Jewish learning Ep #4: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Translator

By Hebrew College
SpeakingTorah_PodcastEpisode 4

People think of Hasidism as a movement that was mostly a movement of men; men left their families behind and went to be with the Rebbe, and the audience for whom the Rebbe wrote was an all-male audience. Women were really left out of Hasidism. But Nehemia has made a case for the fact that women were often very powerful in these Hasidic dynasties.

– Rabbi Art Green

In this episode of Speaking Torah, Rabbi Nehemia Polen shares with us his lyrical and beautiful reflections on the experience of translating Malkah Shapiro’s The Rebbe’s Daughter, the challenges, and the lessons learned along the way.

Rabbi Nehemia Polen is the Professor of Jewish Thought at Hebrew College, a leading expert in Hasidism and Jewish thought, and a widely published author and translator. And reading his essay we have another authority in the field of translation from Hebrew into English, Rabbi Arthur “Art” Green.

Rabbi Green is one of the world’s preeminent authorities on Hasidism, Jewish thought, spirituality, and Neo-Hasidism. He was the founding Dean and is currently Rector of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College and the Irving Brudnick Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Religion at Hebrew College. He is both a historian of Jewish religion and a theologian, and his work seeks to form a bridge between these two distinct fields of endeavor.

Listen in this episode to discover the insights that Rabbi Nehemia Polen uncovered during the process of his understanding and translation of Malkah Shapiro’s memoir and the challenges of separating himself from the work while remaining an integral vehicle in its delivery.

Listen to the Full Episode:

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What You’ll Discover from this Episode:

  • The metaphorical unrelenting stages of translation, from quagmire to quicksand.
  • Why translation as an art is both a dedication and a necessary betrayal.
  • Where not considering the size of the challenge ahead could be considered a wise move.
  • What fascinated Nehemia about Malkah Shapiro and her story.
  • Why Art believes Nehemia’s discovery of Malkah Shapiro and her memoirs was so important.

Featured on this Episode:

Rabbi Nehemia PolenRabbi Nehemia Polen (writer) is Professor of Jewish Thought at Hebrew College. He is a leading expert in Hasidism and Jewish thought and a widely published author. Among his books are The Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, The Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, and The Rebbe’s Daughter, for which he received the National Jewish Book Award . It is his experience working this last book – when he was a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow – which served as the inspiration for the essay we will hear today. Nehemia holds a doctorate from Boston University, where he studied with and served as a teaching fellow for Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel.

Rabbi Arthur GreenRabbi Arthur Green (reader) is the founding dean and current rector of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College and Irving Brudnick Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Religion at Hebrew College. He is Professor Emeritus at Brandeis University, where he occupied the distinguished Philip W. Lown Professorship of Jewish Thought. He is both a historian of Jewish religion and a theologian; his work seeks to form a bridge between these two distinct fields of endeavor.

Rabbi Jeffrey SummitRabbi Jeffrey Summit, PhD (host) is Director of the Hebrew College Innovation Lab.  He is Research Professor in the Department of Music & Judaic Studies at Tufts University and Senior Consultant for Hillel International. The author of several books, among his many awards are a 2018 Hebrew College honorary degree, a GRAMMY nomination for his CD Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda, the Edgar M. Bronfman Award for Lifetime Accomplishment in Hillel Professional Leadership, and the Tufts Hosea Ballou Medal.

A special thank you for this episode’s musical contributions:

Intro by: Jackson Mercer
Jackson is an Ordination Candidate at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton, MA. He grew up at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, CA where he cultivated a love of Judaism, embolden with music, spirituality and justice.

Esa Einai (Psalm 121:1)
Music by Jackson Mercer
Guitar and Melody by Jackson Mercer
Harmonies by Cantor Rosalie Will, Ilana Sandberg, Rabbi Micah Shapiro, Rabbi Josh Warshawsky, Noah Diamondstein, Ryan Leszner, Eliana Light.

Outro by: Cantor Dara Rosenblatt
Cantor, Temple Beth El in Richmond, VA
Ordination: Hebrew College 2018

Adonai Ori Psalm 27
By Cantor Dara Rosenblatt
Composed for Hebrew College’s Elul Together Project (5781)

Full Episode Transcript:


Welcome to Speaking Torah. I’m your host Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, Director of the Innovation Lab at Hebrew College. In this podcast, leaders from Jewish communities around the country read essays by Hebrew College rabbis and leaders. These essays tackle the pressing issues of our world, in need to healing and hope, and do so with Hebrew College’s signature compassion, creativity, and relevancy.

This week, Rabbi Nehemia Polen shares his lyrical and beautiful reflections on the experience of translating Malkah Shapiro’s The Rebbe’s Daughter. Rabbi Nehemia Polen is Professor of Jewish Thought at Hebrew College. He’s a leading expert in Hasidism and Jewish thought and a widely published author. Among his books are The Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto. And The Rebbe’s Daughter, for which he received the National Jewish Book Award.

