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Entries in Daniel Deronda (2)


DANIEL DERONDA and Modern Zionism

If you haven't finished the novel, HERE BE SPOILERS. Consider coming back when you're done.

This is an early picture of Jews returning to modern-day Israel. It was taken in 1947. It has nothing to do with DANIEL DERONDA.

True, as George Eliot's sweeping, final novel comes to a close, we do have an intimate vision of Deronda setting off for "the East" in search of his personal roots as well as the foundations of his new Jewish identity. By "the East," both the character and the author are probably talking, not about China or India, but about the Middle East, specifically what had been called the Levant, or perhaps modern-day Israel. But actually, it's not that simple, not that definite. It's vague. It had to be, as you'll see.

One of the first synagogues built in modern-day Israel, from about 1885.At the time the novel was written (the mid-1870s) and even the time when it was set (the late 1860s), Deronda's and Mirah's voyage would have been nothing short of pioneering--and dangerous at that. The first modern "colony" of Jews in what is now Israel was founded only in 1860, just a few years before the action of the novel. That colony was always a tenuous affair. It didn't even last. In fact, the first lasting resettlement occurred in the early 1880s, years after the events of the novel and in fact a few years after Eliot's death. So if Deronda's voyage would have actually taken place in the real world, it would have been an extremely early expression of what came to be known as Zionism, the political and cultural movement to relocate the Jews to a homeland.

A homeland, not "the." And which one? It's not easy to answer. After the Roman Empire brutally crushed the Jewish uprising in 70 CE, the Jews were scattered throughout the Mediterranean region, first settling in modern-day Turkey; around Alexandria, Egypt; and in modern-day Iran near Tehran--and then spreading farther and farther out across the Empire, the far East, and Africa. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, the bulk of European Jewish settlements were in the region of modern-day Poland, Hungary, and eastern Russia; but there were many more on the Iberian peninsula and even in northern Africa.

By the nineteenth century, a revival of both Hebrew and Rabbinic culture across Europe (see the previous post) led to the belief that the Jews would never be able to practice their religion properly without being in their own land. These were the halcyon days for the idea of what we now call the "nation-state," the nineteenth century absurdity that claimed each ethnicity should have its own place: the French, the British, the Germans, etc. Of course, you'd have to buy that the French, the British, the Germans, etc., are indeed ethnicities, apart from languages and, say, cooking techniques. However, such was the world they lived in--and that we inherited. So nations were supposed to equal races (another nineteenth-century absurdity).

The first Zionist conference in 1897Early Zionist leaders suggested many places as a homeland: yes, what's now modern Israel, then controlled by the Ottoman Empire; but also Uganda, Argentina, and even a few spots in India. These suggestions are what account for George Eliot's rather vague notion of "the East."

In truth, there wasn't a concerted call yet for modern Israel to be what it now is. After all, that region had been run over by the Crusaders, by various conquering armies, and finally by the Ottomans. It wasn't exactly Paradise.

Things would take a dramatic turn after the close of Eliot's novel--and indeed, after the end of her life--when Theodor Herzl, a Hungarian journalist, penned Der Judenstaat ("The Jewish State") in 1896, a plea for a modern Israel. Herzl helped convene the first Zionist conference in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. The road began to open for more and more Jews to immigrate to Israel. But all that took place decades after DANIEL DERONDA.

By the way, this mass immigration is known as the Aliyah (ah-lee-yah), a Hebrew word that means something like "the going up." If you're familiar with the language of the Bible, you know that Tanakh (what Christians call "the Old Testament") repeatedly refers to Jerusalem as "up." "Let us go up to Jerusalem." Thus, the Aliyah (or "going up") is the modern term for the mass migrations that began at the turn of the twentieth century and then picked up speed after World War II. That first permanent settlement in the 1880s is now referred to in retrospect as the first Aliyah. Still, Deronda in the 1860s would have been well ahead of this, even well ahead of Herzl.

