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New Jewish Book Council Reviews September 18, 2015

Friday, September 18, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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My Daughter's Letter to Thai Jesus

Thursday, September 17, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Lauren Fox wrote about stumbling over her family history in Langenlonshei, Germany. She is guest blogging here all week as a Visiting Scribe on The ProsenPeople.

A few nights ago, my seven-year-old daughter wrote a letter. To Jesus.

“Dear Jesus,” it began. “How are you? Are you from Thailand? I have more questions. Please write back. Love, Tess.”

More questions, indeed. I have screwed my children up in countless ways, believe me. I have compared them to other, better behaved children (there’s one in particular, a neighboring boy who never talks back. Oh, he’s a delight); I have bribed and negotiated, and Lordy, I have caved when I should have held firm. But when I first saw this letter to Thai Jesus, I thought, this may be my biggest screw-up yet.

Tess is an interesting kid. She has an active imagination, and I have encouraged it. For years, I participated in ongoing and multi-faceted conversations with her imaginary friend, M-Pillow. I have baked birthday cakes (cakes! twice!) for her stuffed monkey, Monkey (note to self: don’t forget January 31st). The Tooth Fairy not only deposits the requisite quarters under the pillow, but she leaves letters, too, in which she vividly describes the internecine strife among the lesser fairies in the tooth castle they live in under the sea. As a family, we enjoy this kind of thing.

And herein, I suppose, lies the problem. My husband (who is not Jewish) and I are raising our daughters Jewish, but we’re kind of doing a bad job of it. Okay, we’re doing a willfully bad job of it. Emphasizing culture and history over spirituality, we both freely admit we don’t believe in God. The girls go to religious school, and we encourage them to respectfully question what they learn. We celebrate the Jewish holidays with my parents, but we also celebrate Christmas, when we can, with my husband’s mother in Ireland. Sometimes we hang blue and white ornaments that we bought at Walgreens on our droopy flowering houseplant and call it our Christmas hibiscus. (Whew, it feels good to finally climb out of the shame spiral about that one.) The fact is, being Jewish matters to me a lot. But so does honoring my husband’s culture and country, which is all the more potent and poignant for him because he doesn’t live there anymore. The only answer to this predicament, in our family, is to embrace it, to admit that we are in uncharted territory, and to be creative.

I don’t know if we’re doing this right. I get the argument that this mishmash befuddles kids (I mean, obviously), but I also believe that our free-wheeling approach has the great potential to make our daughters empathetic and compassionate, to open their minds to the panoply of human experience. At the very least, I’m certain that it gives them a most intimate view of the real world that starts right in their own house, where not everyone shares their views or background, but love and respect prevail. Maybe, by complicating their identity, we’re showing them that identity is a complicated notion.

And on the other hand, we’re clearly confusing the bejesus out of at least one of them. What can I say? We’re a work in progress.

Lauren Fox is the author of the novels Still Life with Husband, Friends Like Us, and Days of Awe. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Parenting, Psychology Today, The Rumpus, and Salon.

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Blabbermouths to Beezlebub

Wednesday, September 16, 2015 | Permalink

Excerpt from The Grammar of God by Aviya Kushner.

One of my biggest fears is that I will die because I have talked too much. In my yeshiva day school, I was taught that every human being has a limited number of words, and then that’s it—you’re gone. Every few months I start worrying about my tally, and I try to talk less. I warn my friends that a new, quieter life lies ahead, but they don’t believe me. Within days, my resolve fades and I’m chattering again, letting the words pile up danger­ously. Despite the fact that everyone in my family is familiar with the threat of the constant ticking of words, most of my relatives are cheerful, death-defying blabbermouths.