It’s his experience working on this last book, when he was a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow, which served as the inspiration for the essay we’ll hear today. Nehemia holds a doctorate from Boston University where he studied and served as a teaching fellow for Nobel Laureate Ellie Wiesel.

We asked Rabbi Art Green, one of the world’s preeminent authorities on Jewish thought, spirituality, and Neo-Hasidism, to read Nehemia’s essay. Art was the founding Dean and is currently Rector of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College and the Irving Brudnick Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Religion at Hebrew College.

He’s professor Emeritus at Brandeis University, where he occupied the distinguished Philip W. Lown Professorship of Jewish Thought. He’s both a historian of Jewish religion and a theologian. His work seeks to form a bridge between these two distinct fields of endeavor.

Now, here’s Art reading Nehemia’s essay; The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Translator.

Rabbi Art Green: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Translator, reflections on translating Malkah Shapiro’s The Rebbe’s Daughter.

The good news about a translation project is that when working on a book of say, two hundred pages, the first two hundred pages are the hardest. The task is not unlike breaking ice in midwinter in the North country, somewhere in upper Saskatchewan, for example.

You might think that the process has been made easier by the previous day’s work, creating fissures which can be exploited as one rams the bow, but no, the icy mass is essentially as rigid and unyielding as before, and the progress continues to be slow, laborious, an inch-by-inch battle.

One tries to listen, to hear nuance, voice, undertone, implication. But, of course, in order to understand each word, one must understand the work as a whole. And in order to understand the entire work, one must get each word right. The problem of the hermeneutic circle is not new, but some days it seemed more like a hermeneutic endless loop, a Mobius strip whose surface one is destined to traverse endlessly, without finding the other side.

Finally, no doubt by divine compassion more that by dint of human effort, it started to click. I had mastered the idiom, began to feel I had the finger on the book’s pulse, comprehended its rhythms and silences. I imagined I felt the author’s breath against my ear.

But then a new issue makes itself clear. You survey your work and you realize that it is full of calques, places where you’ve tracked the original so closely that your own words have taken on the shape, contour, and tone of the Hebrew. What emerges is that your own text is now written in something not-quite-English, an argot somewhere on the margins of intelligibility, staking out a bizarre no-man’s-land between two stable and respectable linguistic domains.

This near-English is a frightening quagmire, and most frightening of all, it is undeniably yours, it has your fingerprints all over it, you are responsible for it – not the original author – and it looks a mess. One is reminded of the days when computers came with “near-letter quality” printers. I have encountered some near-letters, but hated the thought that I might have written a near-book.

The second draft is a quicksand from which it seems impossible to escape, in part because, having spent so much time with the Hebrew, it seems that one begins to forget English. Rules of sentence structure and punctuation that seemed secure in one’s consciousness, like the multiplication table, now appear to have slowly faded away. All that was solid has melted into air.

The only remedy for this malady was to walk away from the project at regular intervals, to turn one’s mind to something else, to read something, almost anything, incontrovertibly written in English. Slowly, hazily, one’s native linguistic sense began to return, like a person who had lost his sight and by God’s grace has had it restored.

The longer I spent with Malkah and her work, the more her language began to sound like American English. But this of course raised another concern. I did not want her to become so naturalized that she ceased to lose the distinctive voice that made her writing interesting in the first place.

I feared that if she remained on my desk much longer, she would develop a taste for Joan Baez and Starbucks coffee. I had to act fast to save her from such a fate.

Rabbi Jeffrey Summit: As a leading expert of Hasidism and Neo-Hasidism, what was Nehemia’s discovery of Malkah and her memoirs so important?

Rabbi Art Green: I know all about her because I read Nehemia’s book. Without Nehemia’s book, none of us would have known a thing about her. Malkah Shapiro, as he says, is the sister-in-law of the famous Hasidic Rebbe. She grew up in this family of the leaders of Polish Hasidism and those families of various Polish Rebbes all married one another. So, she grew up the world of various Polish Hasidic dynasties. But she left it behind.

She emigrated to the Land of Israel sometime in the 1930s, before the war. And she settled in a secular Kibbutz, I believe. And so, this was a memoir of her past. It was not a description of her present situation.

There were several others like that. There were several men like that, who came out of Hasidic families and became modern writers and wrote kind of memoirs of their back there or back then childhood. But she is, I think, the only woman we know of who did that. And it was indeed a very precious find.

People think of Hasidism as a movement that was mostly a movement of men; men left their families behind and went to be with the Rebbe and the audience for whom the Rebbe wrote was an all-male audience and women were really left out of Hasidism. But Nehemia, through his discovery of this book largely, has made a case for the fact that women were often very powerful in these Hasidic dynasties.

