Gathering Sources: Ki Tisa

Some material for exploring the weekly Torah portion, Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11- 34:35. A Path to Follow on the 13 Attributes of God Something to Notice, regarding arguing with God. A note on two interesting words in Language and Translation and some Great Sources.

Third of new weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2010 series called “Opening the Book.”

See also Computing Failures and Babylon

Descending Up and a Rambling Prayer

Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores brings us the work of two quite different poets: Anne Kleiman (1909-2011) and Annabelle Farmelant (b. circa 1926). A few weeks ago, I shared a little about Kleiman and her poetry (see Lake Michigan as Hebrew Landscape). Here are some thoughts about Farmelant (brief bio below).

Rambling with Rachel

In a 1926 piece called “Niv” — translated by Shirley Kaufman as “A Way of Speaking” — Rachel (Bluwstein, 1890-1931) compares “fancy ways to speak, endless and elegant…mincing down the street,” with speech that is “as innocent as a baby, as modest as dust.” The former she knows, but it’s the latter she prefers. See The Defiant Muse (full citation below; preview, including this poem, Hebrew/English, at Google Books.)

In Farmelant’s, “Flowers of Identity,” from the 1961 collection of the same name, the speaker forgets “niv ha-tefilah [the prayer’s idiom]” on a morning ramble. A footnote in on American Shores explains how translator Adriana X. Jacobs rendered the phrase so as to preserve the link with Rachel’s poem; more about the connection:

Rachel’s poem rejects the maximalist poetics of her (male) contemporaries and celebrates the modesty and simplicity of her niv, or poetic idiom, over the ornamental and densely allusive that early twentieth-century Hebrew poetry had inherited from the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment.
–Jacobs, Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores, p. 222

Additional notes explain specific prayer references as well as the dual meaning of the ramble’s location: “siach” is both “bush” and “conversation.”

The translation of “Flowers of Identity” can be read, on its own, as reflections on formal and informal prayer: “My neighbor left his tefillin behind/ And wrapped a garland around his head/ Intoxicated by their ripe scent/ Even my senses roamed…A foreign prayer/ From dawn to dusk.” But the notes add layers for the non-Hebrew reader and/or one unfamiliar with Rachel’s “Niv“: Farmelant’s “ramble” and the “mincing” steps of Rachel’s poem, for example, and the simpler speech preferred in “Niv” and the [ramble] לַשׂוּחַ and [plant; conversation] לְשִׂיחַ of “Flowers of Identity.”

Depths of Reflection

Farmelant’s poem “Skyscraper [Gored Shechakim],” from the 1960 collection Desert Islands,” appears in Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores and in Jacobs’ 2015 article, “Hebrew on a Desert Island,” which offers an overview of Farmelant’s work and Jacobs’ experience in translating:
Child, the plaza is flat./ Take care, the slope sets/ before you, the sky, immense….Descend up./ Spaceman
(Full poem and a link to the article below.)

unattributed, public domain photo, labeled: “buildings, city, man, reflection”
In her article, Jacobs discusses the challenges of navigating between “American Hebrew” and “Israeli Hebrew,” using as an example differing conceptions of “skyscraper” in the U.S. and Israel in 1960. (Remember: long before Israel started to build “up,” Boston’s Custom House Tower had been around for decades, and skyscrapers had long been a defining part of the U.S. landscape.) She concludes:

In this poem, the speaker experiences the reflection of the sky on the plaza as both a doubling effect and a fata morgana. The reflection of the sky is both literal but also transformative, and it is in this context that the ungrammatical command “descend up” takes effect and makes any sense. In moving between American and Israeli Hebrew, moments of (mis)perception have proven to be comparably generative.

Jacobs’ article discusses, in some detail, Farmelant’s exposure to Hebrew language, and the relationship of her career to wider issues between U.S.- and Israel-based Hebrew writers. The article, as well as end notes in Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores, also highlight issues in gender and gender politics relevant to Farmelant’s work and its reception. Despite the paucity of previous material and Jacobs finding Farmelant “entirely estranged from her poetry” (on American Shores, p. 104), a picture of the poet and her literary milieu emerges. The poet’s relationship to Judaism and Jewish text, however, remains more of a cipher….