And yet, among the blabbermouths, there is my sister, who utters a normal amount of words. Maybe that’s why she gets so much done. Once, in the middle of dinner, my parents compli­mented her on her magnificent, chatterless efficiency. She had, as usual, brought order to a huge array of bowls of soup to be salted and spiced, mounds of food to be taken out of ovens and placed on platters and matched with serving spoons—without talking about it. But she had an unusual reaction to the compliment. “Emor me’at ve’aseh harbeh,” she said. “Say little and do much.” And then, very softly, she added: “It’s the first thing you learn in school, from Avraham Avinu.”

My sister was crediting Abraham, or, as she called him, Abra­ham our Father, for the way she goes about her work. The rest of us kept eating, stunned, for once, into silence. In the quiet, I thought again about how much our early life, how the way we read and heard the Bible, has affected all of my siblings. And so my sister, a management consultant and entrepreneur, sitting in front of me in perfectly ironed business clothes, cutting her food into pieces that were all exactly the same size—that sister noticed how Abraham rushed to get butter and milk, rushed to delegate, and coordinated all the tasks to welcome the visiting messengers who came to tell him he and Sarah would soon have a child. My sister noticed how swift he was, and how few words he needed to manage the entire experience. Slow and inefficient as I am, I never noticed how Abraham ran, how he did not make time to chat. In my universe of constant chatter, that grand, ancient, patriarchal quiet was impossible to hear.

I did notice something else about the story in Hebrew: how Sarah laughed. It is not a standard laugh. Va’titzchak Sarah be’kirba. Literally, it means “and Sarah laughed deep inside of herself.” Or maybe more accurately: “And Sarah laughed in her gut.” Many translations, like the 1989 New Revised Standard Version, Catho­lic Edition, try to make that neater, and so they say simply, “Sarah laughed to herself.” But it’s messier than that; it’s an unusual laugh, and I wish that would come through more clearly in trans­lation. Interestingly, some older translations like the King James and the Geneva Bible seem to emphasize the intense inner nature of this laugh more than newer translations do—they both choose “within herself” instead of the tamer “to herself.”

How Sarah laughed reminds me of an earlier scene in the Garden of Eden, which was the last time in Genesis that what a woman heard and how she reacted to something a little difficult to process were at center stage. Some of the Bible’s most resonant moments are depicted by gesture instead of speech. God sees; Eve eats the apple; Lot’s wife turns back; and Sarah memorably laughs. “One thing is clear,” my father says when the subject of Sarah comes up. “It was silent laughter, enabling Sarah later to deny that she laughed.”

I am not certain that the laughter is clear. Perhaps under­standing Sarah’s laughter involves understanding the verses that frame it. Her laughter comes after several chapters of challenging circumstances—from relocation to a foreign place, where Abra­ham introduces her as his sister, to years of barrenness, to strife with her maid, who is also her husband’s concubine. It comes after several verses that elaborately describe how old she is. They are verses full of speech, packed with detail.

All of this has not gone unnoticed by the biblical commenta­tors who have scrutinized Sarah for thousands of years. In the rab­bis’ hands, the discussion of the intriguing triangle of Abraham, Sarah, and God becomes a conversation on how to behave.

Reprinted by arrangement with Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Aviya Kushner.

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Gloria Steinem Named My Memoir

Wednesday, September 16, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Leah Lax wrote about the loneliness of leaving Hasidut and coping with coming home to the world of her childhood. She is blogging here all week as a Visiting Scribe on The ProsenPeople.

It happened again. Someone “friended” me and her profile picture was of a smiling woman in hijab. Since my book Uncovered is about leaving the Hasidim, this wasn’t a common experience. I was pleased: I see my memoir as feminist, as an act of solidarity with covered women everywhere.

I didn’t always see it that way.

Back in 2010, I went to Hedgebrook, a retreat for women writers on Whidby Island. We were each given a small cabin in the woods big enough for one person. I had just sent off a final draft of my memoir to my agent and was eager to delve into my new novel.

I saw no one else that first day, needed no one else. I hung up clothes and set up my writing space, ready to go to work. But first, a quick email check—and there was my agent’s name in the inbox.

She said she felt the latest rewrite was a mistake; it was slow and tinged with self-pity. She rejected it.

