By Toni Nealie
The Bible is a holy text for many and a work of literature and cultural resonance for all, so Aviya Kushner’s obsession with the book’s translation is eye-opening and captivating. Growing up in a Jewish, Hebrew-speaking family, she was startled to encounter the English version when she took a Bible literature course with writer Marilynne Robinson at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Kushner discovered that much of what she understood about the creation myth, slavery and the Ten Commandments were rendered very differently in various translations. Kushner, a poet, essayist, travel writer and teacher braids together her personal and family stories with research on translation, grammar and history.
Is there any particular section that you most love and why?
I most loved the last chapter, “Memory,” which is about Isaiah 40 and my grandfather, who meant a great deal to me. He grew up in Germany, one of five boys, and was the only survivor of all his brothers. While writing “The Grammar of God,” I thought a lot about why people get attached to the Bible, and why this book, of all books, has transcended the centuries. I also thought about the individual people who helped the Bible survive, and for me, the personal answer to that was always individuals like my grandfather.
What was most surprising to you in the research and writing of the book?
I was surprised to discover that danger has long been a part of the story of the Bible and its translation. William Tyndale was burned at the stake in 1536; a few decades later, his work became the foundation of The King James Bible. And before Tyndale, there was John Wycliffe, who led an effort to translate the Bible. He managed to die naturally of a stroke, but his remains were exhumed and thrown into the River Swift.
I found it fascinating to think about how threatened the powers that be have felt by translation, by any effort to make the Bible accessible to a wide audience. The Jewish community is also wary of translation; there was even a suggested fast on the anniversary of the Septuagint’s translation. And of course, throughout history, many rabbis have suffered and sometimes paid with their lives for their efforts to keep the Torah alive. I was amazed to realize just how life-threatening the Bible often was, for both Christians and Jews.
How many Bibles did you end up with?
I looked through several hundred Bibles, and I definitely experienced Bible obsession. I was lucky to have access to fantastic libraries in several states and countries, so I did not purchase every single Bible I looked at. But my Chicago place is still crammed with far too many Bibles, in Hebrew and English, used and new, along with dozens of books about the Bible. And Chicago helped—I found some wonderful old versions of The Psalms in the Edgewater Antique Mall, and a fabulous old edition of The King James [Bible], discarded from the library, on the street in Hyde Park. I also came across Isaac Asimov’s book on the Bible in a used book store in the Fine Arts Building on South Michigan Avenue.
What resonates most with audiences you are reading to?
Many readers seem to appreciate the chance to look at Biblical Hebrew in a deep and nitty-gritty way, and to think about how grammar and translation shape what we believe. I received a lovely note from a retired eighty-year-old Lutheran pastor, thanking me for reshaping his thinking on Sarah. I was so moved to think that a reader like him was willing to have his views reshaped; that is the beauty of the Bible, that there are always more angles to consider. But I should say that the range of questions always surprises me; readers find resonances to their own experiences that I could not imagine.
How did you decide on the structure?
It took me a long time to figure out how to structure this book. I knew I wanted a structure that reflected the many sides of the Bible, and the many ways it can be read—as the story of creation, the story of a people, a depiction of God, a portrait of man, a book of law, a source of song, and a repository of memory. I also wanted a structure that showed how the Bible is alive, how it is talked about and discussed, and how this wonderful conversation should never end. The final structure is simple but felt right to me, with chapters titled “Creation,” “Love,” “Man,” “God,” “Law,” “Song,” and “Memory.” There is also an introduction and a brief section called “How It All Began,” along with a brief ending, titled “How It (Never) Ends.”
Any next project?
Of course! While working on “The Grammar of God,” I thought a lot about what kind of person spends years working on a book about the Bible. I began investigating the personal lives of Biblical commentators. My next book, “Nomad,” is based on the story of one such commentator—a nomadic twelfth-century genius with an incredible life.
“The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible”
By Aviya Kushner
Spiegel & Grau, 272 pages, $27
Aviya Kushner reads at Seminary Co-Op Bookstore, 5751 South Woodlawn, (773)752-4381, January 24, 3pm, free.