Do we know enough about her background to say, for example : When Farmelant warns, “You will be like Adam [Adam ha-Rishon], scraping the whole sky,” is she referencing Talmudic legend? And is that odd locution of “descending up [תַּעֲמִיק מֵעָל]” meant to carry overtones of the sin that diminishes Adam in these legends, while also making him truly human?

R. Eleazar said: The first man reached from earth to heaven…But when he sinned, the Holy One, blessed be He, laid His hand upon him and diminished him…”

B. Sanhedrin 38b; other legends speak of his size, East to West

Also wondering in this context if the “הוּא” (which can be “he” or masculine “it”) in “תְּכַסֵּהוּ, הוּא עֵירֹם [It’s naked. Cover it.]” — might, then, refer to Adam? So, more like “Cover him, he’s naked.”??

Knowing a little more about her Jewish background, beyond linguistics, might help place some of her images. Meanwhile…

The First, Giant, Adam’s Fall?

When I first met this poem, it reminded me of the many hours I have spent — as a child and later, too — gazing into puddles, speculating on life in “the upside down world.” And, as with some of the Kleiman poems that reminded me of Chicago, I loved the connection, in Hebrew, to my U.S. city life. (I know rural places have puddles, but they don’t have upside down apartment buildings and skyscrapers.)

After reading Jacobs’ article, about struggling with the mirages in Farmelant’s writing, I developed another kind of appreciation for those reflections. And now, after more time with this poem, and with the rest of Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores, I am wondering if “Skyscraper” is talking about all the space that man took up in 1961.

So much of her writing itself — and her attempt to carve out a literary career — surrounds the difficulties women experience(d) just trying to take up space: on the sidewalk, in the home, in the workplace, and, most particularly, in any world of “ideas.” Farmelant and I are not the same age, but this, too, is an experience we shared.

As noted in a previous post, I recommend the TLV1 podcast from Marcela Sulak, discussing and reading some of Farmelant’s work. And I repeat my recommendation for getting hold of this volume of poetry. Once you meet these American Hebrew poets, you might discover that your horizon has been a mirage.

NOTES

Annabelle (Chana Biala) Farmelant was born in Boston and has, with the exception of a few years in Israel in the early 1950s, spent most of her life on the east coast of the U.S. Prior to studying at Hebrew College in Boston, she attended local public schools as well as the high school program of Hebrew College. She wrote Hebrew poetry in college and for some years afterward but then focused on writing plays. [UPDATE 8/30/19: Farmelant died in New York City on June 14, 2019 and was buried in Boston.] See introductory material in Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shore and “Hebrew on a Desert Island: The Case of Annabelle Farmelant,” by Adriana X. Jacobs, Studies in American Jewish Literature, Volume 34, Number 1, 2015. Download full text here: Hebrew on a Desert Island,

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Bibliography:
Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores: Poems by Anne Kleiman and Annabelle Farmelant. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016.

Shachar Pinsker, professor of Hebrew literature and culture at the University of Michigan, editor. Introduction: “Meager Gifts” from “Desert Islands” American-Born Women and Hebrew Poetry.

Translators: Yosefa Raz, for Anne Kleiman. Adriana X. Jacobs, for Annabelle Farmelant. Each offers notes and a preface.

The Defiant Muse: Hebrew Feminist Poems from Antiquity to the Present, a Bilingual Anthology. Edited and introduced by Shirley Kaufman, Galit Hasan-Bokem, and Tamar S. Hess. Foreword by Alicia Suskin Ostriker. NY: Feminist Press at CUNY, 1999.


