Crafting a Warrior Idiom

By Daniel Levine.

Anyone who’s taken REL 371 with me over the past three years – or has taken my Israel-Palestine course – will recall a persistent interest in fear: what it does to us, and the various means by which it is channeled to political ends.  Some of this work appeared in print for the first time last summer.

One aspect of such ‘channeling’ comprises the use of ‘private languages’ to mark off particular fearful experiences: by soldiers and police; civilians in war zones, post-conflict environments, or otherwise minoritized; survivors of torture.  Such languages serve both pragmatic, problem-solving ends, and mythic-imaginary ones. That is, they help those caught up in such experiences both to prepare for and navigate them; and to find meaning in and from them after the fact.    

From the Roman military to multinational UN forces, to veterans of particular regiments, conflicts or battles, such languages are especially common among armies and soldiers.  The shared experience of a common institutional/bureaucratic structure, their relative isolation from the rest of civil society, and everyday exposure to (and expertise in) violence are all reasons for this.

Eight decades after the Israel-Palestine war of 1948, such idioms are very much a part of contemporary Jewish life and practice.  So much so that it can be hard to remember that the idea of a ‘Hebrew warrior’ once seemed impossibly distant – as alien to Jewish lived experience as Deep Space Nine or The Man in the High Castle would be, were one to awaken in it.   

Writing in 1894, the author Micha Yosef Berdyczewsky (Behr-dee-CHEV-skee) – whose nom de plume, ‘Ben Gurion,’ hearkened back to the Judaean rebel-turned-historian Flavius Josephus, and would be taken up by Israel’s First Prime Minister – wrote in 1894 that modern politics placed Jews before an existential dilemma: “to be, or to vanish! To be the last Jews, or the first Hebrews.”  Others made the point in even grimmer, more explicitly genocidal, terms: “Do you know,” the Hebrew-language novelist Yosef Hayim Brenner asked in a letter to fellow wordsmith Uri Nissan Gnessin in 1900, “that we are the last of the Mohicans? Are you aware that our people are going to die?  Do you know that the world is sick, and that despair kills?”  Others saw these “great transformations” in explicitly redemptionist, messianic terms.  Many still do.

“To be the first Hebrews” meant to recover the customs, idiom, and sensibilities of the Judaean and Israelite heroes of old: Simon Bar Kokhba and John of GischalaSaul, King of Israel, and Joshua, son of Nun.  Between the 1880s and the 1930s, a range of epic poems and historical novels explored these themes, drawing on and developing a literary style similar to other romantic Central-European national-literary movements.

But idealized literary representations are one thing, and writing credibly from and for the direct experience of combat is another.  It is with this in mind that I found myself drawn to a series of translations published in the late 1940s in the Hebrew-language journal Ma’arakhot [meh-ah-rah-KHOT; the title means campaigns/operations, in the military sense] – of Soviet war novels and short stories, written during the Second World War.  Most are long out of print – though a few remain deeply ingrained in Israeli combat doctrineliterary culture, and collective memory

Why the journal’s editors chose these particular stories to translate is a story unto itself.  What I consider here is how peculiarly they were translated.  Linguistic fashions of course change over time — when was the last time you heard anyone below the age of seventy use the word ‘dungarees’?

But Ma’arakhot’s oddness was of a different sort.  The journal’s editors and translators chose a neo-biblical register for their work widely used in formal literary translations, which the Israeli literary theorist Nitza Ben Ari has since dubbed ‘translationese’ [tirgumit].  It is not that spoken Hebrew lacked everyday idiomatic expressions, exactly – though that was sometimes true.  It was also that the idiomatic expressions in use were considered unacceptable in literary contexts: many were calques drawn from Yiddish, Russian, or Arabic – or involved whole phrases lifted from those languages.  Fine for everyday speech, but not for Tolstoy or Shakespeare; in these contexts, one often finds highly stylized Aramaic or Biblical constructions drawn from the Bible or the Mishnah.

But Hamlet is one thing, and wartime pulp fiction is another.  Their admixture on the page is deeply jarring.  Imagine you’re watching Rambo or The Terminator , and Ahnold or Stallone suddenly breaks out in iambic pentameter or ‘King James’ English: “twas thou drew’st first blood, sirrah; not I!” quoth Rambo).  Like the ‘holy hand-grenade’ sketch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but without the irony. 

It’s not just that such registers strain belief.  They can also be quite difficult to parse – the reader may simply not understand what’s being said. So it’s hard to imagine why the translators thought this would be an appropriate choice for their translations – all the more so, if these short stories were meant to acquaint soldiers-in-training for the experience of combat on a late-modern, highly industrialized battlefield.

What explains this?  As noted, some attribute this to the relative ‘newness’ of modern spoken Hebrew – the fact that it had only a limited corpus of idiomatic expressions.  But two additional reasons also suggest themselves.  First, these representations reflected a certain desperation: an as-yet unrealized yearning for a ‘new Hebrew warrior.’  Like good, pious believers, this was a voice to be waited upon – they would not presume to speak in it themselves.  For better or worse, this draws on a much older story about Jewish political and military powerlessness and the promise of a future messianic deliverance.  Though deeply contested, both remain very much a part of both Zionist and Jewish self-understandings.  

The second reason related to realities the conflict that was gradually taking shape on the ground: a ‘senseless, squalid war’ that, perhaps, did not answer the heroic yearnings of those who saw the Jewish struggle for survival as a battle with titanic external forces – the ‘return to history.’  So understood, such mythic language functions to ‘screen out’ the grim reality of Palestinian suffering and mass expulsion.  Those screens remain very much in place, even now – just as they do in many other places.  That said, a new generation of filmmakers and storytellers (as with this short documentary) is challenging it.

All of this comes from an article that I wrote out last August.  If you would like, you can access it here (open-access, no password needed):