by Aviya Kushner
Spiegel & Grau, New York. 272 pages
REVIEWED BY EMERY J. CUMMINS
This book took shape at the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. Having read the Hebrew Bible throughout her life in its original language, Aviya Kushner first read the Bible in English during a class taught by Marilynne Robinson – and the effect was transformative. She was driven by “the constant feeling that there is an ocean separating Hebrew and English, my two languages.” She describes her relationship with Robinson thus: “The frank conversations between Marilynne and me about moments in the Bible were precious; we were both talking about what we most loved … we were taking each other home.”
This extraordinary book explores the mysterious intricacies of translating meanings from the syntax and vocabulary of ancient Hebrew to the grammar and lexicon of modern English. This is a daunting task, but one for which the author, whose mother tongue was Hebrew, is well suited. She was steeped in its obscure sentence structure and lexicon from her mother’s knee; she not only mastered the language, but loved it as well. The book’s magnetic appeal derives neither from scholarly ambition nor religious fervor, but from her love of the Hebrew Bible and its language. Kushner’s familiarity with the ancient commentaries on Hebrew Scriptures across the centuries lends significant allure to the book. The community of Jewish scholars has remained in dialogue, and the meanings of texts throughout the Hebrew Bible are still being discussed and debated. She opens a window into this process, thereby allowing fresh meanings to inform old perceptions grown stale with time.
Readers familiar with the English Bible will find her parsing of the Hebrew text both startling and revelatory. Nearly all of her eight topical chapters open with a side-by-side copy of the Hebrew text with the literal English translation of a few key verses. This is followed by a half-dozen English renditions, including the KJV and the 1985 Jewish Publication Society version. One can readily see the variance among these differing but conscientious efforts to express the ancient Hebrew text in modern English – a difficult undertaking at best. Her selection of illustrative texts is part of the je ne sais quoi in this small volume. Beginning with the creation account in Genesis 1:1-2, she goes on to embellish the reader’s understanding of the Ten Commandments, the Hebrew names for God and even the poetic lines from Psalm 42 (“As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God”). The remaining selections address the third day of creation, Adam and Eve’s hiding from God after eating the forbidden fruit, Sarah’s cryptic laughter and the opening verses from Isaiah 40 (“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God”).
It is impossible to convey in a brief review the rich and exhilarating experience of rediscovering the Old Testament through the eyes of one whose entire life has been lived interacting with the Hebrew text. While the book is not – strictly speaking – a scholarly one, its instruction in both exegesis and hermeneutics will open the eyes of anyone who professes a love for the Holy Bible. Robert Pinsky called it “a passionate, illuminating essay about meaning itself.” I heartily agree.
EMERY J. CUMMINS is a ruling elder in the Presbytery of San Diego.