Poems borrowed from Adriana X. Jacobs, “Hebrew on a Desert Island: The Case of Annabelle Farmelant.” Originally in Studies in American Jewish Literature, Volume 34, Number 1, 2015. Download link: Hebrew on a Desert Island

גורד שחקים
יֶלֶד, הַכִּכָּר שָׁטוּחַ
זְהִירוּת, הַמּוֹרָד שָׁקוּעַ
מוּלְךָ, הַשַּׁחַק, עָצוּם.
תְּכַסֵּהוּ, הוּא עֵירֹם
תִּהְיֶה לְאִישׁ, כְּאָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן
אֶת כָּל הַשְּׁחָקִים תִּגְרֹד
לְאַט יֶלֶד, הַיָּם עָמֹק.
תַּעֲמִיק מֵעָל
הֱיֵה אִישׁ חָלָל. — (c) Annabelle Farmelant, 1960

SKYSCRAPER
Child, the plaza is flat.
Take care, the slope sets
before you, the sky, immense.
It’s naked. Cover it.
You will be a man, like Adam
you will scrape the whole sky.
Slowly, child, the sea is deep.
Descend up.
Spaceman. — (c) Adriana X. Jacobs, 2015

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Gathering Sources: Tetzaveh

Some material for exploring the weekly Torah portion, Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10) — also transliterated as Tetsaveh or T’tzavveh:

Something to Notice regarding “ner tamid” and more on “ner” in Language and Translation.

A Path to Follow from bell and pomegranate, including some poetry by Judah Halevi, and some Great sources.

This is the second of new weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2010 series called “Opening the Book.”

Gathering Sources: Terumah

This is the first of what I hope will be a post per week “gathering sources” from previous material on the weekly Torah portion. This is is response to one reader’s confusion about navigating what is now more than a decade of posts and pages and project and portfolios (depending on WordPress organizational flavor of the season), and to my own realization that I rely on “A Song Every Day,” more and more, to find — and remember — things I cannot.

As it happens, this is the anniversary of my first dvar torah, so it seems a good place to start. In addition, beginning here gives me the opportunity to honor Esther Ticktin (z”l, 1925-2017), who provided moral support for that first presentation, Max Ticktin (z”l, 1922-2016), who spoke while others were “gathering their thoughts,” so I wouldn’t be too freaked out by the silence that followed my remarks; and the Fabrangen community for listening on Shabbat Terumah 5758 (2/28/98) and responding after Max gave folks a moment.

Here is the first drash, “I will meet with you there.” And a follow-up missive in response to a request for my materials.

Here are four posts in an old Weekly Torah series: Great Sources, Great Sources-2, Language and Translation, and A Path to Follow.

And, just for the sake of organization, ultimately, I am including a link to “The wingCatz of Terumah” so it will be with other Terumah resources later on.

Graphic: 1728 illustration of the Ark at the erection of the Tabernacle and the sacred vessels, as in Exodus 40:17-19. By illustrators of the 1728 Figures de la Bible, Gerard Hoet (1648–1733) and others, published by P. de Hondt in The Hague in 1728 –

The wingCatz of Terumah

Instructions for crafting a place for God to dwell include a pair of hammered-work creatures, with upward spreading wings, facing one another above the cover of the Ark. Between the two sculptured figures is where God promises to meet Moses to deliver further Revelation (Exodus 25:10-22, in parashat Terumah: Ex 25:1-27:19). The imagery is intriguing, if disconcerting: too close to forbidden graven images, too similar to idols of neighboring ancient cultures, and, ultimately, too erotic for prime time. But I’ve I recently learned some new perspectives on the hammered-work creatures and, more generally, the way religious imagery can work for us or not.

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Shabbat Mishpatim: One Woman’s Conclusion

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“Aaron suggested looking for Moses, who’d disappeared by then, but Miriam and I agreed — a rare event in our acquaintance…and about something concerning her brother, at that! — to let Moses pursue his experience as we pursued ours. So, we saw God, and we ate and drank.” — From One Woman’s Conclusion (A Haftarah): Exodus 24:1-11 AKA “Lunch with God”

This midrash, written in the year 2000, I think, is based on the last verses of Parashat Mishpatim. So I share it again for this Shabbat.

