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A New Sound in Hebrew Poetry: Poetics, Politics, Accent, by Miryam Segal. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010. 206 pp. $34.95.
While Miryam Segal’s A New Sound in Hebrew Poetry: Poetics, Politics, Accent focuses on a seemingly marginal issue, it holds the echoes of the fierce historical battle over the soul of a people. Reading this book—“a genealogy of the proto-Israeli accent as it functioned in the burgeoning Hebrew literature of Palestine” and an examination of “the role of poetry in the formation of national identity” (p. 4)—it is impossible not to admire the emotional, cultural, intellectual and political investment that was required to give modern Israeli Hebrew its sound.
Contemporary Israel’s immense and vibrant literary output seems to be a sheer miracle for anyone who knows that only 150 years ago Hebrew was primarily a written language, not a living tongue (almost akin to Latin). The Zionist movement, which promoted Jews’ return to their ancient homeland, recognized that the “entire nationalist project depends on the success of linguistic unification” (p. 51). Zionist leaders saw Hebrew, the language of the Bible, as vital to the creation of the old/new nation. But even with the Zionists’ ideological commitment to Hebrew, the way it would be pronounced was as of yet undetermined. In the late 19th century, despite the fact that the majority of Jews in Palestine used the Ashkenazi accent when praying, the Zionists saw the Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew (the way it was pronounced by the Jews of the greater Middle East) as more authentic and therefore preferable. (The Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew was dominant throughout Europe [and was thus associated with the Diaspora]. It often emphasizes the penultimate syllable. Sephardic usually puts the emphasis on the last syllable of the word.)
In her first chapters, Segal shows that Hebrew’s ascendancy into a spoken language was not inevitable, but rather took an enormous amount of effort. She tracks how the modern Israeli accent was initially created, beginning with the nascent movement in Palestine to make Hebrew the language of instruction in schools during the 1880s through the triumph of the “new accent” in the late 1920s. She delves into the long-forgotten debates between “pedagogues,” most notably, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who promoted a “Sephardized” Ashkenazi speech, and David Yellin, who hoped to build a synthetic Hebrew from a multitude of pronunciations. Segal concludes that Ben Yehuda’s Hebrew triumphed because it resembled the Sephardic accent that Ashkenazi-speaking immigrants were already attempting to adopt.
Against this textured historical and linguistic backdrop, Segal investigates the link between the creation of a new national language and its literature—specifically, between Ben-Yehuda’s Hebrew and contemporaneous poets. As in other cultures, poetry and singing were used in Jewish Palestinian education to instill children with a connection to their folklore and foster national pride and unification. Alas, little Sephardic-accented children’s poetry existed. Moreover, many Hebraists feared that the Sephardic pronunciation, with emphases on the last syllable, would form monotonous, heavy lines unsuitable for poetry (p. 124). Although H. N. Bialik had revitalized Hebrew as a literary language, he had used the Ashkenazi pronunciation. Sephardic poetry’s modest beginnings were thus in the arenas of educational children’s and folk songs. Through these, Sephardic made its way into the “high” form of poetry.
Segal examines the poetry and literary roles of the 1920s’ female poets, most notably Rahel Bluwstein (which the author spells “Bluvshtain”). Informed by gender theories, Segal highlights the unique role that female poets—who were heretofore undervalued and almost entirely unrecognized —were able to play in this virgin poetic field. She argues that women were seen as “authentic” bearers of culture and that “the new accent . . . was associated with women, who, in the criticism of the period were most often perceived as verbally, rather than textually expressive” (p. 74). Specifically, she shows how Bluwstein (known to Hebrew readers as “Rahel”) cultivated the persona of one who speaks directly from the land, not as a poetess who crafts her words.
Segal uses Bluwstein’s famous poem “Rahel” (which refers to the Biblical figure by the same name) to both demonstrate its “authenticity” and dispute Bluwstein’s male critics who viewed her writing as more primitive. Segal examines how Bluwstein links herself to the Biblical Rahel using physical, sensual traces rather than intertexts (“Behold her blood flows in my blood”). She argues that by connecting the ancient and present, Bluwstein skips the intervening centuries, including the Diaspora and rabbinic Judaism, and “maintain[s] the pretence of a perfectly realized authentic Hebrew.” Bluwstein, says Segal, “treats that hybrid, new accent Hebrew as if it were pure and wholly authentic” (p. 91). Nevertheless, because of the marginalization of female writers, Bluwstein’s new accent poetry was not received as “high” poetry. Segal argues, however, that the female writers had demonstrated the literary possibilities of the “new accent,” opening the door for their male counterparts.
In her final chapter, Segal examines how Avraham Shlonsky became the quintessential writer in the new accent even though he was one of the later writers to use it (p. 100). Shlonsky transitioned by experimenting with “folk songs” in the new accent and only later used it in the “higher” form of poetry. Segal argues that Shlonsky became the iconic poet of the new accent for two distinct reasons. The first is his own talent and innovation—he was the first poet to fully explore Sephardic Hebrew’s literary promise and to quash the fears that it was unsuitable for great poetry. Secondly, he formulated new-accent poetry as continuous with the past, assuring that it will not undo the recent poetic achievements in Ashkenazi Hebrew.
Rightfully, Segal dedicates the longest discussion of any single poet to Shlonsky. This chapter, however, is the most technical and least accessible, in part because of the difficulty in explaining the intricacies of Hebrew’s musicality and prosody to English readers who may not know Hebrew. Segal’s analysis of Shlonsky’s diction is both linguistic and ideological, informed by her understanding of the tensions between the Diaspora and new immigrant pioneers. Yet it seems more appropriate for scholars of Hebrew poetry than for educated English readers. While her historical chapters give a clear sense of the forces at play during this critical period, the description of this virtuoso—hero of this tale—falls short.
A New Sound in Hebrew Poetry is a small but dense book. It is a pity that Segal does not offer a glimpse of contemporary Israeli Hebrew speech to show how the language has evolved since the 1930s. Nevertheless, the book is informative and interesting, especially for those English readers unfamiliar with this section of Hebrew literary history and the development of modern Israeli Hebrew.
University of Pennsylvania