Giving words body and soul

Author Aviya Kushner guides readers to appreciate how Hebrew speakers relate to the Bible

Aviya Kushner (photo credit: GUR SALOMON)
Aviya Kushner
(photo credit: GUR SALOMON)
Is the language of the Bible universal? Aviya Kushner spent her life studying the Bible’s words in Hebrew.
Then, in a graduate school classroom in Iowa, she encountered those who had never heard it in its original words.
That experience led to her latest book, The Grammar of God, an explanation of how Hebrew readers see and view the holy book.
Kushner, a poet, essayist and translator whose first language was Hebrew, grew up in the Jewish enclave of Monsey, New York, and attended school there and at Ramaz in Manhattan. She studied art history and writing for a BA degree at Johns Hopkins and poetry writing for an MA at Boston University.
In the fall of 2002, following two years in Israel writing for The Jerusalem Post, she began the final phase of her formal education – an MFA in non-fiction writing at the University of Iowa’s renowned writing program. When Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer and essayist Marilynne Robinson offered a course in the Bible – the Hebrew Bible in the fall and New Testament in the spring – Kushner was eager to sign up.
In the introduction to her collection of essays, Kushner writes about her surprise at what her fellow students perceived as the biblical text, which they could approach only in English.
“At first, when I seemed surprised or shocked by what we read or discussed in class, my facial expressions would betray me. Marilynne would ask: ‘Why are you so surprised?’”she recalls.
I replied, “I would have to explain so much to you about Hebrew for you to understand why this translation is surprising.”
After 10 years of trying, a book was born. Kushner says one of the difficulties in writing was deciding on the structure; another was the struggle with the text itself.
She found her work “frustrating” and at times put the project aside.
“Sometimes the absurdity of what I was doing hit me,” she writes. “How could I express the difference between an ancient language and a modern one and have it make any sense?” “For a while I did anything but write,” and yet eventually “realized that there is darkness in avoiding your task.”
She believes in “the struggle make a better book.” Since the “Bible is not easy,” it makes sense “to fight with it – the way people have” for thousands of years.
When asked how the book would be different had she written it in Israel, she said that “Israelis think they know the language. I would examine more of the difference between modern and biblical Hebrew,” since the two are “related but not the same.”
Another issue she sees with Bible reading in Israel is connected with “anti-religious sentiment.”
“You don’t have to be religious to appreciate and enjoy the Tanach. It is so contemporary; the plot line is so intimate. It is a brother killing a brother, a wife fearing that her husband does not love her, brothers so disgusted with another brother that they sell him into slavery. The Bible is about stuff that we know happens, but we don’t always talk about. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate deeply moving human portraits.”
AND IT is with humans that one of this book’s great strengths lies. Kushner’s family appears in her book – her mathematician father; her mother – a grammarian, Hebrew teacher and scholar of ancient Near Eastern texts; her grandfather, who left Germany for Palestine in the 1930s, never to see his family again; and her four siblings, who have their own takes on the biblical text.
She explains that she “struggled with the decision of whether to put my family into the book, but I really feel that the Bible is not just the story of an individual reader, but rather, of various readers coming to the text from divergent paths.”
Highlighting relevant paths and stories of members of her family helps those unfamiliar with Jewish traditions of reading and transmission to get a bit of the flavor of it.
“In Jewish tradition, studying the Bible is often the story of families,” Kushner says. “Some major commentators were the sons and grandsons of other major commentators. You can imagine their dinner-table discussions. There is a certain fullness brought to the text with an awareness of those who came before and their readings of it.”
This is where translators come in. Kushner says that reading English translations “saddened” her because she could “see how the Hebrew was erased from the text.” There is in some cases almost a “persecution by text, an erasure of Hebrew and the Jewish contribution.” This is “not to say there aren’t many beautiful English translations,” but there is a sense of loss connected to the need for translation, and she felt this keenly at many points during the project.
Now that she has finished this book of essays, Kushner is “deep into my next book of prose, which grew out of The Grammar of God.” She is also translating the work of Yudit Shahar, an Israeli poet at the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, and is working on a volume of her own short stories.
“Ibn Ezra, the twelfth-century commentator, writes that every word has a body and a soul,” Kushner notes in The Grammar of God. What she has done in this book is to give the body of English words a flavor of that Hebrew-based soul so that non-Hebrew speakers and those interested in how language works can experience myriad aspects of language.