Lake Michigan as Hebrew Landscape

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Al gedot hamishigan tz’i lach…
Go forth to the banks of Lake Michigan
and skip among the rocks…
the waves will lash
and scatter at your feet.

…drenched in the smell of lakes,
lean your dew-fresh hand on my forehead…
and my soul will rest.
— “My Longings,” by Anne Kleiman, translated by Yosefa Raz

On this snowy day, far from Chicago, I open a new book — found in search for something else, ordered largely because it was on sale, without particular expectations or knowing thing-one about these poets — and through it, a strange woman is telling me in Hebrew that the same light touches us both, as we look out our separate windows, and that the prospect of peace awaits on Lake Michigan’s rocky shore.

How is this poet speaking straight to me? Here are just a few of the ways:

Set in Chicago. (My first hometown).
Composed in Hebrew. (A language I am still learning but already love).
By a woman addressing a female friend. (Thus, speaking to me in a way that so much fails to do).
In dialogue with ancient text and classic Hebrew poetry. (Some of my favorite topics.) In fact, reworking a poem our study group read not too long ago.
Referencing the Song of the Sea — from this week’s Torah portion, itself a favorite and also our daughter’s bat mitzvah portion, a decade-plus ago.
Enhanced by nerdy endnotes…

1024px-gold_coast_and_michigan_lake_(8091814447)_(2)

Leandro Neumann Ciuffo [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The material in Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores, is itself unlikely in some ways. The introduction, by Shachar Pinsker, touches on many forces working against the material’s creation and publication. Its authors were women educated in a system designed by and for men. They’re U.S.-born in a field focused on Israel and a culture centered in Europe and the Land. And, most fundamentally, they write in a gendered language and a tradition that made it difficult for women to “express themselves poetically as the subjects rather than the objects of masculine desire, a metonymy for the nation, or a projection of masculine self-images” (Pinsker, p.7).

The very structures which gave “American women Hebrew education and access to its riches were also precluding them from writing and especially from publishing Hebrew poetry” (pp.5-6). And “when a work was finally published,” there was no guarantee that “it was received and understood properly” in its day or accessible to later readers and scholars.

Kleiman’s Longings

Anne (Chana) Kleiman (1909-2011 — yes, she lived to 101) was born to Russian immigrants in St. Joseph, Missouri. According to Pinsker’s introduction, Kleiman received an extensive Jewish education before moving to Chicago at the age of 19. There, she studied at the College of Jewish Studies (instruction in Hebrew), and at the University of Chicago (in English). She later worked as a Jewish educator and remained active in adult Jewish education after retirement. Her Hebrew poetry appeared in the 1940s.

In her translator’s preface, Yosefa Raz speculates that existing Hebrew literature formed for Kleiman a “made-up Hebrew landscape (which could include Lake Michigan!), beyond which the words [of her poems] could not travel” (p.18). Raz also describes the challenge of what the poet’s daughter calls “Sabbath Hebrew,” a fancy, heavily inter-textual language.

“My Longings” was originally published in the 1947 collection Netafim[Droplets]. It appears in Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores: Poems by Anne Kleiman and Annabelle Farmelant (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016).

In “My Longings,” Kleiman alludes to Exodus, Kabbalat Shabbat, and some images from H.N. Bialik. She also turns Leah Goldberg’s “The Love of Theresa de Meun” on its head: where Goldberg’s 16th Century French noblewoman experiences unrequited longing for her children’s male tutor, Kleiman’s female Chicagoan treats a meeting with “my sister” — part Sabbath bride, part woman of damp skirts — as possible, perhaps imminent.

