An American in Berlin
5 August, 2016
The weather has been pretty lousy all week. Gray skies, cooler temps, on-&-off-again rain. Not very conducive to long exploratory walks or reading in the park. So there’s been a fair amount of Netflixage. I tried reading in bed today, but I couldn’t get it going. I love Jules Verne to death, but something about sitting inside just didn’t click. I need to be in my secret garden with a beer. Or at least a Radler.
Radlers are wonderful. We don’t really have them in the states. When you buy them in a bottle, it’s like a beer with some lemon going on. When you buy them at a bar, it’s a beer with either sprite or lemonade added. It’s a lower alcohol content and probably the most refreshing thing ever. This really hasn’t been the week for them, but generally speaking, it’s the prefect summer drink. And it’s Berlin, so you can take them anywhere!
The other day, I met with one of my old CELTA classmates. She’s probably one of the most impressive people I know.1 She’s from Iran, and for political reasons, she can’t go back. More to the point, she was engaged in political activity and that is the reason she can’t go back. She never volunteers information about this stuff, but she’ll answer questions up to a point if you ask. The thing with her is, you know she’s had experiences – difficult experiences – that you can’t even imagine. So the bullshit day to day stuff that we – OK, I – like to gripe about, it doesn’t even register on her radar. In my experiences with her, she’s utterly unflappable.
She’s also very smart and very cool. And funny. And married, because I know you’re already asking yourself. Anyway, we met for lunch the other day. Absolutely great to catch up and just hang out and chat. She’s fantastic. One of my favorite people. Then she took me to a pretty sweet bookstore in the middle of Berlin. There I spent more money than I should have on a book called Herodot und Thukydides – Herodotus and Thucydides. I mean, the two fathers of history. I did my 2nd year Greek term paper on Herodotus and my Master’s thesis on Thucydides. A book about the two of them? Had to have it. Also reading it will help my German. Also it’s gonna look sexy on the shelf. Which is never a reason to buy a book, but always a lovely bonus.
So with the weather being shite and with Joshcka out of town, I’ve spent my late nights this week hitting the books, Hebrew style. The funny thing is, Hebrew was way way down my list of languages to learn.2 But then I got a job in a Jewish school and everything changed. Being around it all day, knowing my kids were interacting with it every day, well, it became a priority. So that’s why I started with it. HaShem knows it ain’t because it sounds pretty.
Anyway, there was a woman I worked with, the occupational therapist. I was having trouble translating a Torah passage from my book and so on whim, I asked her, “Hey, how’s your biblical Hebrew?” “Not bad,” she said, “a bit rusty.” Anyway, she agreed to take a look and solved my problem for me on the spot. At the end of the year, I took her email address with the idea of being able to hit her up with more questions as I progressed in my studies. She happily obliged.
Warning: This next bit is going to be about specific Hebrew shit, so feel free to skip it. OK, you are warned.
So here I was this week, stuck on another passage. I give it here:
וְלֹא יָמוּת מִכָּל-לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, דָּבָר
Forget for a second that you don’t read Hebrew. And don’t worry about what it sounds like.3 I’ll do the heavy lifting. I was able to translate thusly: And nothing that belongs to all the sons of Israel will die.4 Well OK, that sounds like a complete sentence, right? The problem is, I didn’t translate the very last word, davar.5 The sentence totally works without this word. So what’s this word doing there?
Anyway, I dropped her an email with the sentence in question, my translation attempt and a very polite “so what the fuck is this word doing anyway?” She responded in less than 24 hours with the accepted translation and an explanation of how it was working. For anybody still reading this (and I can’t imagine anybody is), the translation goes “and there shall not die from all that belongs to the sons of Israel, anything.” So davar is an emphatic “anything,” tacked on to the end. It’s there to drive the point home.6 She also reassured me that the word is indeed redundant and that this was a very sound question to be asking.
So sound, indeed, that it seems actual Rabbis have puzzled over it. She brought my question to her husband, who added the following rabbinical explanation:
When the Jews were in Egypt, one of the ten plagues was that the egyptian owned animals died. G-d foretold that only Egyptian animals would be affected and killed while no animals belonging to the Jews would be subject to the plague and killed. This seeming redundancy of the word “davar” comes to teach us that even an animal that was in the jurisdiction of an egyptian upon which there was a claim from a Jew; even that animal was spared and not killed.
First and foremost, I simply want to express my gratitude. I asked this woman for help solving a little grammatical puzzle, and she not only answered the bell but added a scholarly exegesis to boot. That gives you feels, ya know? She didn’t have to do any of that.
