Newspaper Archive of
Heritage Florida Jewish News
Fern Park , Florida
March 27, 2009     Heritage Florida Jewish News
PAGE 16     (16 of 20 available)        PREVIOUS     NEXT      Full Size Image
PAGE 16     (16 of 20 available)        PREVIOUS     NEXT      Full Size Image
March 27, 2009

Newspaper Archive of Heritage Florida Jewish News produced by SmallTownPapers, Inc.
Website © 2019. All content copyrighted. Copyright Information.     Terms Of Use.     Request Content Removal.

PAGE 16A HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, MARCH 27, 2009 RESURRECTING H E B R E W ian Stavans places the importance of Hebrew in Israel in a sociological and historical perspective. By Eric Herschthal New York Jewish Week As the gunmetal cools in Israel and Gaza, legions of commentators have increas- ingly questioned the endgame that less than a decade ago seemed inevitable: a two-state solution. In the New York Times, Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi recently proposed a one-state "Isratine," and columnist Thomas Friedman, perhaps more legitimately, has called for a "five-state solu- tion.'" Actually, Friedman. in nigc01umn 00 0 R n,w just re-branding the conven- tional wisdom of the two-state solution. But that it's even viewed as conventional--and implicitly, dull--suggests the deeper problem: time is run- ning out before it becomes another dead idea. Enter the intellectuals. those shamans of thought resurrection. In the past year, two professors have published separate but related books ar- guing that, in order for Israel to survive as a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian one, it must call renewed attention to something out of left field: Hebrew. In both Bernard Av- ishai's "The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel Peace At Last," and Ilan Stavans' "Resurrecting He- brew" the authors suggest the subtlyprovocative notion that. if Hebrew does not assume a more central role in Israeli culture, the Jewish state is in dant! r of ln in of its identity. Avishai, a former Duke University professor who now lives in Israel, makes the more explicitly political case. He argues that in light of Israel's increasingly multicultural population--40 percent of its population is either Arab or secular Russian immigrants-- Israel cannot survive without fundamentally rethinking its two basic tenets: that it is both Jewish and democratic. The democratic aspect, he argues, must take precedence, with the Jewish part manifesting itself mainly through Israel's com- mon national language. "The privileged place for Hebrew would be a critical character- istic of this reformed state." he writes, and should become Israel's "one official language." (Currently, Hebrew, Arabic and English share official status.) Why is language so impor- tant? Because, Avishai con- tends, a modern democracy that still clings to ethnicity as essential to its identity is "archaic." That sounds a lot like the point made by Tony Judt, the New York University pro- fessor who caused an uproar when he wrote, back in 2003: "The very idea of a 'Jewish state' is rooted in another time and place." He went on in that much ballyhooed New York Review of Books essay: "Israel, in short, is an anachronism." Avishai knows he's begin- ning to sound like Judt here, so he takes up Judt's argu- ment and carefully critiques it. He argues that Judt got the problem right--a Jewish and democratic state is an oxymo- ron-but that he just placed his bet on the wrong solution: bi-nationalism.Avishai thinks the two-state solution is it. Judt, a British-born Jew and one-time kibbutznik, came to bi-nationalism from the reasonable place it once had among early Zionist intellectu- als such as Martin Buber and Judah Magnes. Of course now it is mostly Arabs (e.g. Qaddafi's "Isratine") who champion bi-nationalism, which has led conservative Israel supporters to idea e0d for the dissolution of the Jewish state. Commentary magazine made this point in its review of "The Hebrew Republic," arguing that "to delegitimize the Jew- ish state, a little industry has sprung up among some Jewish intellectuals to question the need for the state's existence." It went on: "To the names of Noam Chomsky, Tony Judt. and others can be added that of Bernard Avishai." But Avishai holds fast to his views. He argues that the only way to keep Israel both Jewish and democratic without resorting to messy settler pullouts, land transfers and what he perceives as the con- tinued bigoted policies towards Israel's Arab population--it has to redefine what Jewish means. That's a tall order. but the Hebrew language, he concludes, is the only medium Jewish enough, yet still inclu- sive and pliable, that can keep Israel "Jewish" in the face of its rapidly changing demograph- ics. It is. in a word. Judaism's least common denominator. There's still plenty to dis- agree with. For one thing, giving special government status to only one language, as Avishai proposes, smacks of oppression by other means. That's how Edward Said, the late Palestinian English professor at Columbia, might have once put it, but the no- tion is also raised in Stavans' book, "Resurrecting Hebrew." He discusses the opprobrium