Comes the Comer


A history of Jewish literacy remains to be written. It will be a colorful and complicated work, as befits the variegated linguistic history of the Jews, and for American Jewish readers of our day, I mean the honest ones, it will be a disturbing work. Whereas the Jews have always used many languages, Jewish and non-Jewish ones, and whereas complaints about the faltering level of competence in Hebrew appear in many medieval and modern sources, the awful fact is that Jewry of the United States has decided—it was a decision, even if it was never formally made—that the Jewish tradition may be adequately received, developed, and transmitted not in a Jewish language. Judaism’s language, after all, is not English. Owing to the magnitude of their illiteracy, American Jews have broken new ground in Jewish incompetence. Translation is an ancient Jewish activity, of course—the sanctity of the Hebrew language notwithstanding, the rabbis always insisted that Jews understand the sacred words that they read and hear and utter. Meaningfulness sometimes demands accommodations and adjustments, and we are the enemies of meaninglessness. But no Jewry has ever been as pathetically dependent upon translation as American Jewry.

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edited by Jonathan Safran Foer
with a new translation by Nathan Englander
Little, Brown & Company, 160, pp., $29.99

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