The Transatlantic Debate over How to Translate the Poetry of Holiday Prayers

Oct. 14 2022

From the penitential prayers (sliḥot) said in the weeks before Rosh Hashanah, through the elaborate High Holy Day liturgy, through the hosannahs and prayers for rain said on the ensuing festivals of Sukkot and Shmini Atseret, the synagogue service of this time of year is filled with piyyutim (liturgical poems). These post-talmudic and medieval compositions tend to be laden with allusions and obscure vocabulary, and are notoriously difficult to translate. Yosef Lindell looks at the various attempts to render them into English, and the controversies these engendered:

English translations of the siddur appeared as early as the 18th century in England. But our story begins with a remarkable six-volume translation of the Ashkenazi maḥzor [holiday prayer book] published in London between 1904 and 1909. The project, often called the Routledge after its publisher, was the brainchild of Arthur Davis (1846-1906), an engineer from Derby who despite having no formal Jewish education dedicated all his free time to Jewish learning and scholarship. According to Herbert M. Adler, a lawyer who took over the maḥzor project after Davis’s death, Davis translated the maḥzor because he realized “the inadequacy of existing English renderings to express the form and beauty of the compositions that make up the Jewish liturgy,” and wanted a translation “more worthy of the original.”

Other piyyutim in the maḥzor were translated by Israel Zangwill (1864-1926), a novelist, playwright, controversial Zionist, and perhaps the best-known English-speaking writer in the Jewish world at the time.

While Davis, Zangwill, and their collaborators tried to preserve the prosody of the originals even at the expense of fidelity to their literal meaning, the American Judaic scholar Philip Birnbaum felt otherwise:

Birnbaum took Hebrew very seriously. He was on the board of the Histradrut Ivrit of America, a Hebrew literary society, and contributed to the Histadrut’s weekly magazine ha-Doar for decades. Birnbaum had a thoroughly different approach to translation from Arthur Davis and his collaborators: plain, simple, and literal. In his introduction to his siddur, he wrote, “A good translation ought to be authentic and free from deceptions. One must not read into the original what is not there. No new poetry should be introduced into the siddur presumably as the translation of the Hebrew text.”

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More about: American Jewry, Anglo-Jewry, High Holidays, Piyyut, Siddur, Translation

Condemning Terrorism in Jerusalem—and Efforts to Stop It

Jan. 30 2023

On Friday night, a Palestinian opened fire at a group of Israelis standing outside a Jerusalem synagogue, killing seven and wounding several others. The day before, the IDF had been drawn into a gunfight in the West Bank city of Jenin while trying to arrest members of a terrorist cell. Of the nine Palestinians killed in the raid, only one appears to have been a noncombatant. Lahav Harkov compares the responses to the two events, beginning with the more recent:

President Joe Biden called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to denounce the attack, offer his condolences, and express his commitment to Israel’s security. Other leaders released supportive statements as well. Governments across Europe condemned the attack. Turkey’s foreign ministry did the same, as did Israel’s Abraham Accords partners the UAE and Bahrain. Even Saudi Arabia released a statement against the killing of civilians in Jerusalem.

It feels wrong to criticize those statements. . . . But the condemnations should be full-throated, not spoken out of one side of the mouth while the other is wishy-washy about what it takes to stave off terrorism. These very same leaders and ministries were tsk-tsking at Israel for doing just that only a day before the attacks in Jerusalem.

The context didn’t seem to matter to some countries that are friendly to Israel. It didn’t matter that Israel was trying to stop jihadists from attacking civilians; it didn’t matter that IDF soldiers were attacked on the way.

It’s very easy for some to be sad when Jews are murdered. Yet, at the same time, so many of them are uncomfortable with Jews asserting themselves, protecting themselves, arming themselves against the bloodthirsty horde that would hand out bonbons to celebrate their deaths. It’s a reminder of how important it is that we do just that, and how essential the state of Israel is.

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Read more at Lahav’s Newsletter

More about: Jerusalem, Palestinian terror