They were, more often than not, the power behind the throne and they had a great deal of say in determining what the future of the dynasty would be, who would inherit the father or the grandfather, what the education of that future Rebbe would be. And as a result, they had the women of the court – not the wives of the disciples necessarily, but the women of the court had a very important formative role.

Rabbi Jeffrey Summit: Could you talk about the challenges of translation?

Rabbi Art Green: Well, Nehemia and I have both been in this business of translating Hasidic sources from Hebrew into English for quite a few years. So, we have talked quite a few times about the nature of translation, the project of translation.

You know, on the one hand, you want your people just to be able to read it in the original. The original is always so much better than any translation. But we know that we have a responsibility to an American Jewish community that doesn’t know Hebrew and probably is not going to learn it well enough to read these books. So, we devoted ourselves a great deal to translation.

But you know, there’s a saying that every translation is a betrayal. The translation, necessarily, betrays the original intent of the author. You dress the translation up in a new language and that, as we say in Hebrew, that “beged is bagad” – that new garments is something that betrays what originally was there.

So, you try your best. You try – when you translate from Hebrew into English, you have to explain a lot more. You’re speaking to a general audience. And you can’t assume the kind of prior knowledge of basic Jewish practice and aura and tradition the way the Hebrew writer can assume. So, you’re translating always in a somewhat expanded, explaining way and you hope it works.

So, this is Nehemia’s reflection on it and it’s a very precious one. We all, in translating these texts, have a complicated set of tasks. One of the problems is that the Hasidic sources are written in Hebrew. But the native spoken language of the people who wrote them was Yiddish.

When we’re translating teachings or homilies, they were probably originally orally offered in Yiddish and then written down in abbreviated Hebrew form. So, sometimes the text from which we’re translating is itself a translation.

Even in a narrative like this, which she clearly is writing in Hebrew and, by then, was a Hebrew speaker, certainly, there’s a native Yiddish that lies behind the Hebrew. If you know both languages, sometimes you can hear the nuances or the sentence structures or the syntax of Yiddish underlying the Hebrew. And to be able to translate into English so that you capture something of the Hebrew text, which is all you have in front of you, and yet somehow the Yiddish speech that underlies it is a special challenge of this literature.

Rabbi Jeffrey Summit: Nehemia, you were fortunate to get a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant to work on your book about Malkah Shapiro for a year. Why were you so fascinated by her story?

Rabbi Nehemia Polen: This is a memoir of Rebbe Malkah Shapiro, the daughter a noted Hasidic master from Poland. And if you’re familiar with Polish Hasidut, it’s the core of the Hasidic world that was totally erased by the Holocaust.

And I came across this memoir and I realized that this is a voice that is precious in so many ways. First of all, Polish Hasidut, except for a remnant that was somehow able to survive, was totally annihilated by the Holocaust. And secondly, in the world of Hasidism, we do have works. We have many works of early Hasidism. We have some works from the biblical period of Hasidism. Much was lost but much did survive.

However, we have almost nothing from the voice and from the pen of a woman. And the whole idea of women in Hasidism, the whole field of women in Hasidism has become of such great interest and so keen. An actually keenly contested, because there have been efforts to say that women fared much better in the traditional world of Hasidism than in the non-Hasidic world, in the pre-contemporary period.

And there’s been pushback on that. There’s been those who have said, “No, you’re trying to romanticize and you’re trying to resurrect a history that really didn’t exist.” And here, I came across a memoir of Malkah Shapiro, who emigrated to what was then Palestine, Eretz Yisrael, later the State of Israel, she survived the Holocaust because she left Poland in time.

And she writes about her life as a young Hasidic girl growing up as the daughter of a Hasidic master. Not just a Hasidic girl, but in the household of a well-known Hasidic master from the storied house of Kozhnitz. And she writes with such beauty and with such grace and with such richness of language. She obviously is fully immersed in the world of the Bible, Talmud, and Midrash.

She must have known most of it by heart because she’s constantly bringing in a labyrinth of motifs and metaphors and phrases and words and turns of phrase from biblical and other sources. It’s just a beautiful linguistic tour de force.

And she remembers what she felt – she’s writing where she is, in her perhaps 30s, 30s and 40s. But she’s remembering what she was and how she felt and how the world looked at her as a 12 and 13-year-old girl. So, it’s a coming-of-age memoir.

And she doesn’t say much about real intimate matters, but she does mention her menstruation. She mentions her astonishment and her feelings as she noticed men beginning to look at her. She writes about her mother and her grandmother, the other women in her life in a way that you don’t see in any other Hasidic work.

My first book that I was privileged to write was on her cousin as well as brother-in-law, because in Hasidic families, especially Hasidic aristocratic families, there was this pattern of endogamous marriage where it’s quite acceptable and even really preferable to marry a first or a second cousin.

