Thursday, January 21, 2010

I review Resurrecting Hebrew by Ilan Stavans.

Here's a negative book review I wrote about 14 months ago. At the last minute I decided not to post it, because it just felt nasty. It was a new book, and I'm sure many readers would enjoy it despite my gripes. In fact, last May I posted a comment shocking for its nastiness (to me) here. In any event, now that so much time has passed, I don't see any harm in posting the original post.

Resurrecting Hebrew by Ilan Stavans is described as "the stirring story of how Hebrew was rescued from the fate of a dead language to become the living tongue of a modern nation." That book should be written, and I wish this was it, but unfortunately it is not. That it barely deals with the interesting subject of Eliezer Ben Yehuda (who is on the cover, and suggestively implied by the title) is not so terrible, but that it's author, Ilan Stavans proved to be so unprepared for whatever it is he did write about is a shame.

Many readers might find the intensely personal element in this book interesting (e.g., Stavans recounts in detail his upbringing in Mexico, education at a Yiddishist schul, time spent in Israel, his picking up and dropping Hebrew, etc.). Not my cup of tea, but I suppose it is valid for his book about his interest in Hebrew. I do, however, find his choice to allow a bizarre dream he had of a naked woman speaking an unknown language that he thought might be Hebrew, to be a recurring element in the book to be terribly self-indulgent.

In any event, at the end of the book there is a (partial) bibliography and one can see that he read quite a bit of relevant material, so some of the errors I am about to call attention to suggests that the author was not fully up to the task of writing this book, despite his meeting with some true experts in the subjects discussed therein.

For example, Stavans met with Angel Saenz-Badillos who is an expert on the Hebrew language in all its stages. Indeed, he wrote one of, if not the best descriptions of the Hebrew language available (here). The man knows Hebrew.

On pg. 17 we read the following: "Saenz-Badillos was a patient guide as he walked me through the uniqueness of Hebrew in the community of tongues. . . Among the earliest archaeological items available, the Gezer calendar, dicovered by R. A. S. Macalister in 1908 and preserved in Istanbul's Museum of Antiquities, dates from the tenth century B.C.E., the time of King David and King Solomon. Its six lines are a record of the labor connected to the construction of a tunnel at the time of King Hezekiah, mentioned in 2 Kings 20:20 and 2 Chronicles 32:3 and 33:14." Here Stavans conflates the Gezer Calendar with the Siloam Inscription. I am sure Saenz-Badillos told him about both, but a quick check of his notes with Wikipedia would have prevented this error. By the way, his editor does not get off the hook either, for his errors are also the editor's errors.

Turn a couple of pages (pg. 22) and Saenz-Badillos allegedly tells him that the Masoretes "produced guidelines for pronunciation and grammar through diacritical marks called tag (plural, taggin), marking the way letters and words ought to be accented. The taggin aren't letters per se. They acquire different forms, sometimes appearing as little strokes at the side, below or above a letter. There can be letters with one stroke, two, three, and even six. The signs include the dagesh, mappiq, raphe, and the diacritical points on the shin. The taggin enable today's listeners to know how Hebrew was pronounced. They make the reading of the text harmonious, enchanting, hypnotic even." Unless Saenz-Badillos holds some strange outsider theory that all the nekkudot and te'amim are properly called taggin (as opposed to what everyone else calls taggin themselves) what must have happened was that Stavans misunderstood him. Possibly he misheard "te'amim"?

On pg. 112 Max Weinreich's chestnut that the difference between a language and a dialect is posession of an army and a navy is quoted. Stavans then states that Israel's Akademiyah la-Lashon ha-Ivrit is that army and navy. I'm pretty sure that the IDF is Hebrew's army and navy, so I think he may have misunderstood Weinreich's partially tongue-in-cheek comment, the meaning of which is really a razor sharp observation on language and politics.

On pg. 130 he tells of an encounter with novelist David Grossman. The subject of American Christian Zionism came up, and Stavans told Grossman about Hebraism among early American Christians, something which he obviously picked up by reading a single book: Shalom Goldman's God's Sacred Tongue; Hebrew and the American Imagination. It's obvious that he read this book (which isn't a bad book) because he goes on to write that 'I told Grossman that the list of Hebraists in America was astonishing. "George Bush, an ancestor of presidents George H. W. and George W. Bush, was one. So were the explorer and consul Selah Merrill, the educational reformer William Rainey Harper, the theologian and pastor Reinhold Niebhur . . . " (What about Ezra Stiles?) This list, including odd choices like the little known Selah Merrill and the better known for his theological, rather than Hebrew, expertise Niebhur comes from Goldman's book. Which is fine, but nowhere is this book mentioned in the bibliography even though his entire conversation came straight from it. I doubt Stavans meant to hide this source; after all, he lists many, many books and doesn't pretend to knowledge he didn't have. I just think it sloppy not to have included it.

