This is not a history of Hebrew literature in America. Instead it relates a fascinating chapter of that literature's preoccupation with America's indigenous minorities, African Americans and Native Americans. The uniqueness of this interest stems from the fact that at no time in the annals of Hebrew literature and in any land of the Jewish Diaspora have writers demonstrated such a curiosity about other groups, out of sympathy with how other marginalized peoples have fared compared to the way Jews have fared in America. And while some of the ensuing interest is a consequence of the onset of modernity and a fostering of pluralism in Jewish, and Hebrew, culture, the American cultural factor is more significant than others have been. The spectacle of Hebrew writers preoccupying themselves with the ways of other minorities is, but for literature composed in English, unique in its scope among all minority literature on the American stage.
Though Hebrew writers in Europe did delve into encounters between Jewish protagonists and Gentiles, they foregrounded the former, often presenting them in superficial, stereotypical fashion. Few if any works were composed about the Gentile world without Jews as relevant factors in the plot. By the late nineteenth century, Hebrew literature about Jewish women and their lot began to become de rigueur. Later, Hebrew literary projects included translations of national epics of other groups out of motives other than interest in marginalized minorities. In tracing the Americanization of Hebrew literature, then, one of my concerns will be the examination of the works by American Hebrew writers who became inordinately enamored of the non-Jewish cultural landscape, including that of Native and African Americans.
Having reached its zenith in the middle of the twentieth century as it grew commensurately with the influx of immigrants, American Hebrew literature is a little-tapped record of the newest wave of Jewish immigration, cultural adaptation, and transformation in the New World. Though little may be attained by probing the meager Hebrew literary legacy of the handful of Jews who populated the United States before the middle of the nineteenth century, when fifty thousand or so augmented the few living there before 1850, later immigration waves changed all that. The truly significant influx of Jews occurred only a decade later, when, by 1860, America's Jewish population swelled to two hundred thousand. Between 1890 and 1920, there were over three million, laying the foundation for a new center of Jewish life. This growth constituted the basis upon which, within only a few decades, one of the most thriving and culturally rich Jewish communities in history took root.
Among the millions of Jews to land in the New World, not a few regretted having made the journey. The attractions, potentials, and promises of life in the Golden Land seemed Faustian to some. While most may have missed the quaintness and familiarity of life in the Old Country, some were quick to realize that life in the New World extracted a higher price in terms of group identity, cohesiveness, and culture. Though many were prepared to bear the cost—to live in America but also to set up a new ghetto existence in order to stem the onslaught of the host culture—others turned back. Not even the thrill of crossing the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn over the newly constructed bridge kept the most disenchanted or culturally alienated from returning home—as evidenced by an anecdote preserved in my family of the experiences of one grandparent who turned and returned, only to be swept up by the emerging horror of the Holocaust.
Yet the lure of new beginnings in America was a potent force. The masses that landed in the New World made their choice clear by voting with their steerage tickets. Reality trumps idealism; cold existential calculation overwhelms the dream. It was inevitable, then, that among those who arrived there were also talented young, literate Jews who constituted the nucleus of what became a thriving Hebrew (and Yiddish) culture. Among them were those who found the nexus of spiritual values and material temptations a fertile ground upon which to write satirically of Jewish life. In the early years, Gershon Rosenzweig composed a parody of the Talmud, Talmud Yanka'i (Yankee Talmud), and deformed the New World's image by calling it `Amireika (or `Amareika), literally "My good-for-nothing people" (or "A good-for-nothing people"). This tendency to satirize American Jewish life did not abate. L. A. Arieli (Orloff) set the tone of measuring American Jewry's preoccupation with itself, Zion, and progress only to find them wanting.
