but as zuckermann points out, that common ground bridges quite different tense/mood/aspect systems, possessive constructions, possibilities for word order, and other syntactic and morphological structures, as well as the lexical differences THC nods to – fundamental differences on multiple levels of the language’s structure. as zuckermann writes, ivrit speakers’ ability to understand (for example) the book of Isaiah to the degree they do (generally rather badly, according to his research) “is surely because they study the Old Testament at school for eleven years”. given similar preparation, an english-speaker with no ivrit at all would probably do as well as THC imagines he would in a conversation with RaShI.


[note 1] zuckermann uses “israeli” – i prefer “ivrit”, as a non-state-endorsing term from the language itself. that’s easier for me than for him, since the loshn koydesh of the yiddish jewish world calls itself “ivris“, so in my home contexts there isn’t the confusion that’s possible for folks whose lashon kadosh uses the same final /t/ for the israeli and liturgical languages.

[note 2] part of why i think THC does in general embrace the myth of a unitary “hebrew” is that he gives an example of this (a 19th century periodical from russia using “ha’arets” to refer to the empire it was published in) but presents it as a chronological difference in the same language, rather than as a difference between languages (in one of which “ha” has a semantic function that it lacks in the other – a difference of grammar rather than vocabulary).

[note 3] ben yehuda himself famously spoke to his son only in the loshn-koydesh of the tanakh and liturgy. as zuckermann points out, however, his idiosyncratic effort of the early 1880s was separate from the work that established a “hebrew” speech community – that only happened two decades later, with the children of graduates of zionist schools in palestine. the use of ben yehuda as a stand-in for the many people involved in establishing and operating those schools erases both the people who actually did the work of establishing ivrit as a living language and the differences in linguistic goals & ideology between his largely failed individual experiment & their collective institutional one.

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