When I stumbled upon this memoir, I understood what it meant and, you know, as you know, it’s not enough to stumble across something. But was it Edison who said, “Chance favors a prepared mind?” You have to know what you’re stumbling across. So, I pick up this dusty book in a used furniture store and I said, “I understand what this is. I have to bring this to light.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Summit: You actually wrote about discovering this book in the preface to your book The Rebbe’s Daughter. So, we asked Art to read it.

Rabbi Art Green: There are relatively few religious autobiographies in the Jewish tradition and fewer still in the world of Hasidism. And if we look for memoirs of Hasidic spirituality written by women, the yield approaches zero.

On sabbatical in Jerusalem in 1985-‘86, we were looking for some household items in a used furniture store called Yad Sheniyah, “Second Hand.” On a dusty shelf in an aged bookcase, a volume whose spine had the name Malkah Shapiro stamped on it caught my eye.

I was then working on a collection of Hasidic homilies written during the Holocaust in the Warsaw Ghetto, by a master named Kalonymos Kalmish Shapiro. I picked up the volume by Malkah Shapiro, despite the fact that it seemed to be there more as a decorative prop lending the bookcase an air of functionality, rather than as an item displayed for sale, and soon realized that the author was the sister-in-law of the rabbi I was then researching, and that this book was a memoir detailing the lives of a family I was already quite familiar with.

In a flash it came to me. I would bring this unique treasure, a woman’s perspective on Hasidism, told in her own voice – which apparently had dropped out of sight as soon as it was published in 1967 – to the attention of the scholarly community and the wider reading public. I paid the six New Shekels, about two dollars, for the book and went home with my find.

Rabbi Jeffrey Summit: Now that we’ve learned more about your book and heard the preface, how does your essay fit into all of this? Why did you write it?

Rabbi Nehemia Polen: I’ve heard this said in science and in art and in many other fields of endeavor, that the project may be very, very worthy. But it’s a good thing that you don’t know quite how difficult it’s going to be when you begin. Because if you really knew how difficult it would be, you might not undertake it in the first place.

And that’s what happened. Malkah Shapiro writes in this beautiful, biblical Hebrew. Many, many Midrashic illusions, not all of which I was familiar with, every single word, it didn’t really get easier. You might think that I would become attuned to her language and to her lexicon.

That happened a little bit. But her syntax as so unusual to me, the kind of rhythms and the cadences of the poetry was so unusual. I went through 10 drafts. There were many points where it was clear that it was not translating well. I wanted to pick up cadence. I wanted to – as I believe I say there – I put my ear to the book. Sometimes I would do that physically.

I would put my ear to the pages of her words. I wanted to feel her breath against my ear. I wanted it to sound right. And I sent out drafts to friends, to family, to people whose native language was Hebrew, to people who are experts in Hasidism, to people who are experts in Polish Shtetl life. And each draft, I tried to make it better and clearer and to hear her voice and not my voice.

And at the end of the day, I wanted to make sure that it didn’t sound so much like contemporary English that, as I said whimsically, it started sounding like somebody from the late 20th century.

Rabbi Jeffrey Summit: How did you feel about Art reading your essay?

Rabbi Nehemia Polen: I am very honored that Rabbi Professor Arthur Green read this piece. I can’t think of anyone else who’s more qualified and who would give this work greater dignity and stature.

First of all, Rabbi Green is so central to the spiritual development, not only of me, but for the now several generations of Jews in America and throughout the world. He has courage. He has depth. He has tremendous wisdom and insight. And most of all, he has a heart that is just totally open with loving and compassion and embrace for all creatures. And in particular – not only, but in particular – for the Jewish tradition and the destiny and the future of the Jewish people. And I met him now 50 years ago in Havurat Shalom in Somerville, which he founded. And that’s really where I started studying Hasidism.

Art is the premiere translator in our day, I would say really in all periods, of Hasidic classical work, certainly into the English language. He is coming out with a landmark translation of one of the earliest classic Hasidic texts, Me’or Aynayim by Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl Stanford University Press.

Art combines both scholarly excellence and poetic sensibility and spiritual sensibility that is quite a combination. And so, to have him read this little essay about my contribution to Hasidic translation, I’m truly honored and delighted.

Thank you for joining us for this episode of Speaking Torah. We want to thank Emily Hoadley for our logo, and Hebrew College Rabbinical student and composer Jackson Mercer for our theme music Esa Einai. To learn more about Hebrew College, please visit And remember to subscribe, like, and rate Speaking Torah on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

We’ll leave you this week with Psalm 27, Adonai Ori, composed and performed by Hebrew College Graduate Cantor Dara Rosenblatt. For Hebrew College’s 57AD Elul Together Project. I’m your host, Rabbi Jeff Summit. See you next time for Speaking Torah.

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