I paced the next few hours. All of my plans lay in shreds on the floor.

I was the last to arrive to dinner at the farmhouse that evening. I wasn’t exactly in the best frame of mind to meet the people who were to be my companions over the coming month. The other six were already around the table, with one seat left. I took it, and sat down next to Gloria Steinem.

It’s an unwritten rule at such retreats to stay low-key about anyone’s achievements. A retreat is private space, workspace, carefully blessedly separate from out there. I’d been twice to Yaddo, where there were always a few major figures at dinner sprinkled among us wannabes. But this was Gloria Steinem.

Table conversation was already underway. We were writers of screenplays, stage productions, libretti, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. We were white, black, Chinese, Japanese-American, and of a variety of faiths—all this among only seven of us.

In the same way that she influenced the national conversation, Gloria’s very presence infused ours with social consciousness. I listened, shy, trying to take it all in. But somewhere along the way, a beam of light struck, a moment of clarity like you have only a few times in your life.

I was raised a Texas Jewish girl, grandchild of immigrants, child of liberals. I joined the Hasidim at sixteen in 1972, just when the fight to ratify the ERA was under way and the Women’s Political Caucus convention was about to take place in Houston. I spent the next thirty years living as if the roiling, creative, politically charged world of my childhood was a distant, two-dimensional scene on the other side of a veil.

I looked at Gloria and thought, I missed an era. I thought, I’ve been trying to write a feminist memoir when I don’t have the language.

After dinner, I went back to my cabin and faced starting the memoir over again. As I turned to that first page, I was deeply aware of the other women working in their cabins around mine, their lights glowing through the night forest. An owl glided past, then rose above my sight. I thought of how deeply I’d been affected by social and political events when I was young. I thought about the position of women in American society and among the Hasidim and how it had shaped my story.

I had many conversations with Gloria that month. We took long walks. She recommended books—among them the work of Carolyn Heilbrun, a slim volume I will always associate with the particular light filtered through trees at dusk in the woods.

In that tiny Hedgebrook setting, I began to feel deeply connected to the women all over the world who are required by religion to cover themselves. One night at dinner Gloria said, “I thought of a title for your book.” Uncovered. Now her words are on the cover: “A story that millions will recognize, told with courage, spirit, and honesty.”

Uncovered is making its way into the world, but this part of how it came to be is most essential to where I am now. I have dedicated the book “to my covered sisters everywhere.” I welcome that conversation. Perhaps it will come.

Leah Lax is the author of Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home, now available for purchase.

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Every Breath Amazing

Tuesday, September 15, 2015 | Permalink

Lauren Fox is the author of Days of Awe: A Novel, now available from A. A. Knopf. She will be blogging her all week as a Visiting Scribe on The ProsenPeople.

My husband had been teaching Giessen, a small city near Frankfurt, since June, so in July our daughters and I flew to meet him there. We would stay in Germany for two weeks, travel around a bit—including a visit to the town where my mother was born—then head north for a long-awaited bicycling holiday in Holland. I knew it wouldn’t be entirely easy, to be in Germany, but it seemed important. I thought I was pretty well prepared.

We landed in 99-degree heat, and on our first night in our stifling little apartment in the city a panic attack swooped down on me like a hot wind and rattled my bones: my heart banged in my chest, my breathing was shallow, and I was certain I was having a heart attack. It was the most scared I’d ever been, but even in the midst of it, I thought, Jewish lady lands in Germany and is overcome by terror: what a cliché I am.

It was awful, but I (eventually) got through it the way you get through anything: by breathing. Still, the panic stayed perilously close, ready to resurface. I told myself that I would process it all later, when we were back home in Milwaukee. I told myself: for now, just breathe.

A few days later, we drove to Langenlonsheim, the small city where my mother was born, where most of my grandmother’s family stayed behind and perished in the Holocaust. A local man, a psychologist, and his family showed us around the town; this man, Karl, had taken it upon himself to maintain the historical record of the city. He was the keeper of the memories. He knew all about my family, where they had lived, what they had contributed to the town.

