A freelancer debuts with a memoir/disquisition about the Hebrew Bible and the difficulties—linguistic and personal—that translators into English have faced.
Kushner grew up speaking Hebrew in a scholarly family that often had intense discussions about the Bible and the intricacies of the Hebrew texts. While attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the author took a course in the Bible from Marilynne Robinson, a course to which Kushner brought a perspective and an intelligence that must have illuminated the room. With Robinson’s encouragement, Kushner—after 10 years’ labor—completed her text, which covers all sorts of autobiographical, historical, religious, and geographical ground. We learn about her girlhood, her family history (with some painful family stories from the Holocaust), her medical problems (her writing hand failed her; she severely injured a foot), her peripatetic lifestyle (and various jobs), and her relationships with assorted family members. There are some wrenching moments in Bremen, Germany, where she visited the former home of her grandfather, whose family faced the Holocaust. But Kushner is principally interested in the meanings and translations of key Biblical passages, and she pursues this interest with a fierce passion, collecting and reading and collating numerous English translations. She leads us into some dense discussions of particular passages—from the creation story to the Ten Commandments (a phrase, she tells us, that does not appear in the Hebrew) to Psalm 42 and others. At times, she considers her own belief—and disbelief—but never veers too far from her texts, organizing each section under headings like “Laughter” and “Law.” A most patient tutor, she neither preaches nor exhorts but mostly tries to explain and to understand. Among her grimmest stories are those of the violent fates of some early translators.
A paean, in a way, to the rigors and frustrations—and ultimate joys—of trying to comprehend the unfathomable.