Agnon the Yiddish novelist

It turns out, to no one's surprise, that I'm a book schnook. For some reason, I already feel guilty about not posting a cogent, witty, wide-ranging (i.e. Baraita-style) review of Shmuel Yosef Agnon's A Simple Story. I do have the perfect excuse: I haven't read the book yet, and my copy is still winging its way to me over the great seas separating me and the Holy Land.

I have read some Agnon, though not enough. Thus my first installment, in which I will reveal to you the secret to getting the most entertainment out of your Agnon dollar, providing you can read him in Hebrew.

What's that, you ask? Read him in the Ashkenazic accent of your childhood, or, if you didn't have that sort of childhood, learn the accent (like I did) or find someone whose Ashkenazis you can imitate. The fact is that Agnon is the best prose writer in Yiddish of the twentieth century, so you might as well read him with an appropriate inflection.

Agnon wrote in Hebrew! True. But the English word "Hebrew" generalizes a great number of different sorts of language available in traditional Jewish life both yesterday and (perhaps even more so) today. In the big grab-bag "Hebrew," I mean, are found all of the following: Biblical Hebrew (in all its varying strata and literary registers), Rabbinic Hebrew, both early and late, Medieval Hebrew, modern literary and spoken Hebrew (starting around the 19th century), and, most recently, modern Hebrew as spoken in Israel, called "Ivrit."

When I separate "modern Hebrew" from "Ivrit, " I'm trying to make clear that it was possible to write Hebrew, and even to some extent to speak Hebrew, before the founding of the state of Israel. This Hebrew, though a modern language, sounded quite a bit different than modern Israeli Hebrew sounds to us. In the Eastern-European, Yiddish-speaking context, and to a lesser extent today as well, such allusive, literary Hebrew is called loshn-koydesh, or, more academically, Ashkenazic Hebrew. I would argue (though I don't have the time or the expertise to do so here) that Agnon wrote in this very language. (I don't know how Agnon spoke Hebrew in the pre-war-milieu [1935] in which A Simple Story was written.) If one maintains that Yiddish and Ashkenazic Hebrew form a continuous cultural-linguistic system, then it's not too much of a stretch to say that Agnon wrote in Yiddish. In fact, some linguists hold that modern Israeli Hebrew is a "relexification" of modern Yiddish. I'm still not clear what that word means, but I think it refers to some sort of one-to-one replacement of Yiddish words by Hebrew equivalents. I'm no linguist, so I can't judge whether this is true. However, it is the case that a reader of Yiddish -- who can also read Hebrew -- feels completely at home in Agnon. It is a through-the-looking-glass world in which the Yiddish cultural idiom is rendered somehow more monumental and imposing through its Ashkenazic Hebrew transcription.

Ashkenazic Hebrew is a complicated language, and an entire book on the topic, edited by Lewis Glinert, appeared some years ago. Particuarly fascinating is Dovid Katz's article on penultimate stress, one of the markers of Ashkenazic Hebrew -- when, where, and in what contexts it appears. (For example, the first verse of the Bible starts, in Israeli pronunciation, bereyshit bara elohim. The Ashkenazic Hebrew pronunciation might be berey'shis bo'ro eloy'him, or bereyshis' boro' eloyhim', depending on the context; the latter more formal, in communal Torah reading, the former more colloquial, for example, in the context of Torah study.)

These days, Ashkenazic Hebrew is no healthier than Yiddish, sad to say. If you look carefully, though, you can still see traces. There are people who still write loshn-koydesh poetry (including you host), of higher or lower quality. Many of this falls under the category of payet, or religious poetry. Or even closer to the ken of most modern Jews: listen to the way Israelis (and everyone else) sing "Hatikvah": "...Ne'fesh yehu'di homi'ah. Ulefa'atei miz'rach kadi'mah, ay'in letsi'on tsofi'ah." That's right, it's sung with Ashkenazi stresses, though with an Israeli, "Ashkesfard" pronunciation.

So if you can stumble through a page of Agnon in Hebrew, try reading it in Ashkenazis. You might be glad you did!

(Another example of a great writer in modern Ashkenazic Hebrew: Bialik. Even more interesting is the fact that a number of his later poems were specifically written to be read in "Sefardic" (actually "Ashkesfardic") pronunciation. Yet another category of writers, who I hope to talk about at some later date, are those who write in both Yiddish and modern Israeli Hebrew. Perhaps this category's greatest, though hopefully not its last practitioner, was Yosl Birshtein, who died a month ago.)

Postcript: Kobi Haron, who has relatives from the Second Aliyah (and more knowledge about Agnon than I do) informs me that very few Hebrew-speakers in Israel, even in the early days of the twentieth century, actually spoke Hebrew with an Ashkenazi accent. Any other relevant reminiscences out there?

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