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Rahel
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Questions for Ilan Stavans

It is so exciting to be joined this month by Ilan Stavans, author of Resurrecting Hebrew as well as many other books on Jewih literature, Latin American Literature, and much more. Please post your questions for him about his newest book, or any of his previous work!

Best, 

Rahel

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Re: Questions for Ilan Stavans

Hi, everyone.

I realize that this month is a bit interrupted by the Jewish holidays, but that is the great thing about the online book club -- we can continue our discussions anytime.

Post-Yom Kippur (and I hope all those who observed it had a meaningful day and an easy fast) I'd like to start things off with a question for Ilan -- how did you come to write this book? It's certainly a bit of a departure from your areas of scholarly endeavor, and I would love to learn more about how it came to be.

Thanks!

Rahel

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Re: Questions for Ilan Stavans

Resurrecting Hebrew is a shaped in the form of a journey. I had originally committed myself to writing a volume on the Hebrew alphabet. Everything made me think that the effort would be fairly straightforward. Growing up in the small Jewish community of Mexico City, the alef-beys was constantly with me. I wanted to pay tribute to its companionship. Aside from Spanish, I learned Yiddish and Hebrew as a boy, and later added other tongues. Yet I struggled with how to shape such a volume. It wasn't until I had a bizarre dream where I saw a nude woman surrounded by orthodox rabbis speaking in a language I couldn't make up, that I understood what my quest was truly about: not only the letters but the Hebrew language as a whole. What role had Hebrew played in my own upbringing? At one point in my life I had mastered it; but I pushed it aside in my adulthood in order to pay attention to other pressing matters. Why had I done that? Soon I realized that, just like the Jewish people, I too had abandoned the sacred tongue and that my dream was asking me to revisit the choice I had made. I found myself reading voraciously about Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, especially his autobiography A Dream Come True. I came to understand that Ben-Yehuda had had a similar, albeit more ambitious, dream of resurrecting his Hebrew, a tongue not used popularly in history since the destruction of the Second Temple. The lesson? Writing is never straightforward. The more twisted the effort, the more rewarding the result, at least for this author.

     You ask about his book being a departure from my earlier work. As of late, I've become interested in exploring previously undisclosed chambers of my mind. I'm also actively engaged in diverse literary genres. Earlier this year I published the graphic novel Mr. Spic Goes to Washington (Soft Skull, illustrated by Roberto Weil). I've collaborated with Alejandro Springall and John Sayles in the movie My Mexican Shiva (Emerging Pictures), based on a short story of mine, "Morirse está en hebreo." I've worked with Double Edge Theater in a stage adaptation of another story, "The Disappearance," scheduled to premier at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles next week, October 16-17, 2008. (Both stories are part of the volume The Disappearance [TriQuarterly]). And with a klezmer band I'm developing an oratorio set in the U.S.-Mexican border. In short, I want to push the word to its limits. Resurrecting Hebrew is precisely about that: the limits of my self, the limits of language. The book is a travelogue in which language is approaches as geography.    


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Re: Questions for Ilan Stavans

Dear Ilan,

thanks so much for your response. I love the idea of " a travelogue is which language is approached as geography," as though language is an entity with borders, shape, rises and falls that can be limned.  In many way, the book is a double journey -- your journey through Hebrew and Hebrew's journey through time. It is astonishing that you could learn Hebrew in Mexico City in the '60s and '70s, that I could learn it in NJ in the '80s, when by all odds it should be long gone. And I mean that not in terms of the miracle of Israel's survival, of the Jewish people's survival, but even simply the language itself. In college I studied Hebrew and Irish literature, and there was such a contrast between the success of the endeavor to reintroduce Hebrew as a modern language, as compared to the relative lack of success in resurrecting Irish (the Irish Gaelic language). What do you think it is about Hebrew that made the resurrection possible?

Thanks and Hag Sameach,

Rahel

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Re: Questions for Ilan Stavans

The answer, I believe, is religion: Hebrew is the language of the Bible, the language in which God communicates with His creatures. In spite of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda's Hasidic upbringing, he injected into it a dose of nationalism. He wanted Hebrew to be the language of a new Jewish state. But his claimed was connected, albeit indirectly, with the theological aspect of the language. Look at Gaelic and Catalan, two interesting, if asymmetrical, examples of national languages. When can a revival occur? In most cases, nationalism is the key factor, but it can't do it alone.


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Re: Questions for Ilan Stavans

I have some language problems and find it difficult to write and organize my thoughts but you book Resurrecting Hebrew was so interesting to me that I was able to read the book in three days. A great accomblishment for me. My question stems  from a remark a doctor said to me that my ears have eyes and that the ear sees. I initially took that very literally but as my speech facilities improved I was able to grasp that Hebrew is a very visual language. Your dream made me think of The Song of Songs and its many visual images. Your comment about Adam having the animals appear before him so that he could name them and the rainbow appearing to remind the people of the Convenant were esamples of this trait. I, especially, liked the story of the pole Moses was told to build and place a serpent on it so the people would be able to visualize their sins.