“Imagine what this trip would have been,” I whispered to my husband as we walked along a narrow street, “if history had been different. There would be people here to welcome us, relatives, cousins. We would stay with them in their guest rooms. It would be a celebration.”

I had never heard of the Stumbling Stones, the little gold bricks embedded in the cobblestones to commemorate the dead in front of the houses where they had lived, like tiny tombstones. Karl pointed them out to us. “Here is where your family lived.” The names engraved in the stones were familiar. They were Weisses, like my grandmother. I wrapped my arms around my daughters and imagined, for a second, how it would have been. “Come in, come in!” they would have said. “Welcome! Welcome home.”

I’m no stranger to this history. I grew up with it. I’ve done plenty of research. It doesn’t shock me anymore. But those small gold blocks knocked the wind out of me—those familiar names, how they weren’t just destroyed, but all the people who would have come after them, too, turned into nothing.

I looked down at the stones and studied them for a while. I felt my daughters leaning into me, our skin all sticky in the heat, our hearts beating, lungs taking in air and letting it out: every breath, amazing.

Lauren Fox is the author of the novels Still Life with Husband, Friends Like Us, and Days of Awe. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Parenting, Psychology Today, The Rumpus, and Salon.

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10 Awesome Books for the 10 Days of Awe 5776

Monday, September 14, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Each year produces a fresh crop of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and memoir addressing the Jewish High Holidays and the themes they embody: reflection on the past, forgiveness and reconciliation, spiritual cleanse and personal redemption, and transitioning into a new phase of life—both as an individual and as a community. Building on last year's list, here are ten recommendations for the first ten days of 5776.

1. The Lost Book of Mormon: A Journey Though the Mythic Lands of Nephi, Zarahemla, and Kansas City, Missouri

One of the most compelling contemplations of faith—a thoroughly Jewish faith, and the faith of a writer in his own work—which might be the same thing—to fly under the radar, Avi Steinberg’s sophomore memoir is as profound as its premise is bizarre. To study Joseph Smith’s life and legacy is, for Steinberg, a refreshing reflection on the Hebrew Bible, our hero’s childhood in Jerusalem, the nostalgia for belief of his youth.

2. The Book of Numbers: A Novel

Joshua Cohen’s brilliantly unsettling imitates-life bend of fiction hits full force with his latest novel. Playing with science fiction, technology, and identity crisis The Book of Numbers traces the rambling paths of contemporary quests for forgiveness and redemption that emerge when titan of the Digital Age contracts a freelancer who shares his name to write his biography, all in Cohen’s signature engrossing, thoroughly Jewish-postmodern voice.

3. Made in Detroit: Poems

Marge Piercy dedicates an entire section of her nineteenth collection of poetry to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the turn of the Jewish year in stirring imagery and recurring meditations on family, love, and wishes and failure to be better next year.

Apples and honey for the new year
but you are my year round sweet
apple. The apple of my eye, apple
of temptation and delight. My honey:

I was never truly happy before you.
I was never truly whole before you.

4. Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and
the Trial of the Nazis

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials, revisited in Tim Townsend’s riveting account of U.S. Army chaplain Henry Gerecke, a Lutheran clergyman assigned to minister to the Protestant defendants tried and imprisoned in the Nuremberg Palace of Justice following World War II. The story is a fascinating history of America’s military chaplaincy, the Lutheran Church and its mission in the United States, and the jurisprudential and journalist community encouched in postwar Germany—as well as a compelling biography of Gerecke and a respectful examination of the members of his flock awaiting condemnation. Besides being my go-to recommendation for a nonfiction read, Mission at Nuremberg is a fascinating study of confronting evil, religious compassion, and the impossible question of what redemption means for the Nazi arbiters of the Holocaust.