Raz calls “My Longings” her favorite poem:

…[it] mixes language from Isaiah, Bialik, and Goldberg is able to strike a balance between the prophetic and the lyrical, imagining sharing a blessing of “light beams” with her female interlocutor, who can also “slake [her] thirst with their radiance.” Thus the poet rewrites the traditional language of the shekhinah, filtered though Bialik’s erotic address to a female lover, into a poem of female friendship.
— Yosefa Raz, “Translator’s Preface,” p.20

view_of_oak_street_beach,_lake_shore_drive_and_drake_hotel,_chicago_(60767)

Tichnor Brothers, Publisher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Less Traveled Territory

There is so much to explore in this less traveled corner of U.S.-born Hebrew poetry. Beyond these particular poets and their work are wider topics, including the way non-Israeli Hebrew poets view their relationship — or lack thereof — to the Land.

I have not spent much time with the work of Annabelle (Chana) Farmelant (1926-2019) yet, but it appears to be quite different from Kleiman’s. Marcela Sulak, who translated Orit Gidali’s Twenty Girls to Envy Me, discusses and reads some of Farmelant’s work in this TLV1 podcast.

Kleiman herself employs a variety of styles and covers a wide range of topics. Only two of her poems in this volume explicitly touch on Lake Michigan. These have a special resonance for readers who’ve lived somewhere around the lake. But it’s also interesting to consider what “To Lake Michigan,” the second poem referencing Chicago’s lake, might say about Rachel and her poems to the Galilee or what it means to have this Midwestern body of water as “l’megaleh razi ‘ad [my revealer of eternal mysteries].”

After all, I myself, spent just a few days on the shores
of Lake Kinneret, AKA the Sea of Galilee,
while it was Lake Michigan —
sometimes as apparently motionless as glass,
sometimes roiling with white caps,
either way, with opposite shores as invisible as any sea’s
— which witnessed years of my longings,
like the woman’s in this poem,
twin desires
to break free and
be at rest.

There’s a special kind of poetry in hearing the facts of one’s hometown expressed in the language of one’s prayers. Al gedot hamishigan.

NOTE:
Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores: Poems by Anne Kleiman and Annabelle Farmelant. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016.

Shachar Pinsker, professor of Hebrew literature and culture at the University of Michigan, editor.
Introduction: “Meager Gifts” from “Desert Islands” American-Born Women and Hebrew Poetry.

Translators:
Yosefa Raz, for Anne Kleiman. Adriana X. Jacobs, for Annabelle Farmelant.
Each offers notes and a preface.
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Found through Alter’s Translation

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Last week, URJ president Rabbi Rick Jacobs offered a podcast focusing on Robert Alter’s newly published bible translation. In response, I argued that Jacobs praised what isn’t new in Robert Alter’s bible translation while missing what is. My previous post focused on verses — highlighted by Jacobs in the podcast — wherein Alter’s translation was nearly identical to much older versions. Here, I share just a few of the verses in the same chapter of Exodus which do strike me as different and noteworthy.

I Myself Toyed

Exodus 10:1
…כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ…
…for I have hardened his heart,… — “Old JPS” (1917) and “New JPS” (1985)
…for I Myself have hardened his heart,… — Alter 2004

Exodus 10:2
…אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם…
…what I have wrought upon Egypt… — Old JPS
…how I made a mockery of the Egyptians… — New JPS
…how I toyed with them… — Alter 2004

Alter’s “I Myself” reflects the Hebrew’s use of “ani” along with the first-person singular verb. And his choice of “toyed with” for “hit’alalti [הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי]” captures much earlier commentary on this expression in God’s speech:

I made a mockery. The Torah is speaking in human idiom, as if Hashem were a human being toying with another for revenge. — Ibn Ezra (via Sefaria.org)

Alter’s translation and commentary work together to form a powerful opening to this crucial chapter in the Exodus story:

And the LORD said to Moses, “Come unto Pharaoh, for I Myself have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, so that I may set these signs of Mine in his midst, and so that you may tell in the hearing of your son and your son’s son how I toyed with Egypt, and My signs that I set upon them, and you shall know that I am the LORD.”