Hebrew-speaking Arabs face from their peers, and is told by Faruq Mawasi, who heads a program that teaches Israeli Arabs proper Arabic, that He- brew "denotes acculturation." And that's a bad thing: "They are perceived as sellouts," Stavans reports. But Jews might also suffer from Hebrew hegemony. "To revive one language, you have to sacrifice another," Stavans writes, and that, after all, was what happened to Yid- dish. Up until the Holocaust, most the world's Jewry spoke that hybridized Germanic- Latin-Hebrew tongue. And a good portion of Stavans' book recounts the efforts of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, modern Hebrew's chief proponent, to resuscitate the biblical Jewish language spoken by just 10,000 Jews in his time (the late- 19th century). Even Theodor Herzl, Zionism's godfather, was against Ben-Yehuda's idea: "Who amongst us has sufficient acquaintance with Hebrew to agk for a railway ticket in that language?" he asked shortly before his death, in 1904. (For the record, Herzl thought German should be the language of his "Altneuland.") That the issue of a national language once caused such spirited debate does suggest its importance, however. Yet that may be rooted in another time and place. Stavans gestures to- ward this criticism wheri men- tioning Zionism's outgrowth from 18th- and 19th-centu~ notions of nationalism. The importance of language to na- tional identity was born then, and stems from the scholar and early German national- ist Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), who argued that language shaped culture. Herder's ideas might seem vindicated by Germany or It- aly's formation, both products of 19th century nationalism, and each unified by its own language. But the breakaway of former European colonies complicates things: Peruvians, Colombians and Argentines seem just fine speaking Span- ish, the language of their colonizers. Ditto us English- speaking Americans. This dissonance, in fact, brings into question Herder's original notion, one still highly pertinent and lurking in the shadows of both these recent books: How much does lan- guage really shape a culture? No doubt language plays an important role within it--a culture without its poets, to be sure, is a very diminished thing. But languages are in constant flux, absorbing some, stealing from others, always being stretched and strained by their users. The point is that language is a refection of culture, one artful expression of it, but not its only essence. The centrality of language to a culture has a long history of seducing writers and readers, perhaps obviously so. Avishai in particular is keen on this, even if he himself succumbs to its soft purr and blown kisses.Avishaiargues that even the great kabbalist Gershon Scholem, an early skeptic of Hebrew's revival, feared the language and its attendant religious baggage too much. He paraphrases Scholem as having asked: "Can democracy even be grasped in Hebrew?" Avishai's book raises an eyebrow, too. But the bigger point, both his and Stavans', is that languages are adaptable enough to grasp ideas foreign to them. The broader issues both authors raise, however seems acutely relevant now. Much ado is made of the attempted revival of Yiddish today--universities set up academic chairs. Folksbiene - The National Yiddish Theater is increasingly in vogue and the proj ect's fate could suggest much. There's a lot of nostal- gia going on here. though, and when championed by the young, a healthy dose of chic appeal seems apparent, too. Without a driving force to necessitate the language's revival, however the prospect looks dim. As Harold Bloom. the eminent scholar and a native-Yiddish speaker him- self, wrote recently: "I wish them all the best of luck." The same might be said for Hebrew. If, after all, Avishai's project is to have the language be a renewed pillar of national Israeli identity, then that only puts the restoftheworld's dias- pora Jews at a distance. And if, say, the similar logic of cultural renewal drives the attempt for things like a Hebrew Language Academy charter school, com- ing to Brooklyn this fall, then we should be skeptical. I can tell you that my own Hebrew school training--the Hebrew part, I mean didn't do much for my Jewish iden- tity. I still use transliteration at shul. if not the lovely and poetic English translation. My Jewishness is no less in question. Anyway, where would Israe- li-ness be without the word "hummus" a word wholly foreign to the people, but a thing no less essential? Reprinted with permission of the New York Jewish Week. Read the Jewish Week online at By Dina Kraft TELAVIV(JTA)--Capt. 0fra Gutman's work as the first female officer in the Rabbin- ate Corpsof the Israel Defense Forces is a mix of the sacred and the logistical. Sometimes her mission involves making sure a newly observant female soldier is is- sued skirts rather than pants as part of her uniform. Other times it's trying to help a fe- male soldier observe Shabbat on an isolated army base where there are few other religious soldiers. "I know the world they come from; I come from it, too," Gut- man told JTA in an interview. "I know what they are going through, and so