Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Remembering Jerusalem

As I've often said, what's significant about the many mentions of Jerusalem in the Bible isn't how many of them there are, but how the Jews never stopped reading them (except when they already knew them by heart). Sometime this plays out in interesting ways. Take the 137th Psalm, for example:

1By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

2We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

3For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

4How shall we sing the LORD's song in a strange land?

5If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

6If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

7Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.

8O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.

9Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones

(King James translation. The best).

The first passages have become cultural icons; the last two are rarely recited - and it's better so.

Here's a modern shir forged from the 5-6th verses, performed by Yaacov Shweiki

Here's another version, being applied to a very profane context: a victorious Beitar Yerusahlayim, our magnificent hometown team. But that's part of the point, isn't it: Beitar's fans sing a psalm to celebrate their team. I'll bet Manchester United fans can't do that.

Then, in this one film, we've got the opposite application. From time immemorial Jews have crowned perhaps their greatest celebration, the wedding, with an act of mourning for the destroyed city of Jerusalem, by breaking a glass. The counterpart is that they console the bereaved with the wish that they'll find consolation in the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Here you can see a fellow singing the psalm at his own wedding, just before he breaks the glass.


Victor said...

That's a terrible translation, full of anachronisms and unclear passages. Here's the translation from Tehillim Ohel Yosef Yitzhak (Chabad).

Preface: Referring to the time of the destruction of the Temple, this psalm tells of when Nebuchadnezzar would ask the Levites to sing in captivity as they had in the Temple, to which they would reply, "How can we sing the song of G-d on alien soil?" They were then comforted by Divine inspiration.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept as we remembered Zion. There, upon the willows we hung our harps. For there our captors demanded of us songs, and those who scorned us - rejoicing, [saying,] "Sing to us of the songs of Zion." How can we sing the song of the Lord on alien soil? If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its dexterity. Let my tongue cleave to my palate if I will not remember you, if I will not bring to mind Jerusalem during my greatest joy! Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of the destruction of Jerusalem, when they said, "Raze it, raze it to its very foundation!" O Babylon, who are destined to be laid waste, happy is he who will repay you in retribution for what you have inflicted on us. Happy is he who will seize and crush your infants against the rock!

Avram said...

The 2nd song is sung by Medad Tasa, a young Mizrachi kid (I think he's 14 now) who's got quite a few CDs out already and is commonly referred to as ילד הפלא.

Anonymous said...

totally OT but too de(ma)licious (for me) not to share

notice Ahmadinjad's left hand and where Haniyeh is looking


Anonymous said...

For Victor:

"The King James Bible, then, was not just the matrix of the American language, but the means of transmitting Jewish history, and the morality of the Hebrew Bible, to the American people."
"the King James version—though it may be “often inaccurate”—is canonical and irreplaceable. In a sense, the English Bible has ceased to be a translation and become a second original."
Silke - in love with old ways of writing stuff (also)

Yaacov said...

Victor -

On this one I disagree with you. The King James translation is so vastly superior to any other translation, there isn't even a context. The original, of course, is better, but that's always the case.

"If I forget thee, O Jerusalem...."

"If I forget you Jerusalem"

Which is poetry, and which is merely words?

Victor said...

I prefer the modern, uncluttered, unembroidered English. I think, in our time, simplicity reflects honesty. The "thee" and "thou" are today reserved for comic relief, not prose.

Speaking of honesty, check this out, Yaacov.

Joe in Australia said...

Most people read the last line incorrectly, whatever translation they use. It follows on from the one before it: "... happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones."

It's very important that the word "thy" (or "your") be stressed. This makes it clear that the psalm isn't about wishing harm to one's enemies; it's an expression of pain regarding a then-recent tragedy. It's as if a Jew of my parents' generation were to wish that his children's murderers should suffer a similar fate. It's an expression of pain, and I don't think anyone who has not gone through the same experience should presume to judge it.

Anonymous said...

if you think your "uncluttered" through it would mean banning all words sung to music. For me poetry is the in-between "uncluttered" words and music just as e-mail is an in-between for phone calls and letters.

Do you really want to throw away all chanting and reciting in praise of whatever for the sake of the "uncluttered" ideal?

think again, speak the two lines aloud and then decide which one makes your heart beat faster.

if you are about to go to the negotiating table the "uncluttered" may be preferable allowing you to keep your poker face intact but does that apply when you want to express love and longing while being alone or with your kind of people?


Bryan said...

Well, Victor's is the more accurate translation, if you're looking for word-for-word accuracy (which is sometimes the goal of translation). Were I to do an analysis of the psalm, I'd use Victor's translation (aided by what I could understand of the original).

However, I think that the KJV is the superior translation, because it more evocatively conveys the feeling behind the original, and in poetry, the feeling is often more important than the literal translation of the words.

Anonymous said...

Since I have learned enough Hebrew to follow a translation, I have been surprised how closely the King James Translation follows the Hebrew and mirrors the structure of the Hebrew sentences. If is almost as if it introduces Hebrew syntax into the English language, particularly in how it reproduces the vav-consecutive tenses by beginning sentences with phrases like "And the Lord said to Moses".

The language is certainly archaic, and was so even at the time it was chosen, but my feeling is that the use of this language for worship and Biblical reference is so common even today that the literary advantages of the KJV often outweigh any advantages of using more modern language, especially since translations using the latter often completely fail to capture the majesty and poetry of the Hebrew and the KJV.

David E. Sigeti

Anonymous said...

I remember this as having been a great lecture about the enterprise of getting the translation done

- there is audio and video available

God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible with Adam Nicolson.,com_mediadb/Itemid,26/?search=king+james+bible&x=0&y=0

Anonymous said...

Re, the King James. First, a personal note. When I turned 13 my mother gave me my very first 'real' Bible (i.e. not a 'children's bible). It was the King James translation. I have been reading and re-reading it ever since; it was in reading that translation that I fell in love with many of the Psalms and committed them to memory.

Now, a historical observation.

Did the article mention something that is discussed in Isidore Epstein's little Pelican handbook, 'Judaism'? Speaking of the medieval Jewish commentators, Epstein writes - "Rashi's commentary on the Bible also influenced greatly the Christian world. Nicholas de Lyra (1265-1349) ...quotes Rashi constantly in his 'Commentaries' which, in turn, was one of the main sources Luther used in his translation; *and many of Rashi's interpretations entered in the King James version of the Bible".

Furthermore - "David Kimchi of Narbonne (1160-1235) developed the strictly grammatical method, and by his lucidity and thoroughness established for his commentaries supremacy in the field of Biblical exegesis.

*His works exercised considerable influence on Christian Hebraists at the time of the Reformation, and the translators of the English Authorised Version owed so much to him that they are said as it were to 'have sat at the feet of Kimchi'".