for I Myself have hardened…This is the first time that God informs Moses before his audience with Pharaoh that He has hardened (one again, the literal sense is “made heavy”) the heart of the Egyptian monarch. This is a signal that the elaborate “toying” (verse 2) with Egypt is approaching endgame. Pharaoh is showing himself ever more fiercely recalcitrant, and the plagues are becoming more fearful as we draw near the last plague that will break Pharaoh’s will.
— Exodus 10:1-2 and commentary
Alter, The Five Books of Moses (Norton, 2004), p.365

 

The Men

Exodus 10:11
…לֹא כֵן, לְכוּ-נָא הַגְּבָרִים וְעִבְדוּ אֶת-יְהוָה…
…Not so; go now ye that are men, and serve the LORD… — Old JPS
…No! You menfolk go and worship the LORD… — New JPS
…Not so. Go, pray, the men, and worship the LORD…. — Alter 2004

Alter’s commentary explains his choice and why it matters in the context:

the men. The word used here, gevarim, is a different one from ‘anashim, the one used by the courtiers in verse 7. It has a stronger connotation of maleness (‘anashim can also mean “people”), but “males” will not do as an English equivalent because the Hebrew term means adult males, definitely excluding the “little ones.”

I personally favor “menfolk,” as an expression that had, in my youth, the exact understanding of “gevarim” that Alter is trying to convey, while “ye that are men” has its own sort of “maleness” ring if read with the right intonation (with echoes, for better or worse, of the 1978 “Are we not men? We are Devo.”) And, for the record, Rashi tells us that “gevarim” means “adult males.” But it’s Alter’s translation that prompted me to notice this particular stage of the pseudo-negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh.

Hard, Stiff, and Tough

Exodus 10:20
…וַיְחַזֵּק יְהוָה, אֶת-לֵב פַּרְעֹה…
…But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart… — Old JPS
…But the LORD stiffened Pharaoh’s heart… — New JPS
…And the LORD toughened Pharaoh’s heart…. — Alter 2004

The Old JPS uses the same English word for both “hikhbadeti [הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי]” in 10:1 and “vayechazek [וַיְחַזֵּק]” here, while the New JPS has “hardened” and “stiffened,” respectively.

When the verb “vayechazek [וַיְחַזֵּק]” was used in Exodus 9:12, Alter added this comment:

And the LORD toughened Pharaoh’s heart. For the first time, it is not Pharaoh, or his heart, that is the subject of the verb of obduracy but God. However, in the biblical perspective this may amount to the same thing because God is presumed to be the ultimate cause of human actions, and Pharaoh’s stubborn arrogance can still be understood as the efficient cause. It is striking that Pharaoh persists in his resistance even as his afflicted soothsayers, the experts up whom he has been depending, flee the scene.

This comment is just one example of how Alter’s careful attention to the text’s entwined literary and theological characteristics makes his translation both extremely useful and a delight to read.

Verb of Obduracy

The phrase “verb of obduracy” above is just one of the many reasons that I whole-heartedly agree with Rabbi Rick Jacobs when he says, “You hear in the comment that this is a literary genius at work….” (Here’s the podcast link again.)

I’ll return to my own obduracy, however, and repeat a few of points I wish Jacobs and others would acknowledge for the sake of clarity and sensible comparison:

  • The three-book set of Alter’s bible translation, just issued by W.W. Norton, includes his 2004 The Five Books of Moses without change. Many of us have been using this volume for 15 years. If someone is just seeing his work for the first time, that’s wonderful; but it doesn’t make it fresh in late 2018.
  • That means, through simple arithmetic, BTW, that Robert Alter (b. 1935) was not yet 70 when he published The Five Books of Moses. Yes, he is vigorously translating in his 80s, and the complete bible translation — the first by a single individual — is a truly remarkable accomplishment. That doesn’t alter (no pun) the fact that his Torah translation came out in 2004 — and the Book of Genesis before that.
  • Alter’s work is full of amazing insights and extraordinarily powerful and beautiful language. But his work is not the first new translation since the 1611 King James Version. Compare the two if you think that’s useful, but don’t neglect to mention that there were many other translations in the 400 years between KJV and Alter.
  • Please, please — especially if you’re the head of the Union for Reform Judaism — be sure to compare Alter’s work with more recent Jewish translations, including those published by the URJ! There is so much that is new and insightful in Alter’s work; don’t dilute that by ignoring spots where his translation is identical to other, older ones.

