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Language Lessons: Maya Arad’s "The Hebrew Teacher"

Published on 
August 17, 2020

For Tuvik

Best-selling Israeli author Maya Arad’s 2018 novella The Hebrew Teacher (Ha-morah le-Ivrit) opens, rather surprisingly, in English. “It wasn’t a very good time for Hebrew,” the narrator records before shifting to Hebrew, albeit one adulterated with English words and syntax .[i] What then is The Hebrew Teacher teaching us about Hebrew? About English? About language more broadly? With just its initial sentence, the novella raises sly questions about Hebrew as a literary language, about the status of Hebrew in America today, and about the all-devouring maw of English. Arad—a linguist by training—manages with just her first lines to encapsulate the deeper “problem” of multilingualism in literary studies, a question to which I turn first.

The Diasporic history of the Jewish people reveals a long tradition of literary multilingualism from the ancient world to the modern era: Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish, Ladino, the Judeo-Arabic of the so-called “Golden Age,” Judeo-Yemeni, Baghdadi Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Malayalam, and others. This has long been noted by literary critics. Bal-Makhshoves (Yisroel Isidor Elyashev) commented in 1918 in “Tsvey shprakhen:eyn eyntsiker literatur” (One literature in two languages) that Jews possess “a dozen echoes from other foreign languages, but . . . only one literature.”[ii] Here Bal-Makhshoves was responding to the fallout from the 1908 Czernowitz conference during which Yiddish was declared the national Jewish language. Later (1941), Shmuel Niger (Samuel Charney) maintained in “Tsveyshprakhikeyt fun undzer literature” (Bilingualism in the history of Jewish literature) that “one language has never been enough for the Jewish people.” Niger attempted here to mediate the domestic strife between Yiddish, personified as the “servant,” and Hebrew, “the lady of the house.” The critic aimed to reconcile Yiddish with Hebrew in order to defend against an interloping “third language [English], one alien to us [which] is prepared to eject or displace in the wink of an eye both Yiddish and Hebrew.” [iii] In the United States that displacement did indeed come to pass within a generation.

Hana Wirth-Nesher has cataloged how English-language literature has resisted the ejection or displacement of Yiddish and Hebrew that Niger feared. Her focus on the remnants of multilingualism in Jewish-American writing in her landmark Call It English makes clear how, for Jews, “forgetting language has been intertwined with losing faith.” Call It English establishes how “the linguistic and literary legacy that Jews brought to the United States was transnational,” and how the continued performance of multilingualism “signaled [Jewish] religious affiliation” in an assimilationist society.[iv] Perhaps Yiddish and Hebrew never had much of a chance to resist English. English, bearing the DNA of its Germanic and Latinate roots, has proved itself a voracious “macrolanguage” capable of mutating elements of all languages with which it comes in contact. William S. Burroughs was right: language is a virus.

From its inception, modern Hebrew too has absorbed and transformed the languages and cultures out of whose midst it rose. The birth of modern Hebrew literature in various centers in Europe, Russia, and Palestine among famously polyglot writers gives the lie to the organic and unproblematic correlation of language, territory, and people. Whether writing in Zion and publishing in the Diaspora, like Yosef Haim Brenner, or writing in the Diaspora and dreaming of Zion, like Shmuel Yosef Agnon, scholars of Hebrew letters know that well into the twentieth century Hebrew remained a national language without a nation-state, perhaps as much so as Yiddish. To read the prose and poetry of canonical Hebrew writers from the national revival period on to the establishment of the State of Israel, and into our own era, is to read a record of languages in contact. One finds a long history of Hebrew language and literary forms adopting and adapting foreign words, idioms, grammatical structures, even whole works through autotranslation, as, for example, by Mendele Moykher-Sforim.

Perhaps surprisingly then, and despite the powerful links between the Hebrew language and Jewish nationalism, modern Hebrew literature may allow us to maintain a “multilingual paradigm” that can help us disentangle language from territory and people.[v] A multilingual paradigm allows us to perceive how the fundamental elements of the dominant nationalist trinity—language, territory, people—are contingent rather than determined. A multilingual paradigm thus underscores the critical interventions of much postcolonial theory by exposing the constructed nature of forms of power that rely on the presumption of a natural relationship between language, territory, and people. Theodor Adorno noted that attention to the alien tongue in the midst of another “destroys the illusion of naturalness in language.” Indeed, he wrote, a study of languages in contact “contains the explosive material of enlightenment.”[vi] And that detonation may blast us into a recognition of the arbitrary relationship of signifier and signified, the contingency of nationalism, and the nonessentialism of identity.

