Page 36 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 12

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Governor William Bradford of Plymouth2 studied Hebrew be-
cause he would see with his own eyes “ something of th a t most
ancient language and holy tongue in which . . . God and angels
spoke to the holy patriarchs of old time . . .” And the old lady,
who is said to have learned Hebrew in the ninth decade of her life
in order to converse in the inevitable meeting with her Maker in
his native tongue, is merely a humorous illustration of a predomi-
nan t interest.
Colonial America even toyed with the adoption of Hebrew as a
national language. H. L. Mencken quotes William Gifford as
authority for the story th a t “ at the close of the Revolution certain
members of Congress proposed th a t the use of English be formally
prohibited in the United States, and Hebrew substituted for i t .”3
But this enormous interest in the Hebrew language had a meagre
influence on the productivity in Hebrew both on the pa r t of Jews
and on the par t of other segments of the population.
Serious attempts at a native Hebrew literature date from the
la tte r par t of the nineteenth century. I t was then th a t the first
Hebrew periodicals like
Ha-Zofeh ba-Erez ha-Hadashah
were founded and kept alive for a number
of years against tremendous odds. Then and now editors and
writers, with few exceptions, had to pursue their literary labors in
spare time. Since Hebrew writing was not lucrative they had to
derive their livelihood from other sources. These economic reali-
ties were responsible, to a certain extent, for an overproduction
of three literary genres: lyric poetry in a romantic vein, the short
story in a sentimental mood and the essay in a protean variety of
forms.4 Works of fiction and philosophy are still few and far
I l l
As soon as Hebrew literature reached a degree of m a tu rity in this
country with the publication of Benjamin Silkiner’s narrative poem
Mul Ohel Timmurah
(“ Before the T en t of T immurah” ) in 1909,
and the Charity School of Philadelphia (later the Academy and College o f Phil-
adelphia, and eventually the University of Pennsylvania).
2 The majestic title does not correspond to the modest number of the population:
of the 102 people who had arrived on the Mayflower at the end of 1620, 56 were left
in the spring of 1621.
The American Language
, Fourth Edition (New York, 1936), p. 79; also
I (New York, 1945), pp. 136-138.
4 The excellent anthology of Hebrew poetry in America, compiled and edited by
the late Menachem Ribalow, should be complemented by an anthology of Hebrew
short stories and an anthology of Hebrew essays in America.