The waves of immigration bore along a number of established Hebrew and Yiddish literati, among them Y. D. Berkovitch (1885-1967), Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916), Shimon Ginzburg (1890-1944), and Menachem Mendel Dolitzky (1856-1931), who pulled up roots, immigrated, and catalyzed the emergent literary center in the New World. The arrival of each set off a flurry of expectations among America's Jewish intelligentsia. Younger immigrants, many coming with an education from the traditional East European heder and yeshivah, landed in the New World to be transformed by the American experience. Of these, some took up the pen, realizing their literary talents or mission to become American-educated writers of Hebrew literature. They participated in what became the heyday of American Hebrew (and Yiddish) literary activity in the first half of the twentieth century. Most, inevitably, embellished the Hebrew tradition by introducing new forms and themes as they drew upon and melded Jewish with American culture.
In an attempt to preserve itself, Hebrew literature in the United States adopted the paradoxical posture of advocating separateness by the very nature of being the expression of a uniquely exploited and distinct cultural group. Yet its engagement with America and its themes belies an impulse to acculturate, to undergo what an astute observer, Ya'akov Rabinowitz, termed "Americanization." By this he meant to call on Hebrew literature to distinguish itself as American. In some measure, by instigating, supporting, and promoting the Americanization of Hebrew culture, writers were sowing the seeds of their own demise. Inevitably, then, this study charts Hebrew literature's collusion and mirroring of an unprecedented Jewish acculturation into its host society. America was to Jewish civilization the crucible in which its insular particularism was met by threats of acculturation and assimilation in the maelstrom of hyphenations.
In America we can chart the divide between mere Hebraists and Zionists who wrote Hebrew literature. Not all actors on the stage of America's Hebrew literary center's brief flowering were dyed-in-the-wool Zionists, ready to emigrate from the Golden Land and exchange its material comforts for the rigors of a Jewish state-in-the-making. Some, much like their forebears of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), were ardent devotees of the Hebrew language, separating themselves and their pursuits from any Zionist program to which the Hebrew language became a consort by nearly unanimous consent. What becomes patently obvious is the bifurcated response to the prospects of realizing the founding of the Jewish state. As these improved, the ranks of Hebrew writers divided along the lines of those unwilling or the actively engaged in the project of supporting the creation of the political Zionist program and even settling in the state that will eventually arise. Of the latter, a good number—among them S. Halkin, R. Avinoam (Grossman), A. Regelson, and I. Efros—left to settle in Israel. Others, among them S. L. Blank, E. E. Lisitzky, and D. Persky, exhibited an ambivalence in the face of a realized Jewish national dream, justifying their decision to remain in America in a host of ways.
The literature produced by these authors and poets foregrounds questions of group identity as a subtext. Writers were patently conscious of the new course upon which they had launched Hebrew literature in the Golden Land, altering its programmatic agenda to engage with things American in place of those of Europe and Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel, as distinct from the later-established state as a political entity). Having to a great extent abandoned the shaping of Jewish national identity as a leading paradigm, America's Hebrew writers also lost their own raison d'être. To be sure, they did not abandon all encounters with the Land of Israel. Yet an examination of the themes and forms preoccupying American Hebrew writers indicates that they were more absorbed with personal and regional matters of society and landscape. The turn inward, though not shunned even by the greatest of the Zionist poets of the day, became a mark of the fragmentation of American Hebrew literary culture. In place of a uniform enlistment to the Jewish national cause, American Hebraists pursued other courses. Whether out of personal need or as representing the malaise of the generation, they chose to express the sense of the times they or their readers harbored.
In place of toeing the European Hebraists' line, writing of America and its other minorities becomes an act of inscribing the self onto and alongside America's marginalized groups, principally by delving into the lives of Native Americans or Blacks. In so doing, the literary works of these writers exemplify a reimagining of the self in the guise of the Other. It contextualizes the experience of oneself or one's group within a larger milieu. The indirect way of defining themselves became a measure of the depth of the gaping chasm opening between Hebrew writers and the centers of Hebrew literature in Europe and Israel.