Scholars in this vein who reject linguistic determinism teach us that any one language can be translated into any other despite the lack of perfect code equivalency. As Roman Jakobson influentially noted: “languages differ in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.”[vii] Yet many people hold to a “folk linguistics”[viii] that rejects such a belief, even though Jakobson’s insight has been lent empirical support by neuroscience.[ix] Literary scholars are no strangers to a cognitive dissonance regarding interlingual translation. The claim that some indefinable essence is lost in translation from the mother tongue—mame-loshn or sfat ha’em—is a common one. Readers may be familiar with Haim Nachman Bialik’s suggestion that reading a poem in translation is like kissing a woman through a veil or, following Yehuda Amichai’s sly revision, that kissing a woman through a veil isn’t so bad either. I’ll sidestep the gendered metaphors by which language is figured here as either mother with tongue or bride with lips to simply point out some theoretical problems with this sort of sentimental or folk linguistics.

If we deny or minimize the universalism of Jakobson’s insight, we will endorse a linguistic particularism. Such a particularism illogically locates the ineffable—that is, the inexpressible or unspeakable—in one or another language. A multilingual paradigm avoids the pitfalls of this particularism. Instead, we gain a glimmer of linguistic universalism. By the universal, I draw on Adorno’s sense that foreign words confront or shock us into a recognition that any one “language imprisons those who speak it.”[x] We can break out of that prison house of the particular through multilingualism. Of course, we also lose something by promoting a multilingual paradigm. And what we lose is a sense of any one language as metaphysically unique, along with a host of comforting metaphors, nostalgias, and allegiances. In Hebrew literary scholarship, the abandonment of ethnochauvinisms is made especially challenging owing to enduring traditions that discover in the “holy tongue” a means of communicating with or revealing the secrets of the divine to a chosen people, to say nothing of the tendency to treat Israeli Hebrew literature as a window into the national soul.

            The prevailing dominance of the monolingual paradigm makes it difficult to recognize the significance of a work that glories in its multilingualism and that flaunts a lack of fealty to national borders. Maya Arad’s The Hebrew Teacher is one of these works. An appreciation of the importance of Arad’s novella is further hampered by its subgenre: the campus novel. Arad essentially invented the genre of the Hebrew campus novel with Seven Bad Qualities (Sheva’ midot ra’ot; 2006); in The Hebrew Teacher she perfects it. The author imports the British tradition of social comedy[xi] that underlies the campus novel into a contemporary Hebrew idiom, an idiom that is always inflected with the American English of its setting. Both Seven Bad Qualities and The Hebrew Teacher take place in the United States and feature Israeli academics. Arad lives and writes in Palo Alto amid the affluence of Stanford University’s country club meets faux Spanish Mission style campus, and so she is intimately familiar with American scholarly peccadilloes (and aesthetic mash-ups). Like the author herself, the protagonist and eponymous Hebrew teacher of the novella, Ilana, is an Israeli who writes in voluntary exile.

Ilana struggles to craft a memoir that will make sense of her life in America. She cannot decide whether to write her life story in Hebrew or in English because she does not feel that she possesses either language to the extent necessary. Ilana thinks that her “English isn’t good enough, but her Hebrew suddenly feels stale too” (46). Later, she determines that “Hebrew is too far away. English too unobtainable” (63). Yet we see her love of both languages as she teaches her students conversational Hebrew, struggles through an English-language creative-writing workshop entitled “Introduction to Memoir Writing” (43), and extols various works of Hebrew literature. Ilana may be a Hebrew teacher, but she is also an American writer wrestling with English. And an Israeli writer wrestling with Hebrew. Or perhaps even an American writer wrestling with Hebrew, and an Israeli writer wrestling with English. Her two languages observe no territorial rights. Her multiple identities conflate and converge, sometimes enriching one another and sometimes leaving her feeling as if she “has no language” (46).

Ilana fears for her job while she laments the trend of declining enrollments in her college-level modern Hebrew courses. She reflects on the reasons for Hebrew’s unpopularity among the midwestern students of her institution. “Israel is a tough sell these days,” she thinks, and the political “situation wasn’t helping, of course” (10). In addition to the ignominy of eviscerated foreign-language requirements across American higher education, the identification of Hebrew solely with the State of Israel means that instruction in the language is also subject to shifting political sympathies. And for the present moment at least, Israel does not look very sympathetic. Ilana, however, does retain the reader’s sympathies because of her earnest concern for her students and her goodwill toward her colleagues. Though no longer a fresh-faced idealist, Ilana retains a naivety about Israel, a country she still thinks of as home despite not having lived there for forty-five years. And her essential innocence abroad is what ultimately proves her undoing.