On page 174 he refers to "David Samuel Luzzatto," which is more his editor's fault than his. However it's clear that some of his supposedly knowledgeable informants are either neophytes, or merely treating him like one. For example, the person who mentions Luzzatto to him shows him a copy of his Prologomeni (which must be Aaron Rubin's translation since it gives the English title. Which is weird, since Aaron Rubin provides a blurb for the book on the back cover, but no mention of him in relation to the book!). She informs Stavans that "Luzzatto argues that the Spanish period known as La Convivencia . . . was fertile in linguistic explorations." I honestly have no idea what Luzzatto has to do with this, or that it required his book to make the point. This is an irksome example of something that has no name, but which I describe as follows: ascribing something elementary to some authority just because. I guess it makes the fact seem more erudite? He describes Shadal as one who "studied Talmud as a child. But he was interested in languages." This is technically correct, but he also studied languages as a child. If this is supposed to portray him as some envelope-pushing pattern-bender akin to some kid in Galicia secretly reading Ben Ze'ev's Talmud Leshon Ivri, it doesn't work. In trying to portray the genesis and evolution of modern lingustic study of Hebrew his informant also claims that the Wissenschaft chevra "pushed Hebrew grammar out of Talmudic discussion and into academia." This is wrong in about 5 different ways.

Did I mention his naked woman dream and how he mentions it to everyone he meets, most of whom essentially politely don't laugh? Or that he bookends the dream with a real encounter with a woman who walks in on him in a sauna, not realizing anyone was in there? She was naked!

There are some typos ("Klauser," pg. 110). Not a huge deal, but it is irritating. In short, great topic, wrong book.


  1. I agree - if the book is about the rebirth of Hebrew, then I'm not interested in reading about the author's personal life, x-rated or otherwise. I dislike writers who presume their readers are interested in them personally.

    But you wrote that the story of the rebirth of hebrew is a book that "should be written.", but this book simply is not it. Surely there are books on the rebirth of Hebrew already? There's nothing good on that topic already?

    [Somewhat relatedly, the subject of the hebrew derivation of all english words came up recenly at a dinner party. I know you had posted about this - someone wrote a book about it, with various far-fetched theories for derivations, as I remember - but I couldnt find it via google. Can you direct me?]


  2. Here's the thing. Supposedly the cardinal sin of book reviewers is not to review the book in front of them. So I guess I don't really have a right to decide that the book shouldn't be about Ilan Stavans as well, just because of the title, but the reader could certainly be forgiven for thinking based on the title and cover shot that a lot more of it would be about resurrecting Hebrew. Actually, personal stuff doesn't bother me so much, so long as it is compelling. I found some of his stuff about having lived in Israel and known Hebrew years ago, and his desire to get back into it interesting. I just felt his decision to use his dream as a constant motif to be exceedingly pretentious and pseudo-titillating. A naked woman walked in on him in a sauna in an Israeli hotel? Yay. His editor should have snipped, although I wish his editor had really just made sure it wasn't so full of mistakes.

    There are books about Ben Yehuda, and there are books about the rebirth of Hebrew. But they are flawed. For example, there is the Robert St. John book on Ben Yehuda ("Tongue of the Prophets"), which is a very good book, except that Robert St. John didn't actually know Hebrew, and he chose to fictionalize conversations and the like, which makes it more readable, but it also makes it more like a historicl novel. It's good for a beginner interested in this topic, but obviously its fictional elements, starry-eyed romanticism on the part of the author, and technical knowledge that he lacked can be surpassed in another book. There is the Jack Fellman book on Ben Yehuda, but it is probably too technical for a popular audience, although a popular book should also include many technical elements so that it is a good read for more than the lower common denominators. In addition, Fellman's book was based on his dissertation about Ben Yehuda, which is quite right. However, for this reason it is almost entirely a book about Ben Yehuda. However, the story of the revival of Hebrew is not only the story of Ben Yehuda and his family.

    Such a book has yet to be written, at least as far as I am aware.

    The book you're thinking of is The Word by Isaac Mozeson. He actually wrote an article in the latest Jewish Bible Quarterly (which I'll be happy to send you). I was glad to see that he'd written this article, since a few years ago I heard that he was not well.

    His deep-seated belief (originally I wrote "schtick," but that's not fair) is that the Safah Achat referred to in Genesis is a kind of proto-Hebrew, and this was the one original language of mankind. He calls this proposed language Edenic, and sees traces of it in many languages through liberally applying sound linguistic principles, imagination and speculation, all tied to a thesis derived from his personal interpretation of some biblical verses.

  3. Stavans (and, as you pointed out, his editors) also seem to be ignorant of the recent history of Jerusalem: p. 73 implies that before the 1967 war, the Arab shouk extended into the Jewish Quarter:

    "The place [ie - the shouk- PJS] feels like a labyrinth in a James Bond movie. In 1967,after the Six Day War, Jerusalem was reunified by Israel. The Jewish Quarter quickly acquired an altogether different aesthetic: Orthodox mothers pushing strollers while half a dozen kids rotate around them. Even so, it doesn't feel as packed as it did before the Six Day War".

    Ummm, like, before the Six Day War the Jewish Quarter was rubble. (See also next couple of lines for further incredible nonsense).

    --- bizarre! And this is published under the Schocken imprint!! 'Boosha v'herpa'. As you point out, one of many errors in this rather superficial book.

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