 

More than fifty years ago a young jewish boy walked the streets singing psalm 126 and I remembered the last two stanzas Deliver us, O Lord, from our bondage

                            as streams of dry land

                            Those who are sowing in tears

                             will sing when they reap

 

                             They go out, they go out, full of tears

                              carrying seed for the sowing

                              they come back, the come back, full of song,

                              carrying their sheaves.

 

A great military victory had been won and this boy was singing this psalm.

 

When I  was a in the military the words of Psalm 130 was most visual.

                                My soul is longing for the Lord

                                more than watchman for daybreak

                               Let the watchman count on daybreak

                                and Israel on the Lord.

Guard duty was boring and seemed never ending.

 

My comments were made only to stress how moving and picturual Hebrew was and how it can move one emotionally.

 

I am very excited that I could type the above comments. I was very hesitant about doing so but when we can visualize things it makes it very real and personnal.

mildone

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Re: Questions for Ilan Stavans

Dear Mildone,

     Thanks for your moving message. Yes, language is not only visual and auditive but tactile and even psychological, let alone spiritual. Bing a rationalist, I was always skeptical to any dimension of words that wasn't strictly connect with communicaation: delivering and reciving information. But the quest I began with my autobiography, On Borrowed Words, and the journey into the heart of Hebrew, made me reconsider my approach. The letters of the Hebrew alphabet have been both witnesses and participants in Jewish history: we use them and they use us. The same words were uttered by King David, the prophets, and the author of the Song of Songs. And now we have them in our lips, once again allowing them to echo, echo, echo...

     I salute you on your accomplishment with language and the thoughts it carries!

     Yours, ILAN 


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Re: Questions for Ilan Stavans

[ Edited ]

Mildone raises an interesting point of how Hebrew is so evocative of visual experiences. Thinking about it, I started to consider how Hebrew is visual not only in its menaing but in the actual letters. I'm thinking particularly of the calligraphied Hebrew letters, as they appear in a Torah, like the Sefer Torah that my synagogue unrolled yesterday morning, on Simchat Torah, so that the kids could see the whole Torah, or for example, my ketubah, since that's what I am looking at in my dining room right now. My aunt, who is a calligrapher, did our ketubah, and also does a lot of work with micrography, in which words were used to draw pictures. Micrography is an old tradition in Jewish art because it was a way of getting around the prohibition against figurative art (which we discussed back in our Chagall discussion). But the letters themselves are so beautiful that they really lend themselves to that kind of use. So I kind of wonder what we have lost in recent centuries as Hebrew print has become the dominant vehicle for the language -- that visual tradition, of micrography, of illuminated manuscripts, is relegated to ceremonial objects, not the everyday texts, correspondence. I'm sure that interesting things are being done with fonts in Hebrew, often based on the script used in old manuscripts. But it is an interesting transition from handwritten language to typed, and how we lose some of the visual flow with that.

Rahel

Message Edited by Rahel on 10-23-2008 11:28 AM
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Re: Questions for Ilan Stavans

Dear Ilan,

I was reading Absurdistan  last week, and Gary Shteyngart's lively mixing of Russian, standard English, Bronx slang, and many more languages and dialects got me thinking about the Academy for the Hebrew Language. You talk in your book about how this institution is charged with both maintaining the Hebrew language and keeping up with its constant changing.  I remember learning some of Eliezer ben-Yehudah's failed coinages when I was in school, and laughing at them, but when I spent more time in Israel after high school, I found that a lot of the Hebrew I had been taught was modern was actually out of date, and that Arabic words, especially, were used in everyday language, like, kef, fun, or English words, like the verb lefakses, "to fax," where an English root is conjugated into Hebrew. As a native English speaker, I was raised in a language that prides itself on its evolution from different sources. But Hebrew speakers have often felt threatened by this. Why do you think some languages and cultures are more comfortable with their language changing, while others fear it?

thanks

Rahel

 

 

 

 

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Re: Questions for Ilan Stavans

No living language exists in isolation. Languages are in constant change: they lend and borrow in ongoing fashion. The so-called imperial languages are more active in this regard, but others also mutate as users adapt to new circumstances.Every standard language is infused with a collective sense of pride: this is "our language", it's beautiful, we must honor it, we must protect it. Some languages (like Spanish, French, Hebrew, etc.) have a designated institution like the Academie francaise or the Real Academia de la LenguaEspañola , devoted to safeguarding linguistic integrity and pumping up pride, especially against the tentacles of English. But even those languages without such an institution (English itself, for instance) also have their own self-preserving mechanism, designed to assure coherence and continuity. I don't believe the vulnerability of Hebrew speakers is larger than that of speakers of other languages.In any case, it's a normal reaction in a world we borders are constantly being redefined.


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