A Rabbi For a Minute

A Rabbi For a Minute

Maybe a year before the pandemic set in, maybe two, I was on a bit of a European speaking tour. Somehow an invitation came to appear in Israel, from a standing start, with no prior contacts that I knew about. What might I have to bring to a place and a people that have seen so much?, I wondered. We landed in the middle of the night, as I recall, to a true spectacle of overlapping and recurring security measures. Within a few days I was taken through old Jerusalem and to the Second Temple wall which, for a divinity school guy who was denied admission to the white collar programme, was a marvel beyond measure. These things were so overlaid with myth and heartbreak and marvel as to overwhelm. There was a screening of Griefwalker in Tel Aviv. I appeared at a kind of Palestinian/Israeli peace kibbutz, among other places. The genuine regard leant my work by the audiences was something I’d no way of expecting or understanding. The last event, shoehorned into the schedule at the last minute, with no advertising, was wall-to-wall people. All involved seemed to agree that some kind of return was wanting. I wanted it, too.

And then, as if to seal the deal, this: we’re departing in the middle of the night, and I’m in a crowded elevator heading to the departures area. There’s a man standing maybe 2 feet to my right, and he’s studying me intently. Finally he says, in American-tanged English: “Where are you a rabbi?” It’s a kind of perfect send off. Except that it’s not over yet. I say, “I’m not a rabbi.” “Are you sure?”, he says. “Pretty sure”, I say. “Jewish, at least?”, he asks. “Not even a little bit”, I say. “Really?”, he says. “Really”, I say. “Oh. That’s okay”, he commiserates. “Don’t worry.” I wanted to thank him for what I’m still pretty sure was a compliment. “I have Jewish kids, though”, I say. “Of course! Of course you do!”, he enthuses. “Mazel tov!” A kind of christening: that’s how it felt. A recognition I didn’t recognize.

So it was perfect symmetry that an Israeli publisher followed up with me about perhaps translating and publishing Die Wise into Hebrew. I’ve received a fair number of these kinds of offers but, with the exception of a Turkish translating/publishing group and a French woman working on her own, nothing has come of them. Unbeknownst to me, Noa Barekett was diligently hard at it. Die Wise is bedecked with asides and allusions that are rendered in what amounts to some kind of English dialect, and it is a hard enough slog if you have English as your first language. What it asks of translators is severe. Starting with the title, from what I’m told, and then relentlessly on through.

Life’s mysteries can’t be exaggerated. That anyone decides that their countrymen and countrywomen deserve your work is something that can scarcely be borne. That someone would put a year of their life into seeing to it that it happens: it raises the dust of worthiness. So many thanks to those who see something in my work I don’t, and drag it across linguistic and cultural borders, and give their breath to it.

Maybe I’ll be there again, in support of the new Hebrew translation of Die Wise. Maybe next year, in Jerusalem.

Stephen Jenkinson