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Writing Across the Linguae Francae of Midcentury Jewish America

Monday, November 23, 2015| Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein


Jewish Book Council is proud to announce the realization of its project to create a digitized archive of the Jewish Book Annual in partnership with the Center for Jewish History, presenting over half a century of national discourse on Jewish literature in an interactive, searchable format to honor the 90th anniversary of the first Jewish Book Week.

Last week, contributing editor Nat Bernstein introduced the archives with a reflection on the first volume of Jewish Book Annual and its contributors’ awareness of world events in the midst of World War II. Understanding the Nazi’s mass extermination of European Jewry and the writers, artists, and scholars among them as the murder not only of people but of expression and the written word, the Annual called upon American Jews to take on the mantle of Jewish literature theretofore helmed by the names listed in the journal’s annual, tragically lengthening roster of “The Academy on High”.

Emerging from the same period, one of the more academically compelling features of the earliest issues of the Jewish Book Annual was the linguistic conversation between English, Hebrew, and Yiddish—then the linguae francae of American Jewry. Although today Jewish Book Council primarily works only with books in English or English translation, its mission and readership held different aims, interests, and consciousness over the midcentury years between the Holocaust and Israel’s claim for independence.

Reflecting on the reception of the inaugural volume, the publication’s editor, Dr. Solomon Grayzel, noted the following year: “Our Annual of 1942 was hailed as proof of the inherent unity of Jewish culture in the United States, despite the trilingual form in which our efforts—literary and educational—manifest themselves. To prove the existence of and to enhance this unity are, indeed, the twin purposes of the Jewish Book Council. It was created in order to provide a Cultural Exchange for the three linguistic groups in American Israel, all of which are American, all of which are Jewish, and all of which strive to enrich their common cultural heritage.”

To that end, the Jewish Book Annual originally featured not only sections written in each language but an intricate and thoughtful web of discourse and reference between them. Readers of one language were kept informed of the works published in the others, as well as of any translations made available in their own, over the previous year. “Apart from serving as a guide and a source book,” Grayzel wrote in the 1948 – 1949 issue, “the Annual serves to acquaint the users of one language with the literary products of the other two.”

Beyond promoting and enhancing Jewish literature among the broadest possible audience of American Jewish readers, this trilingual effort was rooted in a national clamor for unity as the events of the Holocaust, its aftermath, and Israel’s political and military struggle for independence raged overseas. “This year we have attempted to bring to our readers information about the new post-war developments in Jewish literature in Europe,” editor Abraham G. Duker highlighted in his preface to the 1947 – 1948 issue. “We have also discussed [...] the wisdom of more intensive coverage of different fields of Hebrew literature in different years in view of most fortunate cultural developments in Eretz Israel and the consequent large output of books, trends which we hope will continue uninterruptedly.”

This was not to be the case, as the following volume of Jewish Book Annual went to print in the midst of Israel’s War of Independence. “It is a source of deep regret that three articles on the Hebrew literary creativity in the State of Israel, that had been assigned to and accepted by outstanding Israeli personalities, have not been received as this book goes to press, undoubtedly due to the unsettled conditions there,” Grayzel continued in his introduction to Volume VII. “When these articles are received,” he promised, “the Council will find appropriate channels for their proper dissemination so that we can join in paying tribute to our brethren in Israel.”

Happily, however, the Annual’s dedication to its trilingual dialogue on American Jewish literature transitioned from determination and survival to a celebration of culture, heritage, and the arts as the Jewish American community flourished in a more peaceful world the next decade. “Yiddish lives in our Annual. Hebrew lives in our Annual. Jewish Art lives in our Annual. Books, books, books live in our Annual,” Ely E. Pilchik introduced Volume XIII (1955 – 1956). “As the fourth century begins for American Jewry, and the fourth or fifth millennium for the descendants of Jacob, Jews are writing in at least three languages—Hebrew, Yiddish and English. If there is writing there must be reading. From earliest times we Jews have hallowed history with דאס ווארט—הדבר—the word—oral and written. As long as we so hallow will our history be glowingly alive.”

Little did he know that one day it would be so literally glowingly alive off computer screens and even handheld devices displaying his own words in digital archives freely available and accessible to all.

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