Ilana has witnessed a downturn in American-Jewish identification with Israel since the high point of the early 1970s when she first arrived in the United States. The sagging fortunes of Israel that she has observed parallel the marks of aging she views in the mirror: “Night and day between her and that young girl in the embroidered blouse. Night and day between that young country and today’s Israel” (10). In addition to seeing herself as an explicit reflection of Israel, Ilana equates herself with her pedagogy. Ilana “was Hebrew at this college,” she thinks at one point (11). Any threat to Hebrew or to Israel therefore presents a threat to her very existence. She does indeed face an existential threat in the form of the farcical figure of Yoad Bergman-Harari, a humorless academic who nonetheless plays his own straight man.

Yoad’s appointment as a tenure-track professor of “Hebrew and Jewish literature” (12) is heralded as a scholarly coup by everyone but Ilana, who was shut out of the hiring process. The young professor’s sense of superiority toward his colleagues and his midwestern environs leave those who hired Yoad even more convinced of the wisdom of their choice. Their abasement before the disdainful Yoad dismays Ilana, who takes obvious pride in her work and in the institution that employs her. No sooner does Yoad arrive than he announces that his double-barreled surname derives from an ideological commitment to “negate the negation of the Diaspora” (15). He refers here to the well-known effort by Zionist pioneers (and latecomers) to “negate the Diaspora.” They often cast off the signs and symbols of their European Jewish past, especially names, in order to be “reborn” in the land of Israel. He reasserts the Germanic “Bergman” as a back-translation of the Hebrew “Harari,” which turns his name into a jokey multilingual stutter: something like Yoad Hill-Hilly. Yoad’s self-selected surname thereby emphasizes his European family origins and strips away a constitutive layer of Zionist ideology. If Ilana personifies Hebrew and Zion, Yoad incarnates the Diaspora, as when he insists that learning Yiddish would be more relevant to Ilana’s students than learning Hebrew (40).

Yoad also stridently de-Judaizes his scholarly work. When Ilana asks Yoad to describe his research—something most academics love to do at length—Yoad barely condescends to explain his recasting of “[Martin] Heidegger as a Jewish writer” (25). The irony of that Nazi philosopher emerging as an iconic twentieth-century Jewish author is lost on Yoad. Instead, he patronizes Ilana with a tortured discussion of “Jewish literature” and succeeds in defining the concept out of existence (25). To paraphrase George Orwell, only an intellectual could be such a fool. Yoad later pours cold water on Ilana’s enthusiasm for Israeli fiction, claiming that he “hardly read[s] any literature” at all (27), instead favoring philosophy and psychoanalytic texts. (In many literature departments this will barely register as a joke.) Yoad also rejects Ilana’s overtures to speak to members of the Jewish community about Hebrew fiction, which Ilana internalizes as a dismissal of her and her group of “yentas” (37).[xii] Here she employs a derogatory Yiddish term for a gossipy klatch of women. At least in Ilana’s mind, Yoad treats literature as a vain feminine diversion, less valuable than his own (preposterous) effort to force the crown of Jewish writer onto Heidegger’s pate.

Yoad’s narcissism makes him a character worthy of a David Lodge novel, though his connivances render him more insidious than most campus charlatans. Ilana and Yoad disagree on politics, but Yoad evinces a shrillness toward anyone who does not share his political sensibilities. He berates Ilana for a lesson she taught that did not take into account Palestinian suffering. In the course of the confrontation, Yoad angrily implies a comparison between Nazi Germany’s Operation Barbarossa (1941) and Israel’s Operation Protective Edge (2014) (49). The idea of a moral equivalence between the two horrifies Ilana. She comes to see Yoad’s indignation as a sign of the times—bad times, she repeats, for Hebrew. Yoad’s heightened awareness of Palestinian oppression echoes Ilana’s students’ sensitivity to peanuts, yet “another recent development” (68). Much as Yoad reacts with shocking viciousness to Ilana’s political blindness, so too does Ilana fear her students going into anaphylactic shock from Bamba peanut puffs (68). The novella suggests here that sensitivities, whether to peanuts or to politics, may be faddish. Yet to ignore them risks potentially dangerous consequences.

