Language of events

Taking a break from reading a dense Japanese text translated into English, an Israeli friend of mine told me this week, as she sighed, that I''m lucky to be a native English speaker.


I''ve been told the same thing by Danish journalists, who long to write their reports with the exact expressiveness of English. Some French musicians I know have similarly said that English just works better for pop music: the cornerstone of pop, the word "baby," sounds ridiculous when sung as the French "bebe."


English is a beautiful language. It''s filled with all sorts of precise tools, ancient heirlooms, bottled oddities, and an endless array of interesting knickknacks. It''s an attic language, but in the best sense. In it you can find anything, even if it''s not what you''re looking for.


Hebrew, on the other hand, lives on the ground floor. Its words run in and out, they change, there are new ones to express ideas that hadn''t yet occurred to us. It''s younger and riper. Its words are still open -- there are questions and gaps. There''s mystery.


"You reach out in every direction, and take. It''s all yours for the taking. It''s all there for you," Yehuda Amichai, one of Hebrew''s greatest poets, once said in an interview. Amichai called this a Jewish quality, the feeling that nothing really dies; that the past still exists; that life occurs "without a sense of what was when."


In that interview Amichai gave King David as an example of the past''s existence, saying, "It isn''t just a matter of faith in the messiah king, and so forth, so much a sense that you simply have to reach out with your hand -- and it''s all there."


It''s not a coincidence that Amichai mentioned King David, about whom we sing "David, King of Israel, lives and exists." In the song, which consists of no more than those words, both of the verbs, "chai" (lives) and "kayam" (exists), take basically the same form in the present and the past tense in classical Hebrew. It''s not just that David lived and existed, but that he lives and exists.


According to Rashi (according to Rabbi Yossi Marcus), the famous phrase about King David came into being when a 2nd century sage named Rabbi Yehuda HaNavi instructed another rabbi to declare a new moon in the Galilee.


"To emphasize that his instruction should not be construed as a slight to the Davidic dynasty—whose home was Judah—Rabbi Yehudah added the phrase, ''David melech yisrael chai vikayam'' [King David lives and exists] to his instruction, reiterating his allegiance to David’s kingdom," Rashi explains.


Could English ever have said the same thing? English could say more -- "King David lived and existed, as well as lives and exists." Or it could say less --  "King David lived and existed." But it cannot say what the Hebrew says. The world''s most modern language simply can''t speak in eternal terms.


Yehuda HaNavi, a descendant of King David, understood the eternal on a national level of calendar keeping. Each new moon was a furtherance of the Jewish calendar and so it was also a continuance of its people. As long as the moon exists, so will the nation of Israel. Yehuda Amichai understood the same thing, but on the individual level of a poet -- as long as the people of Israel exists, the poet will create.


My Israeli friend crawling through an English translation of a Japanese text thinks I''m lucky for my English. She''s right. Luck -- a happenstance of time and place -- awarded me this skill.


But I listen to my Hebrew speaking friends effortlessly pick up and drop the prepositions of the Bible or utter and absorb the multiple meaning of tenses, and hear them reach out and grab their own past and bring it into life.


I wouldn''t call these dovrei ivrit, or speakers of Hebrew, particularly lucky. Luck is utterly lacking in the eternal. But "blessed" with this language, even with its burdens -- that may be a closer expression of the truth.


Ashley Rindsberg is the author of Tel Aviv Stories.