Thursday, September 8, 2011

KISS's Simmons: Political Commentator, Hebrew Expert

By Arnold Agnes/The Jewish Tribune

Gene Simmons, the man who became identified with the quintessential heavy metal band KISS as a singer, song writer and rock bassist, has now gained two new personas: political commentator and astonishingly an expert on the pronunciation of Modern Hebrew. It should be explained that Simmons, né Chaim Witz, was born in Haifa and moved with his parents to the United States at age eight. Last month he announced that he was supporting the presidential bid of Rick Perry, the Texas governor; Simons was apparently unperturbed by Perry's fundamentalist Christian beliefs.

Simmons advocacy in this context is not actually surprising, given his public criticism of US President Barack Obama. The former musician's daring avant garde embrace of a type of music was not exactly mainstream three decades ago when heavy metal was all the rage among the younger set. Supporting Rick Perry's presidential bid is consistent with Simmons' leading-edge, artistic-political ideology.

What is surprising is that the icon of heavy metal music, the winner of many awards for his song writing and playing has now become, believe it or not, a source for scholarly commentary on the evolution of the pronunciation of Israeli Hebrew. The story is fascinating.

Among the many anomalies in the Hebrew language is that technically speaking, you have to know the intricacies of Hebrew grammar to be able to really speak it properly. But that is just part of the problem.

If you were raised in a traditional Ashkenazi household or if you were educated in a yeshiva - even if you understood the complexities of the Hebrew vowel systems and the exoticism of the beged kafat pointing of initial consonants, your pronunciation of Hebrew would reflect a middle European Yiddish twang.

Despite these eccentricities Ashkenazi Hebrew was the dominant strain during that period in the 19th and early 20th century when the Hebrew language and literature emerged from its somnolent stage and began to enjoy a renaissance due to a number of diverse factors - the east European geography in which Jews lived, the Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment, the rise of both cultural and political Zionism and the resettling of Eretz Yisroel during the several aliyot or ascensions to the Jewish state-in-the-making.

However, anyone who has visited Israel and certainly the vast majority of the inhabitants of the state, know that modern spoken Hebrew represents a modified form of the traditional Sephardic pronunciation, in which the stress on an individual word is on the last syllable rather than on the second last one. The only people who use Ashkenazi accentuation in speech are the deeply pious and they do so by habituation and ideological purity.

Miryam Seal, a linguist, literary scholar and historian who teaches at Queens College, New York City, introduces us to the revolutionary shift in the accentuation of spoken Hebrew in the introduction to her ground-breaking study, A New Sound in Hebrew Poetry: Poetics, Politics, Accent (Indiana University Press. Bloomington, Indiana, 2010) by citing an interview by a journalist with an unlikely source about language transformation, Gene Simmons.

Citing an interview with Simmons in which the musician was referred to as a "Mama's Boy," Simmons snapped back: "I stand guilty as charged and proud to say that I am a mama's boy. However, point one is that you mispronounced my Hebrew name. It's not Hayim, which is the sort of snivelling please-don't-beat-me-up Ashkenazi way... It's Hayim, emphasis on the second vowel, like the Israelis do."

Professor Segal goes on to observe that Simmons was being hypercorrect, that while the stress on the last vowel of a word is consistent with modern Hebrew and is occasionally used in the purified speech of radio announcers, the rule does not apply with names and that it is perfectly acceptable in modern Hebrew even today to put the stress on the first vowel on the name Hayim.

Simmons-Witz, who recently appeared on a TV program celebrating his Israeli roots and experience, can be excused for not being up on the finer points of Modern Hebrew, but it's refreshing to see a serious scholar quoting him in this context!

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