5. A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined
House in France

Miranda Richmond Mouillot’s memoir of rooting about her family history in attempts to uncover the secret that separated her grandparents half a century ago is a reflective work of self-discovery and rumination on reconciliation. Get a taste of the book and its author with Miranda’s Visiting Scribe posts on questioning Holocaust survivors about their past and the “madeleine moments” she shares with and observed in her grandfather.

6. After Abel and Other Stories

A richly provocative perspective to carry in rereading the Torah afresh starting next week, Michal Lemberger’s collection of nine heartbreaking stories imagines the experience of the women of the Bible, translating their traditional depictions as virtuous, villainous, or simply present into human actions and responses to the experiences and events they witness without voice in the original text. Also a Visiting Scribe on The ProsenPeople, Michal shared her fascination with the story of Lot’s Wife, the narrative struggle of turning King David into a villain, and what the Lifetime adaptation of The Red Tent got wrong with the Jewish Book Council “way back” in 5775.

7. Thresholds: How to Thrive through Life's Transitions to Live a Fearlessly and Regret-Free Life

The ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is one of transition in the Jewish year and within. If you’re looking to embrace this moment of spiritual transmigration beyond the customary liturgy and ritual practices, embark on the personal examination of self in time and place with Rabbi Sherre Hirsch’s mindful guide to discovery.

8. Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker

Julian Voloj and Claudia Ahlering present a graphic narrative of the 1971 Hoe Avenue peace meeting brokered by the Ghetto Brothers’ president and Nuyorican marrano Benji Melendez to establish a truce between the warring gangs of the Bronx. Alongside Melendez’s discovery of his crypto-Jewish heritage and return to the hidden religion of his ancestors, Ghetto Brother is an absorbing true story of unlikely reconciliation and the birth of Hip Hop.

9. How’s Your Faith? An Unlikely Spiritual Journey

Certainly you recognize David Gregory from his career as a former NBC newsman and Meet the Press moderator, but you might not know how his strong Jewish identity instilled from his upbringing developed into belief over the course of a decade of study with an Orthodox Jewish scholar. Prompted by a question from George W. Bush during David’s assignment as chief White House correspondent, How’s Your Faith? considers the “ Unlikely Spiritual Journey” from one of television journalism’s most recognized faces.

10. Days of Awe: A Novel

You name your book Days of Awe, it pretty much has to be on this list. While the novel does not overtly address the Ten Days, it spins around themes of past wrongs, forgiveness, and the rending process of beginning anew. One of Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribes over the Ten Days of Awe 5776, read Lauren Fox’s entries on The ProsenPeople here.

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Coping with Coming Home

Monday, September 14, 2015 | Permalink

Leah Lax joined the Hasidic community when she was sixteen years old, leaving thirty years later and coming out as a lesbian. She shares her experience in her memoir, Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home, and in a series of posts here on The ProsenPeople as this week’s Visiting Scribe.

Friends kept sending me the links, her smiling face in my inbox again and again: stories about Faigy Mayer, who killed herself jumping off a New York building. I googled “ex-Hasidic,” not exactly a common term, and pulled up thousands of news sites around the world. Since I’m also ex-Hasidic, this seemed surreal.

I live in Texas. Mayer was from New Square, the same isolated hardcore Hasidic town that is the setting for Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return. Both she and Deen were affiliated with Footsteps, a New York City organization that helps ex-Orthodox people adjust to secular society. Mayer and Deen were friends.

After she left them, Mayer suffered from the loss of family and friends. Mayer’s family and community shunned her; her mother even refused to share baby pictures. When she died, her family insisted she had been “bipolar and schizophrenic” and these allegations were all over the news. I wondered why a claim by people who had treated her so cruelly was given such credence. I knew that some Hasidic communities foist a label of mental illness on rebels, going as far as having them committed, hospitalized, and heavily medicated.

It turns out, this was done to Faigy Mayer as well.