After the argument about her lesson plans, Ilana wishes that Yoad would respect “her autonomy” and stop “thinking he can establish facts on the ground” (50). Ilana’s choice of words echoes the rhetoric of territorial politics in Israel and Palestine. In effect, the much more powerful Yoad’s incursion into Ilana’s classroom “fiefdom” (50) reverses their self-asserted identifications. Yoad, a frantic virtue-signaler, responds by strong-arming concessions from his colleagues in order to marginalize Ilana. In the moral logic of the novella, he thus ironically becomes aligned with the aggressive political and military tactics of Israel. Ilana, equally ironically, retreats into the role of the Palestinians outmaneuvered by an asymmetrical force. She is ultimately expelled from her job and university life. Perhaps that is why, at the novella’s close, Ilana abandons writing her life story in Hebrew, a language she connects with Jewish spiritual regeneration and sovereign power. Perhaps, pace Wirth-Nesher, she has lost a kind of “faith” in Israel. She thinks, “Who will read [her memoir] if she writes in Hebrew?” (70). Then again, she thinks this, and we read it, in Hebrew. The final line of the novella reprises its first line, though this time in Hebrew: “And in any case, it’s not a good time for Hebrew” (70). Here, Ilana engages in autotranslation. The Hebrew teacher and the text of The Hebrew Teacher thereby clearly reassert a multilingualism that informs the linguistic praxis and thematics of the novella. What Ilana’s (and Arad’s) oscillating multilingualism reveals is the fundamental inadequacy of monolingualism for literature and culture.

Consider the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, a favorite non-Jewish author of the very non-Jewish Heidegger. Rilke knew a thing or two about multilingualism, having himself written abortively in French and Russian. He bemoaned “cette insuffisance de notre langue” (the insufficiency of our language).[xiii] Of course, “our language” here is not Shmuel Niger’s notion of “our language.” In this instance, Rilke was speaking in French about German. But we may extend the poet’s complaint about “our language” to the stubborn inadequacy of Hebrew, of English, or of any one language. The use of translogical languages such as in zaum or Dada or contemporary sound poetry, or even Pentecostalist glossolalia—speaking in tongues—constitutes efforts to exceed the distinctive features of a linguistic system. All these efforts expose a dissatisfaction with language; they aim to de-semiotize natural language itself.

Literary language strives to break the bonds of natural-language referentiality, to sunder signifier from signified, to decouple sound from sense. This aspiration to escape the inadequacy of natural language remains central to literary aesthetics. Literary language is thus a kind of utopian language,[xiv] an escape from language, and is analogous to how utopia may be thought of as an escape from place and from history itself. This observation suggests the homology: literary language is to natural language, as utopia is to history. Adorno, in writing of multilingualism, imagined something similar: “[F]oreign words . . . preserve something of the utopia of language, a language without earth, without subjection to the spell of historical experience.”[xv] Just as we cannot escape from natural language if we want to communicate, so too we cannot fully escape from history, from the particulars of temporality and spatiality. Yet multilingualism allows us a glimpse—even if only as through a keyhole—of the universe beyond the prison house of the particular: of English beyond Hebrew, of Hebrew beyond English, and of literatures beyond or across the borders of nations striving for utopia.


[i] Maya Arad, The Hebrew Teacher, trans. Jessica Cohen, 9. Quotations from the novella in English are from this translation. Page numbers, hereafter given in parentheses in the text, are to the Hebrew edition: Maya Arad, Ha-morah le-Ivrit (Tel Aviv: Xargol, 2018), 9–70.

[ii] Bal-Makhshoves, “One Literature in Two Languages,” trans. Hana Wirth-Nesher, in What Is Jewish Literature?, ed. Hana Wirth-Nesher (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1994), 74.

[iii] Shmuel Niger, Bilingualism in the History of Jewish Literature, trans. Joshua A. Fogel (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1990), 11, 92, 112.

[iv] Hana Wirth-Nesher, Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 14.

[v] Yasemin Yildiz, Beyond the Mother Tongue: The Postmonolingual Condition (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), 5.

[vi] Theodor Adorno, “Words from Abroad,” trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen, in Notes to Literature, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 190.

[vii] Roman Jakobson, “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation” (1959), in Translation Studies Reader, 3rd ed., ed. Lawrence Venuti (London: Routledge, 2012), 129.

[viii] John C. Maher, Multilingualism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 32.

[ix] Edna Andrews, Neuroscience and Multilingualism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 45–46.

[x] Adorno, “Words from Abroad,” 189.

[xi] For more on Arad’s debt to British social satire and campus novels, see Danielle Drori’s “Reading Maya Arad in North America Today: The Hebrew Teacher in Context,” Hebrew Higher Education 21 (2019): 31–49. Readers should refer to Drori’s article for a somewhat different interpretation of Arad’s novella than my own.

[xii] In the original, it appears in Hebraicized Yiddish as a different word, though with the same approximate meaning: “veyvers.”

[xiii] Rilke quoted in a letter from Andre Gide to Jacque Riviere. See La nouvelle revue français 69 (June 1919): 124,

[xiv] I owe my thinking here to many conversations over the years with Dr. Tuvia Shlonsky.

[xv] Adorno, “Words from Abroad,” 192.