Poets of the Tribe
SANCTUARY IN THE WILDERNESS:
A CRITICAL INTRODUCTION TO AMERICAN HEBREW POETRY
by Alan Mintz
Stanford University Press, 544 pp., $65
Alan Mintz has written a wonderful work of scholarship on a little-known subject: the large amount of serious and now-forgotten Hebrew poetry written in 20th-century America.
That, though, is a careless way of putting it. "Now-forgotten" means "once-paid-attention-to." This was never the case with Hebrew poetry in America. The names of its leading practitioners—poets such as Benjamin Silkiner, A.S. Schwartz, Eisig Silberschlag, Ephraim Lisitzky, Israel Efros, Hillel Bavli, Shimon Ginzburg, Abraham Regelson, Simon Halkin, Moshe Feinstein, H.A. Friedland, and Gabriel Preil, to each of whom Mintz devotes a separate chapter of his book—were, by and large, no more recognized by their literate contemporaries than they are today. Known to a smattering of Hebrew readers in the United States and an even smaller number elsewhere, most of these men might as well have been writing in solitary confinement.
In his overall survey of American Hebrew poetry that forms the first section of Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry, Mintz, professor of Hebrew literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, does an excellent job of explaining why these twelve poets and others like them insisted on writing in a language that few American Jews, let alone non-Jews, could read. The twelve shared much in common. All were born to traditionally religious parents in Eastern Europe, in the lands of the Tsarist empire, in the last years of the 19th century and first years of the 20th century. All received rigorous cheder educations that gave them an early knowledge of Hebrew and its classical biblical and rabbinic texts. Not a few had fathers or close relatives who were rabbinic scholars themselves and/or devoted readers of Hebrew literature. Some left Europe old enough to have studied in yeshivas and even to have published their first Hebrew efforts. All were products of the same elite cultural mold from which came a Berdyczewski, a Bialik, an Agnon, a Schneour, and practically every important modern Eastern European Hebrew writer. All turned to writing Hebrew the way their ancestors had, naturally, as the language that was, as Mintz puts it, "no more and no less than the very map of the [Jewish] nation's being"—a language to which the only challenger at the time, anti-elitist and spoken by the Jewish masses, was Yiddish. (And practically every major late 19th-century and early 20th-century Yiddish writer, it must be said, started out in Hebrew, too.)
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