Exodus Chapter 10 concludes with Moses and Pharaoh declaring that they will never see one another again (10:28-29). Alter calls this the “final squaring-off between the adversaries.” Together with his opening comment on “the elaborate ‘toying’…with Egypt,” these are fitting and powerful bookends for the chapter. Alter’s commentary on this chapter is a work of art, on its own, even as it serves to illuminate the work of literature that is Exodus. His commentary and translation of the Exodus hasn’t changed in 15 years, but perhaps the re-release in the new set will recapture the attention of some readers and bring it to a new audience.

Lost in Translation? No, lost without fact-checking

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Robert Alter completed an amazing project. His translations of the Bible continue to offer new, sometimes more literary, possibly more “accurate” renderings of the text. But scholars everywhere seem blinded by the sheer number of pages just published or otherwise befuddled into teaching falsehoods and half truths.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, for example, offered a ten-minute ode to Alter’s translation as a commentary to this week’s Torah portion (parashat Bo: Exod 10:1-13:6). Here’s his podcast, “What is Lost in Translation.” In praising Alter, however, he manages to inadvertently dismiss the work of his own movement.

Darkness and Light

Toward the end of the podcast, Jacobs focuses on one phrase in Alter’s translation and commentary:

“‘…that there be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness one can feel.’
…but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwelling places.”

a darkness one can feel. The force of the hyperbole, which beautifully conveys the claustrophobic palpability of absolute darkness…
— translation/commentary on Ex 10:21, 23 from The Five Books of Moses. (NY: Norton, 2004)

Jacobs cites this material as though it were new, although Alter published this translation and commentary in 2004. More importantly, I think, Jacobs fails to note that Alter’s English differs very little from the older translations widely available for decades — in fact, some published by his own Union for Reform Judaism.

Here, for comparison are Jewish Publication Society versions of the last century:

“‘…that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.’
…but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.”
— “New JPS” translation (Philadelphia: JPS, 1985)
“‘…even darkness which may be felt.’
…but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.
— “Old JPS” translation (Philadelphia: JPS, 1917)

Alter’s “a darkness one can feel” is slightly pithier and so somewhat stronger — and as Jacobs notes, closer to the more succinct** Hebrew, v’yamush, hoshekh [וְיָמֵשׁ, חֹשֶׁךְ] — than the JPS versions. But Alter’s “in their dwelling places” for b’moshevotam [בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָם] is slightly longer than “in their dwellings” of the JPS. So, I’m not sure that, in this particular set of verses, the differences are worthy of great note, all told.

King James and Robert Alter

Jacobs, like a number of others commenting on Alter’s work, compares Alter’s work to the King James Version. (Maybe they’re all reading the same press release?) But Jews and Christians have been translating the bible for many generations since 1611, and all innovation since then is not attributable to Robert Alter, no matter how amazing his recent accomplishment. The weirdest — and, I feel, saddest — thing about Jacobs’ praise for this particular verse of Alter’s translation is that his podcast could just as easily have cited a ten- or twenty-eight-year-old publication from the URJ itself:

  • The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (NY: URJ Press & Women of Reform Judaism, 2008) uses modified “New JPS” language, including the verses as cited above;
  • the 2005 URJ version, which I don’t happen to have handy, also uses JPS;
  • the 1981 The Torah: A Modern Commentary, from UAHC [now URJ], uses a mid-century version of the JPS translation, with the exact language quoted above.

…This is not to say that Alter has not provided new and interesting perspectives or given us some beautiful new language to help us appreciate the Hebrew original. But I fear that what really is new and interesting in Alter’s work is being lost in all the repetition of tired nonsense, false comparisons, and outright omissions in discussing his work.

Moreover, it seems truly dangerous, given the current state of government and journalism, to share information in ways that might mislead and to teach in ways that fail to provide context for “new” ideas….

