Amer­i­can Hebrew Lit­er­a­ture: Writ­ing Jew­ish Nation­al Iden­ti­ty in the Unit­ed States

Michael Wein­grad; Alan Mintz, fwd.
  • Review
By – August 30, 2011
While Jew­ish-Amer­i­can and even Yid­dish-Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture is well-known, the idea of Hebrew-Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture may seem puz­zling. We are so famil­iar with the stan­dard immi­gra­tion saga, with Jews com­ing to Amer­i­ca and either insist­ing on using Eng­lish to bet­ter Amer­i­can­ize, or on Yid­dish to retain Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, that this third pos­si­bil­i­ty, of com­ing to Amer­i­ca and retain­ing Jew­ish iden­ti­ty by writ­ing in Hebrew, is unex­pect­ed. But as Wein­grad reveals, Amer­i­can Hebrew lit­er­a­ture has much to offer. Hebraists explored Amer­i­can tra­di­tions— Native Amer­i­can, Mor­mon, fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­t­ian, and African Amer­i­can — that their Jew­ish con­tem­po­raries often avoid­ed. Hebraists, by mar­gin­al­iz­ing them­selves from the Jew­ish main­stream, also offer a unique per­spec­tive on the choic­es made by the Amer­i­can-Jew­ish major­i­ty: Debat­ing the melt­ing pot’ was of lit­tle inter­est to these Hebraists, while the Dias­po­ra and Zion were major issues. Aware that mod­ern read­ers have lit­tle access to the poet­ry and prose of these Hebrew writ­ers, Wein­grad sum­ma­rizes, quotes, and trans­lates enough of their work to give a sense of their styles and con­cerns. The focus is on writ­ers of the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, with the­mat­ic chap­ters on the impact of Mod­ernism, Hebraists out­side of New York City, Native Amer­i­cans and the Hebraist imag­i­na­tion, the role of Morde­cai Manuel Noah, and the works of Shi­mon Halkin and Gabriel Preil. Although many read­ers may have lit­tle inter­est in a move­ment that by the end of the 20th cen­tu­ry had either migrat­ed to Israel or to the world to come,’ Weingrad’s sur­vey is both read­able and thought-pro­vok­ing. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, foot­notes, index.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

Discussion Questions