What We Talk about When We Talk about Hebrew (and What It Means to Americans)

Nao­mi B. Sokoloff and Nan­cy E. Berg

January 1, 2013

Why Hebrew, here and now? What is its val­ue for con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­cans? In What We Talk about When We Talk about Hebrew (and What It Means to Amer­i­cans) schol­ars, writ­ers, and trans­la­tors tack­le a series of urgent ques­tions that arise from the chang­ing sta­tus of Hebrew in the Unit­ed States. To what extent is that sta­tus affect­ed by evolv­ing Jew­ish iden­ti­ties and shift­ing atti­tudes toward Israel and Zion­ism? Will Hebrew pro­grams sur­vive the cur­rent cri­sis in the human­i­ties on uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus­es? How can the vibran­cy of Hebrew lit­er­a­ture be con­veyed to a larg­er audience?

The vol­ume fea­tures a diverse group of dis­tin­guished con­trib­u­tors, includ­ing Sarah Bunin Benor, Dara Horn, Adri­ana Jacobs, Alan Mintz, Han­nah Press­man, Adam Rovn­er, Ilan Sta­vans, Michael Wein­grad, Robert White­hill-Bashan, and Wendy Zier­ler. With live­ly per­son­al insights, their essays give fel­low Amer­i­cans a glimpse into the rich­ness of an excep­tion­al language.

Cel­e­brat­ing the vital­i­ty of mod­ern Hebrew, this book address­es the chal­lenges and joys of being a Hebraist in Amer­i­ca in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. Togeth­er these essays explore ways to rekin­dle an inter­est in Hebrew stud­ies, focus­ing not just on what Hebrew means―as a glob­al phe­nom­e­non and long-lived tradition―but on what it can mean to Americans.

Discussion Questions

What We Talk About When We Talk About Hebrew, sub­ti­tled And What It Means to Amer­i­cans, is a fas­ci­nat­ing col­lec­tion of essays extolling the beau­ty and depth of the Hebrew language.

This theme – that even mod­ern Ivrit draws upon bib­li­cal con­text and images in sub­tle yet unmis­tak­able ways – is dis­cussed in mul­ti­ple essays by schol­ars, writ­ers, and poets. Sev­er­al pro­fes­sors of Hebrew who have taught in both the U.S. and Israel reveal how dif­fer­ent­ly stu­dents under­stand Hebrew lit­er­a­ture in Eng­lish trans­la­tion as opposed to the Hebrew orig­i­nal, where bib­li­cal con­text and allu­sions are deeply root­ed. Exam­ples include not only famil­iar Hebrew writ­ers (Agnon and Bia­lik) but mod­ern Hebrew poet­ry in which the bib­li­cal echoes are equal­ly clear. 

This col­lec­tion is not only for schol­ars of lit­er­a­ture, how­ev­er. The essays leave no doubt that the oft-dis­cussed dif­fer­ences between Israelis and non-Hebrew speak­ing Amer­i­can Jews reflects a fun­da­men­tal dis­par­i­ty in lan­guage as well as thought. Yet you can­not read this book with­out com­ing away with a desire to learn Hebrew. If you ever want­ed to learn Hebrew, this col­lec­tion will rekin­dle the urge. If you haven’t had that urge, read this remark­able book and you will. And then maybe we – Israelis and Amer­i­can Jews – will be able to under­stand each oth­er better.