Other than its primary mission — the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel — modern Zionism has no prouder accomplishment than the revival of Hebrew as a spoken vernacular. Resuscitating a language that had not been anyone’s primary spoken language for two millennia is an unprecedented achievement and — like the restoration of Jewish sovereignty itself — one that we too often take for granted.
A recent article in the Forward by Aviya Kushner brought to my attention one facet of the Hebrew language revival that I had not previously thought much about — the state of modern Hebrew literature, as reflected in Israeli best seller lists. “[T]he very survival Israeli literature and the Hebrew language itself,” Kushner posits, “is under threat if Israeli book buyers do not buy Hebrew books written in Hebrew … and instead flock to international titles.”
Kushner’s Forward article cites a letter to the editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz book section from Dr. Mordechai Naor of Herzliya, about whom she gives no further description. (The lack of a description is understandable, since as a google search shows Naor is difficult to categorize. Perhaps the best overall description I found calls him “a scholar of the life and history of Israel and the Jewish people”). In that letter, which Dr. Naor calls a “distress signal,” he complains about the dearth of books on the Israeli best seller list that were originally written in Hebrew. On a recent best seller list, he points out, only three of twenty-one books were original Hebrew works, the remainder being translations of books originally written in foreign languages.
Yes, I know — don’t we Jews have enough to worry about without obsessing about the numbers of Hebrew authors on Israel best sellers lists? Of course we do. But when has that ever stopped us from sharing a good worry? No, the alleged crisis in Israeli literature will not compete for attention with Iranian nukes or the fear of a third intifada, but there’s a reason that early Zionists, with all the other problems they had to deal with, were eager to restore Hebrew as a spoken vernacular. Language at its most basic, is the cultural glue that holds a people together. It’s possible for a people to survive without a common language, but it makes the barriers created by the deeper ideas and ideals that separate us from each other that much harder to overcome. Jews surely have enough to divide us as it is. We don’t need a lurking language barrier in addition.
But before we can solve, or even alleviate, a problem, we first have to define it. This is where Dr. Naor, and to a lesser extent Kushner, fall short. Kushner concedes that the problem of translations competing with local literature is not unique to Israel. “Many countries with relatively small populations of readers face threats to their local literature.”
We need some context here. Israel is a nation of seven million people, about a fifth of whom are native speakers of Arabic. A sizable chunk of the remainder are immigrants from one or another Diaspora country and native speakers of that country’s language. The non-Israeli market for untranslated Hebrew works is exceedingly small, consisting mostly of Israeli expatriates and the tiny subset of Diaspora Jews whose facility in Hebrew is sufficient to enable them to understand Hebrew books in their original language. An Israeli writer, if he wants to make a living by writing, faces a limited market, which can be only modestly supplemented by the limited market for translated Hebrew works.
Contrast that market with the one faced by an aspiring American writer. The population of the United States is approximately 318 million, and the combined populations of the three next largest English-speaking countries (United Kingdom, Canada and Australia) is approximately 123 million. There are also many millions of others (particularly but not exclusively in the countries of the former British empire) who are fluent in English as either a first or a second language. Given the relative sizes of the potential Hebrew and foreign language markets, one would naturally expect that the Israeli authors would find it difficult to compete, both in literary merit and in diversity of subject matter. Given that reality, it is hardly surprising that many Israelis prefer translated foreign works to those originally written in Hebrew.
Does this dearth of interest in original Hebrew writers mean that the revival of Hebrew as a vernacular language has failed? Far from it. If, as Kushner’s article and Naor’s letter both contend, there is a flourishing market in Israel for Hebrew translations of foreign language books, that suggests a significant population of people eager to engage the ideas and themes of the wider world but most comfortable doing so in the Hebrew language. Isn’t that precisely what the revival of Hebrew was supposed to accomplish?
It’s not clear to me that there is a problem here to be addressed. Relative to its size– and particularly considering its large foreign born population — Israel’s literary output is nothing to be ashamed of. If there is a problem, however, I strongly suspect that it’s more a problem of literature than of language. Kushner mentions one factor that Naor leaves out — that Israeli writers are “experiencing more difficulty in the worldwide translation market due to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement’s continuing effort” to isolate Israel.
Of course, applying BDS to literature is not only reprehensible but also self-defeating, since Israeli writers for the most part, are among the most left-wing groups in Israeli society — unless of course you assume that the BDS movement’s real aim is to destroy Israel at all costs. I have to wonder, though, whether fear of the BDS movement, consciously or not, may be creating a barrier between Israeli writers and their reading public. The translation market, after all, as mentioned above, is a potentially vital source of revenue.
There are, to be sure, practical steps that might be taken to increase the attractiveness of Israeli literature to the reading public. Kushner suggests a few, and I’m sure there are others. But in literature there’s no substitute for authors who are in sync with the minds of their readers. I can’t help but wonder if some of Israel’s best known authors have forgotten that simple premise.