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Living in Hebrew, Thinking in Aramaic, Writing in English

“Many artists are ‘underground’,” a writing instructor of mine once remarked, “but no one is more underground than writers.” To that I would add that no one is more underground than writers who don’t write in the language of the place they live. It amounts to a sort of double life. On the outside, you function in the same language as everyone around you. But then you have this other world, where you think and create in the tongue of a stranger. Your boss, the next-door neighbors, the mother of your child’s best friend and Moshe from the makolet might be aware that you are working on a novel, but you know, from the very first word you write, that they will probably never read it.

While I was writing The Wayward Moon, a novel which takes place in the 9th century Middle East, the situation was even more confusing. I was constantly alert to the fact that rather than Hebrew or English, my characters would have spoken something that sounds like Ha lachma anya di achalu avtania, and dizabin abah bitrei zuzei. If, like me, these phrases from the Haggadah are all the Aramaic you know, then you understand the difficulty. As I wrote the novel, I realized very early on that I could never really know how Rahel Bat Yair, the story’s heroine, really spoke. All I could do was try to imagine her “voice,” not only the sound of it, but the “music” of it, its point of view, its inherent assumptions and ways of seeing the world. It wasn’t a matter of getting it “right” or “wrong,” because due to the absence of Jewish women’s voices in the few documents that have come down to us from that time, it was impossible to know exactly what idioms she would have used to express herself. All I could do was read the limited material that is available (e.g., letters from the Cairo Geniza, writings by men of her time) and listen to the tones, attitudes and modes of expression as they play out in the folk tales, songs, films, and poetry of people who have lived their lives in the lands of Islam.

While this sort of linguistic alienation is challenging for a writer, it can nonetheless be conducive to writing. The sense of being isolated, of having to wrestle alone with the voices in your head, enacts something existential. Writing becomes a sort of refuge, a place where you can sink into the words and phrases and fully inhabit your state of aloneness.

Having said that, if any Israeli publishers are reading this, Moshe from the makolet is still waiting.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on June 7, 2013

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