I first arrived at Hebrew University bursting with excitement to study with the razor-sharp, gnomelike and blue-eyed Aramaist Jonas Greenfield and what felt like the last generation of great Israeli philologists. At our orientation lecture someone told us we’d be learning the very language King David spoke and my eyes narrowed. I was here to study precisely that fascinating evidence of historical diversity and change that proved this wasn’t true. I commented to a friend–or maybe just whoever was standing next to me–that if we could recover King David’s language it would sound like Arabic to us. I now realize this was my initiation into the tension between what we say and how we speak, the historical dialectic of language structure and linguistic ideology that makes every linguistic history also a social history.
I was asked to do a piece for Religion Dispatches on the recent brief exchange between the Pope and the Prime Minister of Israel. Netanyahu asserted Jesus’ language was Hebrew, but backpedaled when the Pope corrected him that it was Aramaic (“He spoke Aramaic but he knew Hebrew”). I argue that it reflects centuries of attempts to claim Jesus through speech, making his native language and original words into sacred linguistic relics. What is interesting about this isn’t Netanyahu’s use of language to claim territory, a function of the political reptilian brain stem (you could ask, what else has he ever done?) as his defenders. Until recently, the scholarly debate about ancient Hebrew’s lifespan had split along ethnic-religious lines. Most major studies of the continuing life of Hebrew have been by Jews, and the “Aramaic approach” to the original words of Jesus was the province of Christians. It seems the pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction.
But any attempt to pin this early Jewish holy man down to one language ends up concealing him and his world from us–as Steven Fraade has argued it does for the early Rabbis in general and Willem Smelik has argued it does for their ideas of scripture.
Since their site is down, here is a footnoted version.
The linguistic identity of a single word is as much a question of culture as it is of language structure, as exemplified here by the single appearance of the originally Aramaic term rabbuni “my master” in the early Hebrew base of Mishna Ms. Kaufmann. The word added above the second line shows where it has been corrected to the later standard Hebrew ribbono shel olam “master of the world.”
What do Simon Schama and Dolly Parton have in common?
For us, the greatest value of popular histories like Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews is the impossible positions they take. Responsible history can’t be light entertainment because the two have mutually exclusive requirements. Not only do they have contradictory technical needs (substantial footnotes vs. quick take-homes that really can be summarized in a soundbite or image) but they are mutually antagonistic genres. There is something in the very form of entertainment that must feel existentially insulting to responsible historians. Responsible history, then, takes as a requirement that it stay buried. Part of the game when you cross the two is to take heat and inspire reflection.
In this way Schama’s position reminds me of nothing so much as Dolly Parton playing Knoxville, TN. Her range includes raunchy, burlesque-like sex and glam numbers as well as heartfelt gospel and she has a huge gay following. She jokes about this apparent conflict between personae all the time–though not so much about the conflict between the audiences themselves. But last week, playing for family and friends as well as a more conservative hometown audience, she came down very firmly on one side. She damn well knew her audience and goals, and her self-presentation was dominated by churchy sincerity, with a few trashy, glammy winks and nods.
And so asking Schama to do a truly incisive and critical history show free of apologetic translation and positioning might be a tad like asking Dolly to play full-blast glam in Knoxville.
Sometimes, success at navigating truly conflicting audiences requires that the performer not acknowledge the very fact that they have them. Dolly Parton would probably not see the point in saying “I especially want to thank all my out of town queer fans who drove for miles into what might look like hostile territory.” And it is probably no accident that Schama minimizes how he’s hamming it up to “humanize” the Jews, and instead make it look like he’s “telling it like it is” as a scholar. In an uneasy time in the history of Jewish people in Europe, his strategy helps the ham (as it were) go down easier.