Their preoccupation with other minority groups is also a measure of a deep-seated psychological condition these writers shared. Whether because of an inability to come to terms with their own transmuted collective (or individual) identity in the New World, or the lack of a clear vision of what to advocate—beside the obvious topic of the Holocaust and a few others—they wrote of other minorities. In so doing, their subjects became the repositories of issues which continued to engage them. Yet it is likely that by examining other marginalized groups in American culture, Hebrew writers found a means of indirectly writing about themselves.
Hebrew literature's fate in America is also a story of a missed opportunity for Hebraists to transmute their new land into another viable literary center. As early as 1922, the Pittsburgh, Pa., activist in the Histadrut `Ivrit, Chaim Bronstein, observed that "America is the sole place to serve as a haven for the Hebrew movement." The sentiment in favor of establishing a new center of Hebrew life and culture in the New World was supported by M. Ribalow's observation of its necessity for Hebraists in the United States. Yet this abortive attempt is an exemplary chapter in the history of Modern Hebrew literature and deserving of scrutiny. At the time, this incipient center had an independent cadre of Hebrew poets, essayists, and novelists working to engender a literature that failed to propagate itself beyond the generation of its immigrant founders. Nonetheless, the thematic and formal contributions of this half-century of Hebrew literary activity deserve our attention.
That which befell Hebrew literature during its half-century in the New World is a consequence of its confrontation with decidedly more insidious forces of modernism, with a culture unlike those among which it developed and thrived in Eastern Europe. Its demise left Israel as the sole flourishing center of Hebrew letters. What follows, then, is a testimonial to those largely obscure Hebrew writers whose literary activity centered in whole or in part on the New World. Though the effort of most to secure a slice of immortality has been thwarted, their volumes of mostly marginalized prose, poetry, and essays await to be added to the greater edifice of the Hebrew literary tradition, to be accepted as part of the continuum between its East European Hebrew and Yiddish ancestors, though also standing as a bridge to the Bellows, Malamuds, Roths, Gershwins, and Brookses of American culture. As of now, much of these writings remain forgotten, lost to readers whose eyes, minds, and hearts turned to Zion. However, America's Hebrew writers have imprinted on the pages of their literary tradition previously absent themes, forms, and insights that enlarged its scope.
The Problem of Definition
Most American Hebrew writers were born in Europe and immigrated at an early age to the United States. Others arrived at a later station in their careers. The question of who among them deserve the appellation "American-Hebrew writer" is obscured by more than their place of birth. Some complicated the question by emigrating at one time or another, as did Y. D. Berkovitch, I. Efros, and S. Ginzburg. Of those, some even returned, either to remain or to depart once again, as was the case with S. Halkin.
A related matter is the number of Hebrew writers in America, which differs with the criteria used for definition. Daniel Persky counted them as a hundred and ten by 1927. The American Jewish Archives (Cincinnati) contains a list, prepared by S. Shihor in October of 1962, of 175 writers. Other lists tend to be narrower, as in anthologies representing the writings of a select group of Hebraists. The one compiled by the author of a history (more like a list with short biographies) of American Hebrew literature, Jacques Mikliszanski, amounts to some seventeen poets and twenty-three prose writers in the first period (1860-1914), and at least twenty-nine poets and twenty-four writers in the second (1914-1967).
The compound designation "Jewish American" or "American Jew" signifies the hybridized nature of the Jew in America. If the second term in a compound identity is the leading one, with the first merely modifying it, then the logical process of assimilation is from American Jews to Jewish Americans. The latter of the two is the more Americanized, denoting the last stop before a complete loss of ethnic identity and culture. As in the case of others, not a few Jews strove to merit the label of Jewish Americans. Others, like Mary Antin, recollecting in her book The Promised Land, sought to lose even that identity by fully assimilating, erasing one's former self to emerge as a full-fledged American.
Happily, since the following does not endeavor to embrace the full gamut of Hebrew writings in America, it inevitably and out of expediency overlooks or minimizes the contributions made by some of the most important writers. The issues before us are sufficiently demarcated so as to ignore seminal works by writers who did not address themselves to the representation of marginalized minorities in America. My examination of any writer from a particularly thematic or even ideological perspective is an act of isolation, detaching it from the complete oeuvre of that writer. Regrettably, the separated issue, while enabling me to focus on its features, also means a decontextualization. This fact will not be fully remedied below, out of consideration for the scope and size of such a work.