A final quibble with Jacobs’ podcast: He makes a point of noting that Robert Alter (b. 1935) is in his 80s now, as he completed this huge project. If we’re going to stress the author’s age and/or the number of years he worked on the project, however, let’s be accurate. Alter was not yet 70 when The Five Books of Moses was published, and he was in his early 70s when his Book of Psalms (Norton: 2007) came out. Again, not to say it’s NOT an accomplishment to translate the Torah or the Psalms at 70 or for an individual to complete a bible translation at 83 — or any age! Just that we cannot be re-writing history by inattention to facts.


Note on the 2018 W.W. Norton Publication
A note about these books as books: While I remain in awe of Alter’s scholarship and literary merit, I am deeply disappointed in this three volume set ($125). The set does offer new material, particularly in the Prophets. But there is no new introduction to the Bible as a whole, and there is no additional commentary on the completion of the project; in fact, each of the three volumes repeats verbatim the same introduction to the Bible and its translation that appeared in Alter’s Five Books of Moses in 2004!

If this picture is clear enough, and you’re really curious, note that the section numbering differs in the two volumes, because the section specific to the Five Books was moved.

intro alter

2019 (L) and 2004 (R) introductions to Alter’s translations

Final plea to scholars: I would personally appreciate, as I’m sure would many others, a review or analysis of the recent publication which actually addresses specifics — in organization and layout as well as in content — with a focus on what is actually new in 2018.

Post updated 1/13/19: mostly in formatting, correction of a few typos; also addition of citation to UAHC 1981 Torah (above) and plea here. See also, “Found through Alter’s Translation,” further to this discussion, posted on 1/12/


NOTE:
**In the podcast cited here, Jacobs also compares Alter’s translation of Psalm 23 with that of the King James Version, focusing on the darkness phrase relevant to Parashat Bo. Alter’s “vale of death’s shadow” is more direct than the KJV, “valley of the shadow of death,” while maintaining the connection with death — which some newer translations lose:

valley of deepest darkness — JPS 1985
darkest valley — New International Version (1973-2011)
valleys dark as death — American Bible Society, 2006
dark valley of death — God’s Word, 1995

Do note, for clarity of record, that Alter’s translation and commentary on the Book of Psalms was published in 2007.
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(Re)dedication and Tasks Incomplete

In postscript to “Thirty on Psalm 30,” here are some related words from R. Aviva Richman, faculty of Hadar. Meant as a teaching for Chanukah, this strikes me as just as applicable to beginning a new calendar year or, indeed, to starting any new day:

The work of hanukat habayit [dedication of the house], then, takes place in multiple spheres—in our homes, in our communal structures, and in our own bodies independent of any particular larger structure. Any narrow focus on one of these aspects of hanukat habayit to the exclusion of others will necessarily leave gaps—some people will not be able to fully participate in the critical transformation that is Hanukkah if we neglect any of these modes.
— “Communal and Private (Re)dedication

Richman goes on to urge that we work “within all of these sites of rededication, to create homes, communal structures, and selves where brokenness is allowed to be visible and can be transformed into rejuventation and healing.”

The idea of allowing brokenness to show and become rejuvenated also reminds me of the Marge Piercy poem, “The task never completed”:

No task is ever completed,
only abandoned or pressed into use.
Tinkering can be a form of prayer.

Each night sleep unravels me into wool,
then into sheep and wolf. Walls and fire
pass through me. I birth stones.

Every dawn I stumble from the roaring
vat of dreams and make myself up
remembering and forgetting by halves.

Every dawn I choose to take a knife
to the world’s flank or a sewing kit,
rough improvisation, but a start.

— from The Art of Blessing the Day (NY: Knopf, 1999)

This poem, like Psalm 30 in its position in the morning liturgy, knows that making a truly fresh, joyful start involves acknowledging that weeping spent the night. (Re)dedicating the house — in multiple spheres — requires knowing where a knife or a sewing kit is needed.

(Thirty on Psalm 30)