Soon, Mayer blended in my mind with Sandra Bland, who died the same week not far from my Houston home. Both were pushed into apparent suicide by entrenched bigotry and cruelty.

It seemed that the press’s interest in both victims fizzled out after their past struggles with depression were revealed, as if their deaths were solved with this revelation of personal struggles. The weakness, the weak link, had been revealed. To me, it all sounded too much like the Blame the Victim/She Had It Coming stuff of old rape cases that nicely take the focus off the perpetrators, exonerating them by default. I wondered if the tone of the news coverage would have been different if they had been men.

In an op-ed for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Shulem Deen listed eight other friends who taken their own lives. “The journey away from ultra-Orthodoxy is so fraught that some simply don’t make it,” he said.

Which is where I paused and woke up from my obsession with Faigy Miller.

It’s a long story, the story of my leaving. I have to say here that group identity for Hasidim is a huge part of overall identity. Loneliness—the lack of a group that reflects your self—is particularly disorienting for us. Even though, because I was a closeted lesbian, I’d never really belonged, when the group was gone for me, I wasn’t sure any more that “I” was still there. Who was that? I was forty-five before I met another ex-Hasid, even older before I met another gay ex-Hasid.

A scene haunts me from that time. I was in a therapist’s office. My pain was so palpable it seemed to thicken the air, my language as fragmented as my life. The room was dim and spare. She was like a kind steady shadow. “I wouldn’t, I don’t think,” I told her, “but, I understand why people…do. It seems so possible, so logical, sometimes.” Suicide.

When I left the Hasidim after joining at the age of sixteen, in all that time I’d never held a remote control, didn’t know cable channels or the Internet, or how to figure a tip in a restaurant. I didn’t understand thirty years’ worth of cultural and historical references around me. But I still had a great satisfying sense of having come home, a thrilling, joyful second chance. I floundered at first, but held onto memories of having once been a confident teen at home in this society.

That’s the difference, why I’m okay, because I felt I’d come home. Most ex-Hasidim are forever in exile.

One of the first things I did when I decided to leave was call my mother. “Mom,” I said. “I’m leaving Levi, and the Hasidim, and taking off the wig. And Mom, I’m a lesbian.” There was a pause. Then she said, “Oh my God, you’re coming home.”

Leah Lax’s work has been published in Dame, Lilith, Moment, and Salon. Her memoir, Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home, is now available for purchase.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews September 11, 2015

Friday, September 11, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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Seven Surprises While Reading the Torah in English Translation

Thursday, September 10, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Aviya Kushner wrote about the “smashing, positively dashing spectacle” of modern theater performed in Hebrew. She is the author of The Grammar of God and is blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

In Monsey, New York, the religious Jewish community where I grew up, no one was reading The King James Bible. And I certainly wasn’t either.

My mother is Israeli, and so my first language was Hebrew; naturally, I read the Torah in Hebrew. At home, we often discussed the Torah around the dining-room table—its language, its humor, its grammar, and its tendency to contradict itself. At yeshiva day school, which I attended six days a week, the Torah and its commentaries were taught for hours each day. I memorized many passages, and was quizzed on others. I didn’t think I could be surprised by anything Biblical.

Then I drove a thousand miles, across the Mississippi River and through miles and miles of corn, and enrolled at the University of Iowa’s MFA program in creative writing. There, I took a Bible course with the novelist Marilynne Robinson. In that graduate course and in the community church class I attended, I encountered the Bible in English translation for the first time. And the translations I was reading obsessively weren’t just in English; they were also Christian.

It was an entirely new world, and I was often lost in it. On many occasions, I did not recognize passages I knew by heart in Hebrew. I found seven recurring surprises:

1. Verses in the Wrong Place. The verses, or psukim, are not always the same as they are in Hebrew. I first realized this when reading Job; a verse I was looking for was literally in a different chapter in English. But this really hit home with the Ten Commandments. One verse in Hebrew becomes four in The King James. The change in versification affects tone, but it also makes it hard to understand a lot of the commentators’ writing on the importance of adjacent words and ideas—because the location has been changed.

