Thursday, June 05, 2003

I really like to try to insert something about Israel that doesn't deal with the conflict. Because there is, in fact, a living, breathing nation there about which most outsiders know next to nothing. So here's a long interview with one of Israel's greatest writers, Amos Oz. He's a bit of a Lefty, although not an anti-Zionist, and I think he's one of the greatest Hebrew writers whose ever lived, and considering that Hebrew has been a written language for 5000 years, that's saying a lot. He's a very fair-minded and articulate ideologue, rather like Orwell, which I personally admire and like to think I conduct myself along the same lines. Enjoy.

Here's some parts I like:

Ramona Koval: One of the underpinnings of course is The Song of Songs, from the Old Testament, which in Christian theology, I suppose, is described as a song between the Church and Jesus or the priests. In Hebrew I think it is a very erotic poem.

Amos Oz: It’s a sexy poem, but even the ancient Hebrews interpreted it as a theological fable because it was too sexy for the Rabbis to take at face value.

Ramona Koval: So what’s a sexy poem doing in the Old Testament, in the middle of things.

Amos Oz: It is a fierce love song. Very physical, very direct. With all due respect to either Christian or Jewish theological interpretations—and I’m sure Jesus had never read the Christian theological interpretation, he only knew the Jewish one for the Song of Songs—it is such a vibrant window into the way our ancestors really lived in the land of Israel three thousand years ago in the days of King Solomon.

What’s more significant to me, it is an assembly of voices. It is an exchange between a man and a woman and sometimes even an exchange between a group of men and a group of women—a chorus, a choir. And it is about the direct—very un-Christian, I’m afraid—direct relationship between emotional and physical love. In the Song of Songs the physical and the emotional are one.

And this I love:

Amos Oz: Don’t let me get going on this, because as I told you, I may not be at all a chauvinist for the country or the nation—on the contrary, I am very critical of it. When it comes to the Hebrew language, I am the worst chauvinist in the world, so—

Ramona Koval: Be my guest.

Amos Oz: —control me; contain me. I’ll say this: Hebrew is an extremely algebraic musical instrument, very concise, almost symbolic. Every Hebrew text, whether it is the Old Testament or the New Testament, or The Same Sea, it becomes about thirty per cent longer when it travels into English, and fifty per cent longer when it travels into German.

I many years ago wrote a novella about the Crusaders, which began with a three-word opening sentence in Hebrew: T’/Rila Rag/shu Akfarim. It is rendered—honestly—into English, with the following sentence: It all began with outbreaks of discontent in the villages. Well just count the syllables. There is something about the conciseness of Hebrew, the almost tight capacity of this language, which I do not find in English. I don’t know any other languages; very little.

There is also in Hebrew a different concept of time, a different idea of time, a different system of tenses. As a result, perhaps, a different idea of reality altogether. To give you but one example before I get carried away, there is no Hebrew verb for ‘to have’. If you want to say in Hebrew ‘I have’, you say Yesh-Li—two syllables—but what they mean is ‘there is with me,’ which is totally different than ‘I have’. If I think of the English connotation of ‘I have a wife,’ or ‘I have a child,’ or ‘I have a friend,’ it sounds, to me as a native Hebrew thinker, extremely rude and possessive. What do you mean, ‘you have?’ You cannot have another person. Whatever it is, it may be with you today; it may be with someone else tomorrow. A very nomadic attitude. Different conception of reality. Different idea and notion of reality. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

And this is marvelous, the story is nonsense, but its a wonderful little legend:

Ramona Koval: How does it feel to be writing in a language in which you could have spoken to your forebears three thousand years ago?

Amos Oz: I could. I am not sure they would understand every word I say, but I would understand everything they say. Unlike ancient Greek or Latin. Hebrew—precisely because it slept, it was not dead, it slept for seventeen centuries in a glass case and was woken up by a princely kiss—the changes are not as extreme as they are between ancient Greek and modern Greek; or between Latin and Italian. It is the same language with an extra two floors, two stories added to an ancient foundation. Hebrew in fact had been revived as a spoken language barely one hundred years ago, as a result of the encounter of the indigenous Sephardic Jewish population in Jerusalem, which always lived there, with the influx of new immigrants, new Jewish immigrants from eastern and central Europe. The native Jews could speak Arabic, sometimes Turkish, Persian—or Ladino, which is a medieval Spanish dialect. The newcomers, the Jews from Russia or Poland, they could speak Yiddish, Russian, Polish; in some cases Hungarian or German. The only way to ask directions to the Wailing Wall or rent an apartment or a business was to resort to the prayerbook Hebrew. If you put on a desert island one thousand well educated, church-going Roman Catholic Irish people, along with one thousand well educated Roman Catholic, church-going Polish people; Latin may have been revived for the same reason—for very practical reasons—which is exactly what happened in Jerusalem one hundred years ago.

If you wish, I can tell you the exact moment when Hebrew became a living language again. I know when this happened. It happened some time in the last decade of the nineteenth century when for the first time in seventeen centuries a boy said to a girl—or a girl to a boy—Ani ochev atah—I love you, in Hebrew. For the first time in seventeen centuries because in those centuries Hebrew was used in the Synagogue, it was used for scholarly writing, sometimes for artistic writing—but not in the bedroom or in the kitchen. The boy must have been an immigrant from Eastern Europe and the girl a native Sephardi, or vice-versa. The only way he could communicate his emotions to her or she to him was to use the common denominator, the Song of Songs Hebrew,Ani ochev atah—I love you. I hope they had their way with each other. I hope they lived a very long life, and if they lived to be a hundred and twenty, they may still be alive, this couple. They have revived Hebrew. They deserve the credit.


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