Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Prof. Elliott Horowitz -- Edmund Wilson, Hebrew, Christmas, and the Talmud

In a previous post at the Seforim blog, Prof. Elliott Horowitz of Bar Ilan University and co-editor of Jewish Quarterly Review, responded to a discussion of Bugs Bunny's purported Jewish identity.

This is his second contribution to the Seforim blog. We hope that you enjoy.

Edmund Wilson, Hebrew, Christmas, and the Talmud
by Elliott Horowitz

As is well known, during the 1950's Edmund Wilson, the great (and perhaps greatest) American man of letters, began studying Hebrew, both in order to read the Hebrew Bible on his own, and in order to write in an informed manner about the controversies surrounding the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls. As Shalom Goldman noted in his excellent chapter on Wilson in God's Sacred Tongue: Hebrew and the American Imagination (Chapel Hill, 2004), Wilson "delighted in teasing his Jewish friends" about their having jettisoned their (usually limited) Hebraic learning while he was steadily increasing his. As an example, Goldman cites the Christmas card Wilson sent to Alfred Kazin in 1952, which included (in Hebrew) the words "I shall learn Hebrew," followed by the Wilsonian barb: "I'll bet you can't read this."

If one consults the card itself, reproduced in Edmund Wilson, Letters on Literature and Politics, 1912-1972 ed., Elena Wilson (New York, 1977), it may be seen that before the oddly vocalized words "elmod lashon yisrael," Wilson added, in the same square script, the blessing "barukh ata la-shem" - probably the first time these words (with the actual tetragrammaton) were used in a Christmas greeting.

Readers of the Seforim blog may also be interested in a subsequent letter of Wilson's to the Brooklyn-born Kazin, written from the New Yorker office in October 1954, shortly after the article on the Dead Sea Scrolls was completed.

"I am still struggling in the toils of the three thousand years of Jewish history. Once you get into it, you find there is no easy way of getting out again. Have you ever tried reading the talmud? It is a very strange work - difficult at first to get the hang of - but it exercises a certain fascination. I think that I may settle down to reading it through. There seems to be no other way of really finding out what is in it..." (Ibid., 528).

Of course, daf yomi tapes were not yet available...

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