Salamander 2024 Fiction Contest

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Mapping: The Grammar of God by Aviya Kushner (Spiegel & Grau, 2015)

Emily Jaeger
| Reviews


Grammar is not only a map to a new language, but a map into a new world. In the United States, where on the one hand, certain biblical verses are quoted for political ends large and small, but on the other hand, we are becoming an increasingly secularized society, The Grammar of God asks us to question what we thought we knew about the Bible. Most of us are familiar with the English-language, smoothed-down version of the Bible, but Kushner, growing up as an Orthodox Jew in Munsey, New York, was familiar with the Bible in the original Hebrew. However, after studying The Bible as Literature at the University of Iowa with fellow students who had only ever read the Bible in English, Kushner realized that she had to “get a sense of how the moving between languages,” Hebrew and English, “might affect meaning.”

Kushner does not aim to create an improved translation. Rather, she gives the English-speaking reader the experience of interacting directly with the bible in its original Hebrew. she guides the reader on a journey beneath the flat plains of the English translation to the steep ridges and deep forests of the original Hebrew text. while in Hebrew each word contains multi-faceted options of interpretation, a translation, she argues, reduces the entire exploration into “a one-word summary.” the only way for the English-speaker to experience the journey of the bible in Hebrew is by opening up the questions encompassed in each biblical word.

In The Grammar of God, Kushner often invites us to the dinner table, because, as she recounts, “this table is, sometimes, the only place on earth where I can fight with myself and my family and God and the opening lines of the Bible all at the same time.” At the table, her family talks out the twists and turns of biblical grammar, the roots of their daily lives as observant Jews. Kushner adeptly parallels her family’s conversations with generations of Jewish interpretation of the Bible, beginning in medieval times. While the Bible and Jewish commentaries may often come across as esoteric or dry, Kushner’s storytelling provides an accessible and engaging entryway.

Kushner’s research into the (often life-threatening) practice and history of biblical translation is impressive, making strange and exciting the familiar translation in the reader’s hands. However, her discussions of Biblical grammar, though sufficient for the uninitiated, could have been a little more precise with some attention to modern biblical scholarship. Overall, while she is critical of translation, Kushner acknowledges, “every translation attempts to keep a book alive.” By inviting the English-speaker to participate in the process of biblical interpretation, Kushner is similarly breathing life into the Hebrew text.

The nine essays that comprise The Grammar of God also track Kushner’s vocation as a writer, her development as a journalist, poet, and essayist, and the roadblocks she encountered while writing the book. For Kushner, the act of bridging the gap, word by word, between the English translation and Biblical Hebrew, is personal, a way of reconciling the self. Kushner realizes that she “had to write—because nobody else can write how you view your home except you.” Writing is the thread that Kushner uses in the attempt to stitch together her two, sometimes conflicting, identities of artist and person of faith. There is no perfect translation and no perfect reconciliation, but Kushner argues that “being human is about craving. It is, at its essence, a state of thirst.”

It is this thirst that leads to Kushner’s illustration of the worlds behind each Biblical word, her invitation to see ourselves in the Biblical text—to join in the centuries-old conversation of the ‘Grammar of God.’

Emily Jaeger is co-editor/co-founder of Window Cat Press. Her poetry has appeared or is fothcoming in Four Way Review, Soundings East, and Incessant Pipe Salon, among others. Her chapbook The Evolution of Parasites is forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press in July 2016.

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