That the writers discussed in this study have become, by and large, unknown to American Jews and most Hebrew readers is a consequence of their works being rarely afforded the resuscitating gesture of a dusting off. As any cursory examination of historical, social, religious, or cultural studies of Jews in the New World reveals, few writers have even been deemed worthy of mention or relevant to the life and culture of American Jewry. Those who were the essential players in American Hebrew culture—H. Bavli, S. L. Blank, I. Efros, M. Feinstein, A. Z. Halevy, S. Halkin, E. E. Lisitzky, B. N. Silkiner, or R. Wallenrod, for example—have been forgotten, individuals without whom the inclusivity of these histories falls short of their proclaimed purpose. Like the authors themselves, their literary enterprise had fallen between the cracks, neglected in Israel as irrelevant and ignored in the United States, where new generations have forsaken their Hebrew reading skills.
Hebrew Literary Themes in America
In its heyday, the mainstream of American Hebrew literature—poetry or prose, realistic, modern, or neo-romantic—preoccupied itself with four overriding themes. The first was a revisiting of Jews' European roots, selectively reimagining the home left behind. It is the environment of material values over the intangible spiritual ones that promoted this sense of alienation and loss in the New World. Protagonists who encountered anxieties of adjustment in America figured centrally in works that measured the chasm between the past and the present.
The second leading theme covers the encounter with America, and represents the struggle of Jews with the exotic and mundane in the New World, its physical and social landscape and culture. The ever-present affinity for the Promised Land and Zionism represents the third tier of themes; its absence in many Hebrew works in America is a mark of ambivalence writers displayed about Jewish nationalism. It is also an indication of the rise of a center of American Hebrew literature whose agenda was not directed as wholeheartedly toward a national program. Finally, the fourth theme is the preoccupation with the distant past, revisiting episodes in biblical and later episodes of Jewish history.
This inquiry into Jews' accommodation with America will focus principally on the second of the above. Yet in addressing any of the themes, one cannot but note that while changing in some ways, Hebrew literature remained for many decades a prisoner of a conservatism upholding a high literary style that depended on its classical roots. Many of its followers tenaciously adhered to the Ashkenazi dialect, which affected poetic diction, meter, rhyme, and rhythm. Alternatively, seeming to assert their independence from a newly evolving center in Eretz Israel, American's Hebraists insisted on coining new words and modes of expression to suit local needs in place of looking up to any authority.
All the while that the American Hebrew writer strove to preserve a classical mode of expression, however, another trend precipitated greater concerns: a diminished education that failed to inculcate the next generations with a competence in Hebrew texts. Hebrew proficiency—always a mainstay in the perpetuation of the tradition—declined in America as the immigrant generation gave way to the new, whose diminished interest in traditional learning and its accompanying culture meant a marginalization of Hebrew resources.
Indians as Jews
Distinguishing themselves from Hebrew literati abroad, and underscoring their assimilation of local life and attitudes, writers focused on American themes. By the years of the Jews' mass migration, the preoccupation with indigenous minorities, Native Americans and Blacks, was of paramount interest in American (English) literature, and it is from this that Hebraists took their cue. Although some common themes characterize much of immigrant literature composed by contemporary Italian, Irish, Polish, and even Yiddish writers, Hebrew poetry carved out for itself new space by delving into the issues hitherto never explored—the life, culture, and experience of underprivileged Others. And while American Hebrew writers did not lend much credence to the theories of the nexus between Native Americans and the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel, their interest in America's marginalized Indian and Black minorities is a concern that runs through many of their works.
