Making it Feel Real

Reluctantly I proceed from Bereyshis to Shmoys, since the original deal was that our reading group would read the first book of the Torah, then proceed to read poetry together, starting later in January. In fact, we’re going to do both, continuing on to Exodus (Shmoys), putting my grandfather’s folk stories aside for the moment, and reading Yiddish poets. I will be giving most of my energy to the poetry, but we haven’t started that yet. So, back to Torah. Fortunately, being lured into reading further is not unpleasant– this week’s reading is both momentous and also the most familiar possible portion. It tells the story of Moses, from just before his birth through to his growing up, exile and marriage, then God’s revelation, his return to Egypt, acceptance as a leader, and initial demands to Pharoah.

Three things impressed themselves on me reading Yehoash’s Yiddish version this week. First I was struck by, but won’t really go into here, the women’s solidarity and resistance, both in the midwives refusing the order by Pharoah to kill newborn sons, and in the cooperation between Pharoah’s daughter and Miriam. They are inherent in the actions in the story and not dependent on the Yiddish version of them. But these women deserve at least an acknowledgement on every read-through. Second, I was impressed by the intimacy and directness of the conversation between Moses and God. Lastly, I want to note one striking editorial decision made by the translator.

Any Jew who celebrates Passover is so familiar with this portion that the English (or Hebrew, as the case may be) of the Haggadah lies underneath almost every sentence. Because I know it well enough not to be spending all my energy deciphering, I get a deeper sense of the feel of the words. The simplicity and intimacy of Moses’ talking to God, in his reluctance to go to Egypt, comes through more vividly to me in this version.

He sees the angel and the burning bush, God calls his name and he replies ‘Do bin ikh’ (“Here I am”). God tells him he has heard the cries of the children of Israel, and seen their woes, and will deliver them from Egypt, and bring them to a land that he promises, etc. etc. And Moses says, ‘Ver bin ikh, az ikh zol geyn tsu Faroen, un az ikh zol aroystsiyn di knder fun Yisroel fun Mitsrayim?’ “Who am I, that I should go to Pharoah, and that I should deliver the children of Israel from Egypt?” In Yiddish, the construction az ikh zol “that I should go,” or “that I should deliver” doesn’t have the odd formality of the English, but reads more like “Who am I to go…?” Then the word ‘aroystziyn’ (sorry, I still don’t have the transliteration just right) just means to take them out.

Moses’ second expression of reluctance reads very similarly to the English, but Yehoash gives him an ‘Ot’. Ot kum ikh tsu di kinder fun Yisroel, un ikh vel zogn tsu zey:.. “So, I come to the children of Israel, and I will say to them…” Or else, “Here I am, come to the children of Israel, and I’m going to…” and so on. It’s like Moses is doing a role play. “And they will ask me, “What is his name?”

There’s an online quiz I’m not going to take that asks, “What Yiddish word are you?” If I ever play that game, I want ‘Ot’. [Of course the only possible outcomes are going to be the usual ‘mensch’, ‘shlemiel’, or maybe ‘makher’. I can sense the dumbing down and shtickification of Yiddish and avoid it easily enough].

I’m still learning the mysteries of ‘Ot’. There’s no easy equivalent. Examples given in the dictionary are: Ot do (right here), Ot dos (that’s the one), Ot regnet (now it’s raining). All these usages give a sense of specificity and immediacy. They make it feel real. I can feel Moses going through his lines with God and sketching out a scenario, like an actor breaking it down with his director. “Now I’m there, and I go to give them your message, and they ask me…”

Finally, after another long set of instructions, reassurances, demonstrations of tactics, and promises, Moses demurs a third time, saying: Ikh bet dikh Got, Ikh bin nit keyn mentsh fun verter, sey fun nekhtn, sey fun eyer-nekhtn, sey zint du redst zu deyn knekht… “I am no man of words.” When he wants to say, ‘I’ve never been and never will be,’ the Yiddish goes, “Not since yesterday, not since the day before yesterday, and not since you have spoken to your servant.” Again, sey (pronounced like the English ‘sigh’) is hard for me to get exactly. Do please remember I’m new at this. Another way to render it might be “whether yesterday, whether the day before yesterday, or whether since you have spoken…” In any case, Moses objection is extremely concrete, particularly when you realize the life-transforming event of God having ‘spoken to his servant’ happened approximately five minutes ago.

“My mouth is heavy (ikh bin shver oyfn moyl) and my tongue is heavy (un shver oyf der tsung),” he continues. The more common expression, shver oyfn oyer, literally, ‘heavy’ or ‘difficult’ upon the ear, translates easily into English as ‘hard of hearing’. People usually render this passage as ‘slow of speech’. But again, the Yiddish is much more concrete, not focused on ‘speech’, but on ‘mouth’ and ‘tongue’. And, somewhat impatiently now, God says to him, ‘Ver hot gemakht dem mentshn a moyl?’ “Who made for people a mouth?”

The last thing I want to mention is a specific editorial insertion by Yehoash that otherwise might be glossed over. It has to do with tribal, or national, identification. Abraham’s clan is referred to in the book Bereshit as the Hebrews. This is retained in the Torah, in Hebrew language version of Exodus, even after Joseph goes down into Egypt. For example, Moses saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. But Jacob’s descendants are now also often referred to as the Children of Israel. This use of Israel changes from a personal to a family designation, and finally to a national one, as Jacob (Israel) dies and his children are fruitful, proliferate, multiply, and spread over the land.

And a new king arises who does not know Joseph. You hear the same xenophobic worries and slanders that followed us throughout the goles (exile, or diaspora) for two millennia: “Look how rich and strong they are. If there’s a war, how do we know we can count on them to be on our side?” So Pharoah restricts them, and then enslaves them, and we still proliferate and are still strong.

Then Pharoah passes a new and horrible decree. And he says to the midwives: ‘Az ir helft di yidishe veyber gebern, zolt ir zen oyfn brokhstul, oyb dos is a zun zolt ir im teytn…’ “When you help the Jewish women give birth, look to the birthing stool, and if it is a son, you shall kill him…” The Hebrews, or Israelites, would not become Jews for many generations yet. And the Torah clearly says Hebrew. But Yehoash changes it to “Jewish.” This is his first use of the word, and it’s notably premature.

Then, two pages later, he does it again. Moses saw a man a Mitzri shlogn a man a Yidn, fun zeyne brider. Moses sees an Egyptian beating a brother Jew. Thus Moses knows himself as one of the ‘Jews’ (but really, Hebrews), and strikes the Egyptian taskmaster.

In fact, we were not “Jews” until the Kingdom of Judea split from the Kingdom of Israel. The temptation was too strong for Yehoash here. Centuries of the Haggadah saying, “We should tell the story as though we ourselves went out of Egypt,” along with the persecution of the Jews in Eastern Europe in own his lifetime cinched it. When a decree to kill us comes down or when we bear beatings, then, to Yehoash, we are not the forerunners or precursors of Jews, but Jews, plain and simple. Here, accuracy is jettisoned for the purposes of identification. But does adopting this strategy not identify us as victims, in our essence, and from the start?

Moses beating an Egyptian. Winchester Bible, twelfth century. http://www.winchester-cathedral.org.uk/gallery/the-winchester-bible/

Moses beating an Egyptian. Winchester Bible, twelfth century.
http://www.winchester-cathedral.org.uk/gallery/the-winchester-bible/

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