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30 Days, 30 Authors: Aviya Kushner

Friday, December 04, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Aviya Kushner's first book, The Grammar of God: A Journey Into the Words and Worlds of the Bible (Spiegel & Grau/Random House 2015), is about the intense experience of reading the Bible in English after an entire life of reading it in Hebrew. 

Once an International Jerusalem Post columnist, her writing has also appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, Partisan Review, Poets & Writers, A Public Space, The Wilson Quarterly, and Zoetrope: All-Story

She is currently an associate professor of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago, and a contributing editor at A Public Space as well as a mentor for the National Yiddish Book Center.

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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7 Surprises in the English Translation of the Torah

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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'My Fair Lady' in Hebrew?

Tuesday, September 08, 2015 | Permalink

Aviya Kushner is the author of The Grammar of God, a memoir of her Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible. She will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

This summer, a strange thing happened: I saw My Fair Lady in Hebrew. The performance was at Israel’s famous theater, Habima, and all the acting was top-notch. I was moved, as I always am, at the very existence of a Hebrew theater; how unimaginable this must have been to my grandfather as a child, growing up in Bremen, Germany, in the thirties, as Hitler rose to power, to think that one day his granddaughter would sit in her high-heeled sandals, in perfect safety, listening to a British play translated into a Hebrew musical.

I marveled at the audience—Russian Jews, Israeli sabras, and a group of employees who worked for the prison system, all of whom were able to experience the modern miracle of attending a play in Hebrew in a Hebrew-speaking theater in a Hebrew-speaking state. And I thought of the Israeli theater’s early history; many of the first actors and actresses had trained in the Yiddish theater, and had switched languages in order to continue as artists and to help build what is now a major Israeli theater.

But of course, it was bizarre to hear those songs in translation. The translator, Dan Almagor, whose version was first performed in 1964, probably struggled to create a connection between class and accent, and so the plot focused on how Eliza Doolittle pronounced the letter hey. The famous line about the rain in Spain became “Barad yarad bidrom Sfarad ha’erev,” or literally “hail fell this evening in southern Spain.”

In Israel, there is some tie between education and speech, and it is certainly possible to guess where someone was born from his or her Hebrew accent, but it is not the dead giveaway it is in England. It was a little bit of a stretch to believe that pronunciation of hey could determine a person’s entire economic and social destiny.

For the entire first act, I could not connect to the performance. But then, as time went on, I got used to it: I knew the story, and I got into the plot. I recognized the melodies. The experience was not unlike the years I spent on The Grammar of God. At first, the Bible in translation felt so strange to me that I could not stop chronicling the differences between the original Hebrew and the English. But as time went on, I got used to translation, and even to the errors in it. I accepted the awkwardness I encountered.

I suspect this is what happens to scholars, and to lay readers who know Hebrew but who spend years reading English. It gets less shocking.

I’m glad I took the time, on that first long read in Iowa, to note every moment I found surprising. I was so stunned by that first read that I had no idea that I would get used to translators’ choices, and that I would move from feeling horrified to feeling empathy as I began to understand the difficulty of the task. And I certainly did not know, at the beginning, that there was a beauty in surprise and a danger in familiarity.

As the years of reading translations rolled on, I got used to phrases like “the Lord of Hosts.” I no longer jumped when I came across “all the furniture of heaven” for the Hebrew v’chol tz’vaam, which is familiar not only from Genesis 1 but from the weekly Kiddush for Shabbat. I was no longer astonished when body parts in the Hebrew were erased or altered in English, or when ancient idioms were flattened or removed altogether. I did not feel a strange creepiness in my bones when I could not find a Hebrew verse in English, because the versification had been changed, a situation which even occurred in crucial locations like the Ten Commandments. I expected discrepancies.

But listening to the actors in the Hebrew My Fair Lady make a big deal of how the letter hey is pronounced, as they tried valiantly to cast it as a major marker of class, I remembered how odd some of the translations I encountered seemed to me at first—perhaps as disturbing as a bad accent might seem to an English gentleman like Henry Higgins.

Some translations bolded or highlighted passages they deemed important, taking that decision out of the reader’s hands; in the Hebrew scroll, by contrast, all the verses are in the same color, handwritten by a scribe. Other famous translations, like The King James, feature headings that tell the reader what’s coming—even though those headings don’t appear in the Hebrew. For example, the heading “The Tenne Commandments” appears before the Ten Commandments, effectively effacing the centuries of argument on what should count as one of the Ten Commandments, and where they even begin. Many translations of the Psalms feature two to four-line explanations, at the top, of what the psalm is ostensibly about; having this kind of introduction creates a different reading experience than simply experiencing the Psalms on their own.

In time, I became a different kind of reader. I became a reader of Biblical translations, just as I became a theatergoer who could appreciate the huge effort to make My Fair Lady accessible to Hebrew speakers who could not follow a musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion if it were performed in English. And now I appreciate both halves of my reading self—the original-language reader and the translation reader. I believe both types of reading should be part of a reading life.

Whether translations are clunking or accomplished, they have affected all our reading lives—and they often influence political views, not to mention college educations. We owe it to ourselves to check out everything from how My Fair Lady comes across to how the Bible seems in a Catholic translation or an evangelical translation.

What Biblical translation reveals is how language shapes belief. It is essential to consider how what we consider holy and precious seems to other readers; translation allows us to understand what other people are reading in the privacy of their homes. It is a mistake to ignore the opportunity to lift the curtain on the windows and look in.

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

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