Monday, November 21, 2011

Sephardic for the Ashkenazim

As a self-proclaimed Hebrew geek, a self-generated Hebraist, it was with great pleasure that I read A New Sound in Hebrew Poetry: poetics, politics and accent, by Miriam Segal. Professor Segal writes about the rise of the so-called Sephardic accent in Hebrew in the late 19th century, to its solidification as the accent for colloquial Hebrew in Palestine by the 1920s.

Professor Segal explores the birth of Ashkenazi accented Hebrew poetry in the late 19th century, by such giants as Bialik.   The stature of Ashkenazi accented Hebrew was so great, that it inhibited the growth of Hebrew in the "new" accent, based on a hybrid of Sephardic and Ashkenazi accent being created in Palestine.

Segal does an excellent job showing how Hebrew education took place on the ground in the early years of the 20th century.  She does an admirable job of illustrating the three available choices for a "Sephardic" accent among the European Jews who wished to use this eastern Hebrew for its air of authenticity as a spoken language.  The koine that developed was a mix of Sephardic and Ashkenazi elements in syntax, grammar, accent and tone.

Segal then goes on to show how new Sephardic Hebrew accented poetry began to take center stage in Palestine, eventually fully supplanting Ashkenazi Hebrew.  Of course, the kicker is that Bialik, considered the father of Israeli poetry, wrote his work in Ashkenazi accented Hebrew. 

Segal explores this paradox to great effect, showing us how nostalgia and longing can play a part even in a self-conscious attempt to divorce a people from its past.

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