Yet it was in this environment that Mordecai Manuel Noah (original name Mendel Gershon Glembotzky), writing in 1837, reached what to him was the logical conclusion. Marshalling evidence from William Penn, Manasseh ben Israel, and Montesini pointing to the Jewish origins of America's Indians, he proposed repatriation, en masse, of the Hebrew nation to the Promised Land. Those returned will include American Indians who, he argued, were a remnant of the Ten Lost Tribes. Making his case by appealing to British interests, he argued that the measure would make good geopolitical sense in order to keep a check on Russian, Turkish, and Persian incursions into their (British) spheres of interest. "By restoring Syria to its rightful owners . . . by the purchase of that territory from the Pacha [sic] of Egypt," Britain could also help Providence restore all these Jews to the Promised Land, asserted Noah.
Noah's activities were later viewed as proto-Zionist, spawning works of fiction, ideology, and scholarship in Hebrew, Yiddish, and English—such as Isaac Goldberg's "Major Noah," Israel Zangwill's "Noah's Ark," and Harry Sackler's play Messiah American Style (Mashiah Nosah America). Though Noah did not lack for critics, among them S. Dubnov, his role in promoting a refuge for Jews in the New World (on Grand Island, near Buffalo) captivated the imagination of Zionists, among them Y. M. Pines, Kalman Schulman, and Y. Klausner.
The exoticism of the American Indians has not abated even today. In addition to identifying with the history of neglect, abuse, and domination to which they were subjected, Israeli readers remained enchanted by their exoticism as part of a greater fascination with Eastern religions and Buddhism. Recent works by Israeli writers underscore the continued interest in America's Blacks and Indians in Israeli culture, as it has in other corners of the world.
Presumably an outgrowth of this interest, the English-writing successors of the immigrant generation continued to represent Blacks and Indians in their art. Prominent Jewish writers abound, with Bernard Malamud in the lead. His work often focuses on the Black-Jewish encounter, as in his The Tenants and "Angel Levine," among others. His posthumously published The People also contemplates the Jewish-Native American encounter. In music, the participation of Jews in jazz represents a subject for large studies, nor can one ignore numerous films, among them Blazing Saddles, the satirical film by Mel Brooks depicting Jews, Blacks, and Native Americans in a multi-layered mix. Interest in American Black and Indian culture was not restricted to Jews. The composer Dvořák immersed himself in Black and (Algonquin) Indian songs, incorporating them in his compositions.
The following probes the interest exhibited by Hebrew writers in Indians and African Americans. Part of their motive is founded on their desire to lend their work a measure of Amerikaniyut, the Hebrew term designating an Americanization of their literary forms and themes. Reading these works from an ethnic perspective, one construes that they serve as a means for writers to imagine the national self projected through others.
Yet the matter is more complex in that Israeli Hebrew literature has also taken part in this encounter. The fiction of Yoram Kaniuk, as will be illustrated, is replete with references to and images of American culture, particularly those arising from his familiarity with Black musicians of New York. Recently, Shuki Ben-Ami published a quasi-fictional tale whose Israeli protagonist escapes his Orthodox Jewish upbringing to rediscover his Native American maternal roots, only to come full circle as he learns of the affinities between his Judaism and elements of Lakota religion. More recently, Nava Semel's novel, Eesra'el (IsraIsland), set in America, is preoccupied with the nexus between Mordecai Noah's enterprise and Israeli current events.
In the past, Hebrew literature avoided illuminating other civilizations without making of the poem, story, or essay an arena for the encounter between the Other and the Jew. No work is composed in Hebrew in which an alien society is exposed in and of itself, much as Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha"—which was certainly a model, acknowledged or not, for American Hebrew poets to follow—is regarding Native Americans. As they emulated Longfellow, America's Hebraists also avoided references to Jews or Judaism, engendering a corpus of poems and short stories which, though written in Hebrew, are devoid of the conventional markings of the writer's ethnic origins.
This phenomenon in American Hebrew letters begs the question of what is the significance of literature posing as if originating from "within" the culture about which it tells. A more familiar though inadequate analogue would be Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, which also omits markers of the composer's ethnic identity. In many instances, some mode of interaction between Jews and these Others is the work's preoccupation. But why, we ask, were Hebraists so interested in other minorities? Why was the intended audience only the Hebrew reader—since these works remained untranslated, in whole or large part, into English?