my job is to be there to help." Tens of thousands of re- ligiously observant female soldiers serve in the army, but until Gutman's post was cre- ated eight months ago, they had no address for spiritual and practical matters. Many would not even have thought of turning to the Rabbinate Corps, which is partly why the IDF's chief rabbi, Avi Ronsky, created the position for a female officer. "There are many sub- jects"lSUCh as sexual ha- rassment, issues of modesty and prohibitions against co-ed touching--"for which it isvery difficult for young women to talk to a rabbi and which it is much easier for them to speak about with another woman," said Gutman, 29, whose office overlooks a green swath of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv. Since she assumed herpost, Gutman says she has been busy with queries. The main function of the Rabbinate Corps is to ensure that the army adheres to the tenets of Jewish law. The unit ensures that food on IDF bases is kosher, that observant sol- diers are able to pray and that n0n-essential exercises are not held on Shabbat. Each military branch is assigned a rabbi as well as non-rabbinic members of the unit who help oversee Jewish education, the burial of soldiers and Shabbat services. The unit also is responsible for spiritually strengthening soldiers: Before Israel sent troops into Gaza in January, Rabbi Ronskywentto the front lines to bless them. Gutman says that when she was appointed, some of the members of the Rabbin- ate Corps were taken aback by the presence of a woman in the department. But they soon found a way to work well together, she says, and rabbis in the corps now regularly refer cases to her especially ones they believe might be better handled by a woman. ChanaPastemak, the execu- " tire director ofKolech, a forum for religious women, who helped lobby for the creation of Gutman's post, says "Jewish women serving in the army finally have somebody they can turn to on religious and spiritual matters." Approximately one-third of modern Orthodox women de- cide to serve in the army. Most forego army service and the challenge oflivingin its secular environs for national service, where they work in hospitals, schools and museums. For those who decide to serve, the army can be a dif- ficult place to navigate. Many come from all-girls high schools, and the army is their first experience in an environ- ment that is both secular and coed. Gutman grew up in an ob- servant home and attended a religious high school. During her initial years in the IDF, she served as an officer in Gaza and the West Bank, and realized how difficult it can be to adjust as both a woman and a religious Jew in the male- dominated IDF. As an officer at an operations center in the northern Gaza Strip, she coordinated between field commanders and high- ranking officers inside Israel, as she did in a similar position along the Jordanian border. As an operations officer, her last post before leaving the army in 2003, Gutman helped oversee activity in and around the West Bank towns of Jenin and Tulkarm. There, too, she was the first woman to hold the post. Gutman recently returned to the IDF after a four-year hiatus in which she studied social work and served in the Welfare Ministry. She says the skills she learned as a social worker help her figure out how to ask the right questions and find solutions. Her job is to reassure and troubleshoot not just for the female soldiers with whom she works, but often for their parents, from whom she fields phone calls. Gutman deals almost exclusivelywithwomen soldiers. "Our goal is help make the army a place where religious soldiers can feel comfortable serving," she said. Often it's about matching a soldier with the right position, which can mean transferring bases ifa soldier feels her fellow soldiers do not respect her level of religious observance. "I very much hope that religious girls will decide that the army can be a place where they find meaningful work and that being religious won't be a reason for them to want to leave," Gutman said. The Rabbinate Corps orga- nizes seminars and lectures about Judaism. Some of the women and men it trains become unofficial religious emissaries at their bases, earn- ing reputations as inhouse resources on religious and spiritual matters for their units. Rachel Karen, who teaches at the female religious semi- nary Midreshet Ein Ha'Natsiv in northern Israel, says about 80 percent of her students en- list in the army. They study in a program that combines Torah studies with army service, based on the hesder model used for Orthodoxyoung men. Karen applauds the IDF rabbinate's work to reach out to religious soldiers. "There are so many young women who studied in semi- naries. They know a lot and can do good work in closening of hearts," she said, using a reli- gious term for strengthening ties between Jews. "Today in the religious public there are voices against sending religious young wom- en into the army and there are challenges," Karen said. "But I think this new position can prevent all sorts of difficulties and help make the army a positive place, one that can empower these young women so they can do an excellent job while serving."