Kol ha-olam kulo bamah: Shakespeare, Hebrew, and Linguistic Ownership

February 9, 2012 at 5:09 pm, by

After growing up down the road from the Shubert Theater in New Haven, Connecticut and living minutes from dozens of theaters in Manhattan, one of the immediate results of my move to Jerusalem in 2007 was that I suddenly had far fewer options when I was in the mood for a play. While there are a handful of English-language theatre companies in and around Jerusalem, their performances are few and far-between, and tend to focus on musical theater; if I wanted to see The Music Man, great! But if I wanted Shakespeare? Forget it.

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Of course, my problems in 2007 were mainly due to the fact that I did not yet have more than a beginner’s knowledge of Modern Hebrew. There is fantastic theater in Israel, but without Hebrew I hadn’t a hope of understanding it.

It was the reverse of the problem I had when I lived in London, where, despite the handicap of being raised in America, I had managed to learn the local language. I was an exchange student at the time, through a program that actually reimbursed the cost of any music, theater or dance performances, and I took thorough advantage of this system, going to every major production as well as a huge variety of what in New York would have been called “Off-” or “Off-off-Broadway” performances.

But I was thwarted in one of my attempts to see Macbeth at a smaller, suburban London theater. After about an hour of changing trains and staring at maps, I found the theater only to discover that I had the dates wrong – the play that evening was not Macbeth, but a modern comedy about generational culture clashes in a Pakistani family in England. Performed entirely in Urdu. Without subtitles.

Dear readers, I bought a ticket anyway. I was the only non-Pakistani member of the audience, I didn’t understand a word, and I loved it. Despite not knowing the language, the story was a familiar one, and I was able to understand the relationships between the immigrant parents struggling to adapt and the British-born children trying to reconcile growing up in two worlds.

othelo0003.JPG (377×291)So in 2008, when I saw that there was a performance of Othello in Hebrew translation at the Khan Theater in Jerusalem, I was unreservedly excited. Thanks to having taught the play repeatedly, I knew the whole thing backwards and forwards, and I hoped that my brain would fill in the blanks for me when my language skills failed.

The performance was magnificent, I understood about half of the Hebrew, and certain moments of the play were irretrievably changed for me as a result of hearing them in a new language. Shakespeare’s English, after all, is exactly contemporary with the King James translation of the bible, and without realizing it I had perhaps come to equate the two. Hearing Othello performed in the language of the prophets was incredibly exciting, and I still can’t fully explain why.

Othello was the first of Shakespeare’s plays to be translated entirely into Hebrew – in 1874, it was published by the Hebrew novelist Peretz Smolenskin (in a translation by Yitzhak Salkinsohn) with a fantastic foreword:

Today we take revenge on the British!                    

They took our Holy Scriptures and made them their own, translated them and spread them all over the world as if they were theirs.

And we too repay them today for what they did: we have taken the book, that is as dear to them as our Holy Scripture is to us, and introduced it into the treasure house of our Holy tongue.

Is not this revenge sweet?

(source here)

The sense of ownership of texts in this introduction is what hit me first. Smolenskin clearly identifies the “holy scriptures” as “ours,” and Shakespeare as “dear” only to “them.” Language plays a role in what we perceive as “ours,” and as a native English speaker and someone who loves literature, Shakespeare has always felt at least partially “mine.” For Smolenskin, translating Shakespeare into Hebrew resulted in some partial transfer of ownership of the text to the Jews.

I may be a native English speaker, but I also learned the Hebrew of Jewish prayer at a young age, and those particular words of ancient and medieval Hebrew are also somehow a native tongue. So when I was watching Othello, part of my brain was sitting in my childhood synagogue, understanding pieces of text and feeling them in my bones to be part of who I am – while the other part of my brain was back in London listening to a foreign tongue that felt utterly not-mine, trying to make sense of the play from the action alone.

1294907072.jpg (800×533)Last month, I went back to the Khan Theater, this time for their new production of Twelfth Night. Nearly five years later, my Hebrew is now greatly improved, and I had no need to rely on previous knowledge of the play to enjoy it. But I found myself having the same reaction to the language that I had with Othello; it’s not that I usually hear Hebrew and think of it as something special, even holy, especially when it’s the language in which I go grocery shopping, do my laundry, and argue with cab drivers. But Shakespeare in Hebrew again sounded prophetic to my American Jewish ears – comically prophetic, but prophetic nonetheless.

Modern Hebrew has become one of my languages, and as a result I have developed some sense of “ownership” of texts in that language. It’s an odd phenomenon. Shakespeare alone is somehow “mine,” but Shakespeare in the language of my childhood prayer book somehow feels even more “mine.”

The world has progressed a bit since the days when Smolenskin felt the need to claim Shakespeare linguistically for the Jews. I’m lucky to be able to claim both Hebrew and English (even Shakespeare’s English) as my mother tongues, and to feel that I have authentic claims on both the Bible and the Bard as parts of my linguistic and cultural inheritance.

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2 Comments So Far

  1. I just wanted to say thanks for writing this – as a bilingual person and a passionate lover of theater and Shakespeare, I am always interested in seeing how it is interpreted in my native Hebrew. I also watched Othello at the Khan and was impressed by how they had translated not only the language, but also the cultural background into a kind of Israeli essence – how iago became the typical Israeli low-level “arsi” clerk in the army. I look forward to hearing more from you in the future!

    Timna, February 11, 2012 at 6:47 pm #
  2. Lovely article, Marisa! It gives me a real appetite to see some Shakespeare in Hebrew. Thanks for the tag.

    david finkelstein, February 11, 2012 at 7:44 pm #
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