Sunday, February 4, 2024

Aviya Kushner and the Grammar of God

“When I was a child I assumed that all families discussed the grammar of the Bible in Hebrew at the dining room table. When I entered kindergarten, I heard, to my shock, that most American-born children spoke English; I spoke only Hebrew then. On my first sleepover, I learned that many families did not discuss ancient grammar. Not over dinner, not at all. This struck me as a terrible shame, a missed opportunity, and it still does.”

So begins the Introduction to Aviya Kushner’s The Grammar of God, an enticing enough lede that it convinced me to read the whole book. The audiobook was all I could find for free through our public library system—not ideal because the reader didn’t know Hebrew—but I liked it well enough to order a paper copy. It is a quirky book, sort of a philologist’s memoir that combines reflections on texts and words from the Hebrew Bible with her own experience.

I thought Kushner’s comments about Hebrew, language, and translation worth returning to. Months later, however, what sticks in my head is her stories about her Jewish upbringing in the Hasidic neighbourhood of Monsey, NY, visiting her grandfather in Israel, and locating the house in Germany where he lived before the Shoah.

On her mother, who sounds like a character right out of a Chaim Potok novel:

“My mother had a life of the night. After everyone else went to sleep, she would sit at the dining room table with a large milk-shake and several piles of dictionaries. She was reading Akkadian tablets—I know because I used to wake up at night and watch her, sitting in her nightgown with her very long hair pinned up, from the darkness of the kitchen. Piles of papers and pens before her, she’d talk to herself in some ancient language that she told me you could hear recorded at the Smithsonian Institution. From a room away, I heard the rhyme and rhythm of antiquity. … I thought that all mothers were like that—mothers in the daytime, and something secret between midnight and when everyone else woke up.” (17)

On her mathematician father:

“I got to know my father during Shabbat. Perhaps that is why, in the aseret hadibrot [the Ten Commandments], honoring our parents and keeping Shabbat are neighbors: because time allows us to know, and honor, our own family. Respecting a person requires time. Moreover, and more deeply, the day in which I got to know my father—Shabbat—allowed me to love what I have. … Shabbat was the only time that he was in my sight, not writing and not doing, for all three meals and all the hours in between. I think that in that long expanse, in the Shabbats and all the hours in them, I met him.” (132-3)

On arriving in Bremen, Germany:

“My mother and I are both silenced by what we see when we get out of the train. We are standing in the Hauptbahnhof, the central train station, the place my grandfather had described hundreds of times as the place he last saw his parents and his four brothers …. My grandfather was twenty-two. His youngest brother was thirteen. … I remember the way my grandfather said: ‘I was just a boy. I was so sure I would see them again. I don’t even think I turned around to wave, to say goodbye.” (172)