Jim Fleming: That’s a little tape from the archives of our friends at the Dictionary of American Regional English. Just goes to show how language can change from state to state, even from town to town. Of course it’s not just geography that defines culture. It’s shaped by language and class, clan and family. It’s also shaped by time. Today our cultures are fundamentally different than they were one or two or three generations ago. If we want to understand old cultural artifacts, maybe we need translators. Ruth Calderon has been studying Jewish texts and stories since she was a child. In her book “The Market, the Home, the Hearth”, she reinterprets them for contemporary life. Could you tell me a little about the background of these stories that you are reinterpreting?
Ruth Calderon: Yes, this is Talmudic stories. They are very short, miniature stories that were written around the 4th or 5th century in Babylon by Rabbis. And it’s not completely clear why they were written but they are spread out all through the Talmud which is mostly legal. And between the legal talk they appear, these little short stories and they usually give you some kind of depth to the conversation that was on the page.
Paulson: So they were written by Rabbis and who was the audience? Who was reading these stories?
Calderon: They were written by Rabbis for Rabbis. These are not popular stories. They can be fully understood only by people who know rabbinic culture well. Because the words are not just prose as we usually speak, the words are very concentrated. They are very symbolic.
Paulson: Well, maybe we could talk about one of the stories. I was thinking of Rabbi Love. Can you tell me the original story and then your reinterpretation of it?
Calderon: Yes of course. It’s going like this. Rabbi Love was sitting in front of the big Rabbi Rava in Mechoza which is a very famous Ivy League kind of yeshiva. And he used to come home to his wife every [sic] evening. One day the study was attracting him and his wife was waiting, saying “Now he’s coming; now he’s coming. “ He did not come. She weakened. One tear dropped from her eye. He was sitting on the roof. The roof broke under him. And his soul rested, meaning he died. It’s very unclear in the first reading I think.
Paulson: My understanding is that actually in rabbinic law, the Rabbi is required to come back to his wife at least once a year and to engage in sexual relations. And partly this is what the wife is waiting for.
Calderon: Yes it’s a very interesting way of thinking about it. In the rabbinic culture they say that needs to offer sexual and intimate relationships is the man. They are very aware of the fact that women need intimacy. Now in this story we see someone that is called Rabbi Love. And we expect him to be a professional lover and someone that understands in intimacy. And we find him coming home only, and they have this cynical read here. They say he used to come home every once a year. So I think they are mocking him a little. And usually he comes home at the day of the [sic] which is the day that, in Jewish culture, you ask for forgiveness. And when she would forgive him again, he would again go back to the yeshiva and again leave her alone and study. That specific year he was attracted by the study. And he said to himself- well, I’ll come tomorrow. Now the storyteller tells us that she is sitting and waiting. In the Aramaic, the words, “now he’s coming”, “Now he’s coming” sounds like “Hashda attay” “Hashda attay”. You can hear her breath waiting for him. “Hashda attay” “Hashda attay”. And then there’s one line that says he did not come. “Lob ma.” And then she breaks down and she let’s one tear drop from her eye. Now we have a kind of split screen. On one side of the screen we see a close up of this beautiful woman and the tear drops from the eye. On the other side of the screen we see a man sitting on roof of the study house and when she lets the tear drop the roof below him breaks and he falls at the same pace on the other side of the screen until he gets to the ground and dies.
Paulson: So the quick reading of this would be if that he is so wrapped up in his rabbinical studies, he forgets about his wife.
Calderon: Exactly. And when he is sitting up there on t he roof and he is studying below the starts and feeling very lifted, very close to God, is not the way of the fact that the roof of the building he is sitting on is actually his wife. In Aramaic, a wife is the same word for home. If her heart breaks, and she can’t hold anymore, everything that he feels in his career that he is so high up and so successful, will fall with her.
Paulson: Your story or your interpretation of the story comes from the wife’s perspective. It’s a very much a woman’s point of view. Is that the way the story has traditionally been interpreted?
Calderon: I’m afraid not. It’s a new thing that women study Talmud. I think it’s a very valuable; no perspective to think what was she thinking. She doesn’t even have a name here. The rabbis of our generation or the generation before us did not study stories so much. They used to skip them and look for the legal stuff.
Paulson: Can you explain how these stories would be used in the Talmud? How they are edited into religious texts?
Calderon: Yes that’s a very interesting question because like when you pat a cat you can stroke the fur with the fur and against the fur. In the same way you can read it with the fur, so they will say "A man has to come to his wife once a week, but he’s also allowed once every 3 months and this is the law." And then they put this story and the story strikes you against the fur saying, it is allowed, but it is very cruel, it’s very dangerous. So it’s not like in legal books this is not an example. The ruling says one thing and the story says actually the opposite. And to get there you get the full Torah, the full learning.
Paulson: I’m wondering how you see what you’re doing with this kind of interpretation of the story. How it fits into the ancient tradition of exegesis, of interpreting these Talmudic stories. I could imagine that a lot of traditional rabbis would say “Hey, wait a minute. You’re reading too much into the story.” Do you see it that way or do you see what you’re doing as part of the long history of exegesis?
Calderon: I feel it is a part of a long history of interpretation. Jewish culture is in constant change all the time. I believe that when I read, I try to read it clean, and try to understand what the write has put in the story for me. Usually when people like traditional rabbis today or ultra orthodox rabbis if they’d come to me and they’d doubt my reading, usually when we sit together and read the actual text we become closer than other people that would believe my way of living but would not read the Talmud. I feel that the Talmud is necessary to my life and I must find the way to make it relevant for me. And to make my life relevant for it.
Paulson: You’ve founded an institute that has brought together artists who work on and interpret these Talmudic stories and I assume they’ve come up with their own interpretations. What are some of the most exciting reinterpretations you’ve come across?
Calderon: Some of the most exciting work, there’s now a new show by [sic] who is a great Israeli photographer who is showing all over the United States and he did a series of biblical images with the homeless people that is great work. There’s a musician called Kobi Oz who recorded two albums while he is reading these ancient texts and he interpreted in his own kind of rock, pop kind of way. David Grossman, one of the best living writers today, he has been studying with us since the first time I established an institution alone. And the David Grossman was studying and he’s still studying every week. And in his books, even when he writes a novel, in the language you can see that he is studying.
Paulson: Is this important in Israel? In terms of bring together the secular side of Israel with the orthodox, religious side?
Calderon: I believe it is very important. But I’m not sure that Israel today, it’s a little bit of [xx] in a way that the majority of secular Israelis do not see yet that these texts are very important to them. And they usually leave them to the orthodox. Although I believe it’s important to build deeper culture and to make our life much richer, and also to have a base, in which can, very different people can live together, because we the same cultural language, the same heroes, the same insight. So I believe it is important and I also enjoy doing it very much. It is my passion, I love my work. I hope one day it’ll also be considered important.
Jim Fleming :Ruth Calderon is the head of cultural and educational programs at the National Library of Israel. She’s also the founder of Alma College in Tel Aviv. Steve Paulson spoke with her.