On a personal level, this fascinated me. I mean, my own reaction to reading this fascinated me. Because when you take the rabbinical explanation on its own, it’s just the sort of thing I rebelled against in Hebrew school. It’s the sort of thing that they would teach and upon which I would promptly call bullshit. And, tbh, I still have that reaction. I mean, come on. Look, I’m agnostic, right? I don’t rule out the existence of some kind of universe creating god. But I do rule out any kind of god who takes an interest in human affairs, especially to the point of meddling in them. Like, you either were boss enough to create the whole freaking universe and the laws of physics to govern it. Or, you made a mess of things and constantly feel the need to tweak. And if you’re tweaking, I don’t really need to pray to you. That’s where I’m at with this stuff anyway. Everybody is free to believe what they want. The point is, these rabbinical explanations tend to “go up my ass sideways,” as my old dad likes to say. </endrant>7
So much for religious belief. But back to that bit of rabbinical exegesis. As a language guy, as a person who did an MA in ancient Greek, as a person who always wants to understand what language is doing, well, the process of generating this bit of religious explanation is downright fascinating. I mean, think about it. Before you get to your beliefs, the simple fact of the matter is, you’re confronted with an imperfect bit of text. There’s a word there that doesn’t quite fit, that’s really quite unnecessary. And yet somebody decided to put it there. Somebody thought it added something. Emphasis? Flavor? Clarity? OK, probably not clarity.
But, I mean, I deal with this in Homer all the time. That’s one of the beauties of my Homeric reading group. You get to sit around with other people who know their shit and ask these kinds of questions. “What’s this word doing here?” “Does it mean this or that?” “Is it just for flavor?” “Is just stuck in to make the meter work?” Well, the rabbis are dealing with the same questions. Only they’re coming at it from a totally different perspective. For them, this is the sacred text, the word of God. Hellenists have a saying. “Even Homer nods.” It means, even Homer makes mistakes. I’m pretty sure no rabbi has ever said, “Even HaShem nods.” So there’s the added imperative of “knowing” that the text is perfect, and simply having to figure out what the Old Man means by it.
The point is, I may not love the solution to the problem. I can’t really empathize with religious motivating factor. But the problem itself? We’re both dealing with the same thing. We’re both dealing with imperfect texts, struggling to make sense of them. On a semi-serious level, this kind of thing makes me wonder if this is why so many of us are lawyers. Is there something ingrained in us that drives us to parse text, to get to the meaning of every last word? This doesn’t explain why so many of us are doctors though. So I’ll drop that line of inquiry.
But for me though, I do wonder if there’s something in the DNA. I’m not religious, and reading biblical text as sacred text does nothing for me. But I bring the same process – that rabbinical desire to understand every word, every nuance – to the texts that are sacred to me. This is how I read Homer. It’s how I read Thucydides. It’s how I read. Period.
Maybe I’m making too much of this. But when I’m confronted with a bit of Hebrew that I can’t quite sort, and I attack it the same way I attack Greek, and then I discover that this is how Jewish scholars have been attacking Jewish texts for thousands of years, well, I dunno, I write a run-on sentence to try and say that I feel like I’ve come home. Or maybe better, I’ve been home all along and didn’t know it.
Well, I could probably write literally anything here since I’m pretty sure every last one one of you must have checked out by now. But I generally like to end by looking forward. To that end, I may or may not have a trip to the Pyrenees coming up in another week or so. I also may or may not have some job stuff breaking my way. But all that is for another day. More to come, friends.
Oh, and this really the last thing. Going forward, I’m going to start closing with a little Yiddishism. זיי געסונט. Sei Gesunt. It literally means “be healthy.” Which, I mean, is like the most Jewish thing ever. Right? All we ever say when bad things happen is, “Meh, you have your health.” Usage-wise, though, it just means “goodbye.” It’s the standard. Fuck, I remember my Grandma saying it to us in the nursing home when she didn’t know who the fuck ¾ of us were. It’s just what you say.
The only reason I knew what she was saying, though, was, because it is literally German.8 The funny thing is, I’ve never heard a German say it. I’ve said it to Germans. They understand it, clearly. And while I haven’t questioned anybody on it yet, I suspect it reads a bit as, “Yeah, that’s not a thing. Keep working, Dave.” Still though, I think it’s a nice way to close, a nice way to say goodbye. So?
- I’m wondering now if I wrote about her last year. I apologize if this is repetitive. [↩]
- Anglo-Saxon and Finnish were at the top of the list, followed by Italian and then in a rather sort of hypothetical way, Japanese and Chinese. As for Chinese, I don’t specify a dialect, because the part of me that lived in Chinatown is interested in Cantonese. The part of me that entertains notions of teaching English in China knows Mandarin is more practical. [↩]
- I promise you, it’s not nice. [↩]
- For context, this is from Exodus. It’s to do with the plagues. Basically, the Big Man is saying he’s going to pox all the Egyptian cattle and whatnot, but anything owned by the Israelites will survive. [↩]
- Davar does a lot of heavy lifting in Hebrew. It’s got a huge semantic range. Literally, it simply means “word.” In this way, it’s like the Greek word λόγοϲ, which also means ‘word.’ Later, though, it takes on a huge range of meaning, especially in philosophy. So far, from what I can tell, davar doesn’t branch out in quite the same way. The proper analogue seems to be πρᾶγμα, which literally means “thing,” but comes to mean matter, affair, situation, something of importance. Davar seems to do this as well. And yeah, I realize this footnote is interesting to literally nobody but me, but it’s helpful for me to put all this down. [↩]
- Following on the previous footnote, this was not a usage of davar that I’d yet encountered. [↩]
- Did I do that right? I don’t know anything about html. [↩]
- Yiddish, after all, is essentially a dialect of German. [↩]