2. Headings, Titles, and Other Unexpected Explanatory Info. Reading the King James Bible, a Jewish reader might be surprised to encounter the heading “The Tenne Commandments.” Similar headings occur in other older influential translations, like The Geneva Bible and Tyndale’s Bible. For Jewish readers who may have spent hours poring over rabbinic commentary on which commandments count in the Ten Commandments, or what is commandment one, this heading can be jarring. Similarly, it’s strange to be told in a heading what a psalm is about.

3. Names Often Mean Nothing in Translation. In Hebrew, names are a big thing—laughter is part of the name Yitzchak (Isaac), and holding on to a heel is the source of the name Yaakov (Jacob). One strangeness of reading the Bible in English is realizing that names mean nothing in translation, because they are generally transliterated, not translated. So an English reader can’t hear a tie between Eve and life, or Adam and earth.

4. Body parts are sometimes erased or flattened. Looking for Moses saying that he is arel sfatayim, or literally uncircumcised of lips, and figuratively not up to the speaking aspect of leadership, in English translation? Good luck. The lips are sometimes edited out. So too is yerech Ya’akov, literally the thigh of Jacob, and other evocative bodily moments.

5. Punctuation can be jarring. There are no question marks in the Hebrew scroll, but there are plenty of them in English translation. Ditto for exclamation marks, periods, and colons. Sometimes punctuation can change the entire meaning of a passage, since there is a big difference between a declarative sentence and a question.

6. Grammar often evaporates in translation. Sometimes a verb becomes a noun, as in the infamous case of Moses with horns as opposed to his skin beaming with light. And sometimes, when there has been centuries of discussion on what is happening grammatically in a particular phrase, the translation picks one option—and the English reader has no idea how much of a challenge that phrase is.

7. Complexity doesn’t always come across. Difficult sections in Hebrew are often simpler and clearer in English. It’s interesting to think about whether it’s a good idea to translate ambiguity, or whether the translator’s job is to pick one meaning and go with it. Whatever the reasons, many of the passages that have stumped rabbinic commentators for centuries, and have created pages and pages of commentary, become easy-to-understand declarative sentences in English.

It is this definite, clear tone that I found most surprising of all. This tone gives the misleading impression that there is only one way to understand a text. Many English translations only translate the pshat, the simplest understanding of the Torah text itself, and do not translate commentary. The reader of English may not realize that there is a rich tradition of Hebrew commentary that is thousands of years old, and that there is a long lineage of argument and discussion. Instead, the English reader often encounters one single authoritative Biblical text, presented alone.

The final surprise for me was how I felt during this reading project. Reading translations of the Hebrew Bible into English was sometimes a sad experience; I was overwhelmed by all that had been lost. But I still recommend that Hebrew-speaking readers spend time with translations of the Bible, especially translations from different faiths and centuries.

Why is it worth it?

The Bible in translation is the most important text in Western culture, and it can be dangerous to ignore it. Reading translations should be seen as a window into what millions of readers throughout the world think and feel; at the very least, whether we are Jewish or Christian, religious or secular, we should all be talking about how the particular Bible we read affects what we believe, and how language and translation have shaped us all.

Aviya Kushner is the author of The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, to be published September 8th by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House.

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Book Cover of the Week: Street Smart

Wednesday, September 09, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Were you aware that over the past decade Americans have been driving fewer total miles each year—a pattern that hasn't trended since 1945?

Former NYC Traffic Commissioner Samuel I. Schwartz—a.k.a. "Gridlock Sam"—presents the millennial revolution of the urban landscape and the rise of the pedestrian, the cyclist, and the public transportation commuter. And what a phenomenal book cover to go with it! A grid in white over blue, green, and grey, with tiny silhouettes of every means of getting around the American city, from buses and taxis to pedicabs and tandem bicycles to strolling or jogging solo or in company. Color me compelled!

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