Lyrical Voices of Zion

Alan Mintz's New Book Examines Hebrew Poetry in America

By Jerome Chanes

Published May 12, 2012, issue of May 18, 2012.
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Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry
By Alan Mintz
Stanford University Press, 544 pages, $65

Hebrew poet Gabriel Preil reads his work at YIVO in 1983.
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Hebrew poet Gabriel Preil reads his work at YIVO in 1983.

The 19th-century German writer Heinrich Heine foresaw what would happen to his fellow Jews: “If Europe were to become a prison,” he mused, “America would still present a loophole of escape… Then may the Jews take their harps down from the willows and sit close by the Hudson to sing their sweet songs of praise and chant the lays of Zion.”

Well, they did come, and the retelling of their history, like a Hindu god, has taken many forms. Missing, however, has been a comprehensive discussion of the social history of American Jews’ “singing of sweet songs” — the literature in Hebrew, especially the poetic expression, of the American Jewish experience.

But wait! American Hebrew poetry? What’s that? Surprise is understandable, as the creation of a serious Hebrew poetry in the America of the first half of the 20th century is one of the best-kept secrets of American Jewish history. Why the poetry appeared is itself semi-mysterious; after all, most Jews who left Eastern Europe around the turn of the century did not go to the new Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, but came to the United States. But among those who came to America were those who created the Tarbut Ivrit movement: The name means “Hebrew Culture,” but the movement was about much more. Ivrit was embedded in a person’s identity; Hebrew was “not only the dynamic force in Jewish life but the living tissue in daily life as well.”

The story of Hebrew in America and of American Hebrew literature (especially poetry) has been, for the most part, lost. The tale is now, at long last, deftly, winningly and compellingly spun by Alan Mintz in his watershed book, “Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry.”

“Sanctuary in the Wilderness” has two contexts. First, there is the Israeli context, primarily that of sh’lilat ha-golah — rejection of the Diaspora — the ideology that was regnant in the Yishuv, and was a basic Zionist assumption. The “American moment”? It simply did not exist; or if it did, it was retrograde. There was one center, and that was Palestine and later Israel.

Second, the American Jewish context, the context of pluralism, of urbanization, of American motifs: the romance of Native Americans, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the lure of “California.” The story is that of the huge emigration from Russia from the 1880s to the 1920s, and an important part of that story is how ideologies and movements — absolutely central to the Eastern European Jewish persona — were lost, or became diluted, in America.

Mintz’s book is nothing less than a tour de force of literary and social history and literary criticism. Mintz, who is the author of a number of acclaimed works on Hebrew literature, including the masterful “Hurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature,” weaves the Israeli and American contexts into a tapestry of portraits of 12 Hebrew poets who worked in the United States and who created an indigenous American Hebrew culture. Some of the poets — Hillel Bavli, Simon Halkin, Eisig Silberschlag, the great Gabriel Preil — are yet read, by some, years after their deaths. Others are forgotten, deserving of rescue, and Mintz reintroduces them to a new generation of American readers and historians.


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