No evidence exists of extensive or direct contact between Hebrew writers and Native Americans. Any acquaintance with them issued primarily from these writers' American schooling, from their readings about Indian life and culture, or by hearsay. Most likely these factors affected their representation of Native Americans in a romanticized vein, as leading a bucolic existence that is corrupted by invading Europeans. As a trope, the Indian became a convenient and latent vehicle for writers to think about Western life and values. As they depicted the rape of Native American culture and lands by the White men, Hebrew writers adhered to their conventional regard for the dangers inherent in Europe for their people. By writing of Indians, Hebrew authors identified with them as mirrors of the Jews' fate, and as signposts of what may be awaiting their coreligionists who drop all guard in the Golden Land and succumb to its cultural and materialistic allures.
Though contact with Native Americans was tenuous at best, Hebraists' encounter with America's Blacks was more immediate, intimate, direct, and many-sided. Within a few decades of each other, Jews and Blacks made their own great migrations to America's major urban centers. While the greater mass of Jews arrived in America before the First World War, it was during and immediately thereafter that Blacks moved en masse north from the rural south. The encounters between them occurred principally against the city landscape, in adjacent streets and neighborhoods. With some exceptions, the tone of these writings is more realistic, particularly those in prose, representing Blacks in isolation as well as in contact with Jews.
The fascination of these writers with the experiences and culture of Blacks is more plausible as an outgrowth of their frequent encounters. However, the experience of Blacks in America has also been a model for Jews. Blacks are treated in Hebrew literature in ways more complex than Indians. The most glaring example is their romanticized treatment in rural America by the poet E. E. Lisitzky. Rather than describe things as they are—in the vein of the realistic literature being written in his days—Lisitzky composed poetry that romanticized them. As in his and others' works about American Indians, no Jews at all are visible among southern Blacks. Other Hebrew writers, however, wrote more realistically, most notable among them S. L. Blank and A. Z. Halevy, even recording conflicts between Blacks and Jews or Whites, representing the former in a less complimentary light.
Representation of marginalized Others carries with it a salutary effect on readers. For whether it is the author's declared goal or not, such writing recognizes the Other as human, analogous or similar to the self. To be more accommodating than the observations by Mentor L. Williams, the humanizing consequences are a product of presenting the Other, with Blacks and Indians possessing traits familiar to readers. Representation of Others as bearers of recognizable human qualities corrects prejudicial stereotypes which otherwise demonize, alienate, or dehumanize those outside the ego or one's cultural circle.
Writing in sympathy with oppressed minorities became an expected and accepted programmatic norm in twentieth century literature. This sentiment, and the desire to open oneself up to greater issues permeating world literature, was also a feature of the Haskalah that in nineteenth century Jewish history raised the banner advocating a more liberal and equitable treatment of the powerless and disenfranchised. To attain this goal, one of its central tenets was the education of the Hebrew reader about the surrounding world. Readers were to be moved to take part in matters beyond those affecting their coreligionists, among which was the insistent advocacy for the downtrodden, particularly those affected by established patriarchal authorities. Within Jewish society proper this included the community's regards for those on the socio-economic margins, or its internal socio-legal system, the practice of matchmaking, marriage, and divorce, traditional education, the treatment of women, social outcasts, and rebels.
Though issues of the marginalized within Jewish society featured centrally in many works of the Haskalah and post-Haskalah age, Hebrew literature's interest in marginalized non-Jewish groups did not flourish in Europe. To be sure, translation of other nations' literatures was a norm among writers of the age, done primarily to familiarize readers with other civilizations and, to a lesser degree, to introduce them to others' plight. In America, interest in the non-Jew became a feature in the works of many immigrant Hebrew writers. American Hebrew literature took its own path by adding non-Jewish protagonists, Blacks and Native Americans principally, as representatives of those in need of justice in the New World.