Indeed, Eliot was well ahead of her time. Don't think that it was a common thing that Deronda should head to "the East." Eliot was sensing--even predicting--something that would happen in the decades after her death.

Theodor HerzlAs an interesting side note, Herzl's Zionism was motivated by the pogroms that regularly ran across Russia, murdering and disappearing Jews by the millions long before the Holocaust. By the time Herzl was writing, the notion that the Jews should return to their ancient homeland, what we now call Israel, was well versed--but not before. Many early Zionists believed that Jews simply needed a place, any place, of their own. In fact, because of the intense antisemitism inside Russia in the nineteenth century, many Jewish intellectuals supported Germany in World War I. It's easy--and deadly--to imagine that the devil you don't know is better than the devil you do.

Of course, much happened post-DERONDA. The Ottomans were defeated in World War I. They lost their empire. Great Britain picked up the pieces in a colonial move that proved tricky, if not absurd. The genocidal nightmares of the Nazis became a reality. The British gave up that land under a U. N. mandate. And the modern Aliyah (and state of Israel) began in 1948. But that's seventy-two years after DANIEL DERONDA's publication and sixty-eight years after Eliot's death. What she senses isn't a reality in the 1870s. It's not even a dream. She imagined it.


Reinventing Hebrew

A fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls, written in a specific dialect of HebrewWhen Deronda learns Hebrew, it isn't quite the quiet, tame act it seems. Eliot is playing with Zionist fire. In the nineteenth century, the language itself was a charged subject--mostly because it had been long considered "dead," the province of rabbis, their students, and a few scholars. But in the mid-1800s, Hebrew began its quick resurrection.

Let's go back. Spoken Hebrew, the language of Torah (or the Old Testament) began falling out of favor sometime around 700 BCE, around the Assyrian captivity of the northern kingdom of Israel. By 400 BCE, no one spoke Hebrew; it was merely a liturgical language, the language of the sacred text. Jesus and his followers did not speak Hebrew (and certainly didn't speak Greek, the language of the New Testament). They spoke Aramaic, the formerly official language of the Assyrian Empire and a language well spread throughout the northwestern Middle East, a language related to Hebrew and Phoenecian. Parts of the Biblical books of Ezra and Daniel are written, not in Hebrew, but in Aramaic. And Aramaic, not Hebrew, became the important language of many of the commentaries on Torah. Even Hebrew itself, because it was not in use except for liturgical and rabbinic purposes, developed its own idiosyncracies unrelated to normal speech patterns. Medieval Hebrew is a language that was almost never spoken, only written, about the way Latin functioned in the Roman Catholic Church through parts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Eliezer ben-Yehuda (1858 - 1922)It probably would have stayed that way if it weren't for the rise of Zionism, the political movement that claimed the Jews were not Germans or Poles, but a unique people, subject to almost unprecedented levels of persecution, who could only find safety in a permanent homeland. Nothing aided that effort like the rise of a common language. Indeed, modern Hebrew, the language now spoken in Israel, is a nineteenth-century, Zionist creation. The Jewish intellectual Eliezer ben-Yehuda, a Lithuanian newspaper editor, undertook the almost Herculean task of bringing the language back to life.

Here was his problem: after the destruction of the Temple and the upstart Jewish rebellion against the Roman empire in 70 A.D., the Jews were brutally scattered throughout the Middle East, the Fertile Crescent, and even into modern Italy, Turkey, and Bulgaria. (This great movement of their civilization is now known as the "diaspora.") Over the centuries, often in response to official pogroms or local persecutions, Jews began to fan out across wider and wider areas. Most eventually settled in east-central Europe: eastern Germany, Poland, Ukraine, western Russia, and adjoining territories. This area has come to be known as the "pale of settlement." (That name was originally applied just to western Russia but soon began to include adjacent territories.)

