From the early years of his long and prolific writing career, Hebrew poet Avraham Shlonsky continually wrote and rewrote himself into the early twentieth-century cultural scene as consummate artist and ideologue. Affiliating his artistic persona with a new Zionist language, ideology, and land, Shlonsky challenged the styles and themes of his Hebrew poetic predecessors. At the same time, he experimented with the modernist forms and aesthetics that held sway in European culture in the first decades of the twentieth century, mixing aspects of Symbolism, Futurism, Expressionism, and Imaginism to create his own idiosyncratic Hebrew modernism. At the center of his modernist poetry and manifestoes is a chameleon-like lyrical “I” that dominates the text as it unfolds.
Shlonsky brilliantly used a new literary Hebrew to create himself as a revolutionary modernist poet. Like many of his fellow staunch Zionists, he argued passionately that Hebrew should be the language of the emerging national culture and that Yiddish, the language of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, should be abandoned to the Diaspora. But, strangely enough, Shlonsky's early poetry and manifestoes are infused with Yiddish influences and inflections, an implicit poetics that stands in opposition to his explicit pronouncements. Over the course of his long career, Shlonsky and his critics largely erased from his canonical image the Yiddish resonances and rhythms that surface in his early poetry, as well as the affiliations with contemporary Yiddish modernisms.
In this article, I analyze the contradictions that emerge in Shlonsky's deft self-inventions during the 1920s in the context of contemporary modernist trends and the emerging Hebrew literary center in Palestine. I read his flamboyant authorial images as a particular kind of self-fashioning in and in-between languages. Recovering the traces of Yiddish in Shlonsky's early poetic self-inventions in his poetry, manifestos, and criticism, I argue, reveals the complex negotiations of language and identity that have been largely overlooked both in Shlonsky's canonical image and Hebrew literary history. Almost despite himself, Shlonsky demonstrates a multilingualism that exists within the national canon.