View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Monday, December 23, 2002
The new Commentary Magazine is out; may have been out for a little while. It's got a fine article by Hillel Halkin about the war between Yiddish and Hebrew, and a somewhat disappointing effort by Efraim Karsh about the misdirection provided by the Palestinians.

Karsh First. He's normally terrific, and I found his Fabricating Israeli History to be a powerful rebuttal of the anti-Zionist notion that Israel was formed with the intent and effect of ethnically cleansing the Palestinians Arabs. (See Review.) Nevertheless, his argument here is, essentially, that 1) the Arabs don't really care about the Palestinians and would rather use them as a vehicle for their own interests, and 2) Saddam is just as cynical and opporunistic in this as the rest of them. All this has been said before, and it's not clear what Karsh's article adds to the debate. The fact that he's right doesn't mean that he's satisfying.

Halkin is much better, especially since this is a topic that most non-Jews will not have been aware of. The linkage of Hebrew with Zionism and Yiddish with Diasporism is fascinating reading. Yiddishism went beyond that, of course, and the Yiddishists of the early 20th century never meant to deny the importance of Israel, only the usefulness of Hebrew. The two languages co-existed because they dealt with different realms, and their respective cadences, voices, and vocabularies bear this out. Halkin contrasts a passage from the same story, in Hebrew and in Yiddish, in parallel versions written by the original author, and shows how different they sound. But Jews knew both of them, used both of them, and claimed both of them as their own. Eventually the Soviets and Germans killed Yiddish. Even if the political battle rages on in Israel (see Yoram Hazony's The Jewish State), it does so entirely in Hebrew.

Those interested in the rise of Hebrew are advised to look at Robert Alter's The Invention of Hebrew Prose and Benjamin Harshav's Language in Time of Revolution.

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