While the bulk of the Jewish population settled here (and note that some of our novel takes place in Germany), many others settled far and wide. Over time, Aramaic--and even liturgical Hebrew--began fusing with the surrounding languages. By the nineteenth century, the bulk of Jews in central Europe spoke Yiddish, a fusion of Hebrew, German, Russian, and a smattering of other languages. Other Jews in Spain, Portugal, and northern Africa spoke Ladino, a fusion of liturgical Hebrew, the Sephardic dialect of Hebrew, Aramaic, Spanish, and Arabic. Jews in Lithuania spoke Litvak, a local dialect of Lithuanian. Still others, far out in central Asia, spoke Bukhori, a fusion of Aramaic, liturgical Hebrew, Tajik, and a smattering of Hindi and Chinese. Still others left in Palestine spoke Judeo-Arabic, a mostly Arabic-influenced dialect of Aramaic.

Most of these languages have died off, thanks to the rise of modern Hebrew. But they do still survive in songs. (I once sang an entire Ladino concert with a group in New York City.) Here's a clip of fantastic singer doing a Ladino number:


And of course, Yiddish was kept alive for many years in New York City with its Yiddish theaters on the Lower East Side and through many folk songs. Even if you don't know Yiddish, you know it as a line in a famous song (I think you have to get through a wretched ad first):

Modern Hebrew's problem was ancient Hebrew. Like all Semitic languages, Hebrew is built off roots. In Hebrew, three consonants in a set succession always represent some sort of general concept: water, life, meat, love, loyalty. For example, these three consonants, כתב, "ktb" (remember: Hebrew is read right to left), form the basis of the concept of "writing." Note that there are no vowels here. Hebrew is technically a language that only writes the consonants (the vowels are often added as dots and lines under or next to the consonants, dots and lines called "points," to help those not yet proficient in the language). For now, let's add a flat "a" between each consonant: katab. Now the word means "he writes." But we can start playing with, altering, and morphing that root, keeping those three consonants intact to create other words: katabnu ("we wrote"), yiktob ("he will write"), katib ("a writer"), hiktib ("he dictated"), hikatteb ("he wrote a letter"), miktab ("mail"). See: by altering the sounds around the root while keeping that root intact, we keep creating new meanings, all about writing. We can do this with hundreds of thousands of three-letter roots.

But that doesn't do much good for modern Hebrew. After all, the world is quite different from the time of King Solomon. What's the three-letter root that would offer us "democracy" or "cannon" or "tomato"? So Eliezer ben-Yehuda began fusing ancient Hebraic roots onto mostly Russian and German words. He was re-inventing a language to deal with concepts like "cotton gin" or "whiskey" or "czar." He was creating words. He also began to change the language itself, using the grammar of German and Russian to "modernize" Hebrew. For example, Biblical Hebrew isn't very big on verb tenses: past, present, future. They're there but slippery. Ben-Yehuda began introducing mode modern verb tenses into his version of Hebrew, standardizing the language to make it more "European."

In so doing, he was creating controversies. Most Rabbis considered his efforts heretical. Hebrew was liturgical, sacred. Furthermore, ben-Yehuda adopted a pronunciation system that was Sephardic--that is, mostly from Spain and northern Africa--not the Ashkenazi system favored by most Jews in central Europe.

But how else will you form a nation out of whole cloth without a unified language? Ben-Yehuda was one of the very earliest immigrants to Palestine in the early 1880s. But his ridiculously complicated efforts soon paid off. Zionism soon breathed life into the hope for a homeland. (It came too late for six million.) At the turn of the century, Jews began arriving more and more in the "Holy Land." They came from all over; they needed a common language, especially since they faced so much resistance among the local populations. Ben-Yehuda had crafted a ready answer. His work produced the Hebrew that is now the language of Israel.

And one more thing, closely related. If you don't know about klezmer, the Yiddish-focused music style popular with Jews across Europe (and of course, the namesake of a certain musician in our novel), here's one of my favorite groups, The Isle of Klezbos, a lesbian klezmer band, giving a rousing live performance: