This weekend, Mr. Bookworm and I finally got around to watching “Koran by Heart,” an HBO documentary about an annual Koran memorization contest held in Cairo during Ramadan. The documentary followed three ten-year old children — a boy from Tajikistan, a girl from the Maldives, and a boy from Senegal. All three children were manifestly bright, curious, and possibly possessed of photographic memories. And all three were trapped in a system that makes memorizing the Koran in the original Arabic (and none of these three children spoke Arabic) the apex of education. In other words, this was a sheer memory exercise, unaccompanied by understanding and analysis. Indeed, the boy from Tajikistan was functionally illiterate in both Arabic and Tajik. This show, more than any other we’ve ever watched, got Mr. Bookworm thinking about the vast chasm between the Western and Islamic worlds.
Spending an hour and a half watching a show about the Koran, which included periodic translations from the text, got me thinking about the Bible. Around the world, billions of Christians and Jews read the Bible. It is a living text. Although last updated two thousand years ago, with the New Testament, it is as vital today as has been at any time during its history.
I don’t believe the Bible’s continuing vitality is simply because people of faith teach it to their children, and have done so for thousands of years. I believe its ongoing relevance and resonance come about because the Bible is an intensely humanist document. I cannot think of another religious treatise that is so people-oriented. God is certainly there, as the creator, covenantor, moralist, teacher, guide and judge, but the Bible is fundamentally a story of human kind: its virtues, foibles, fears, frustrations, good and evil. It remains valid today because, while cultures change, people don’t. We recognize ourselves in the Bible. Our times may dictate the morality and other lessons we take from the book, but we are all there, every one of us, in all our permutations.
In the same vein, Yiddish is an intensely human-oriented language. While the Inuits may have a lot of words for snow, jungle dwellers a range of words for animal and plant life, and farmers an endless repertoire of weather and crop words, Yiddish has words about people. Not blunt, broad words, but myriad delicate words that contemplate the nature of humanity and all shades of human behavior.
Only Yiddish has such words as schlemiel and schlemazel. You may already know the difference between those words: the schlemiel spills the soup; the schlemazel gets it in his lap. Or chutzpah, which is defined by looking at the man who kills both his parents, and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan. And how about mensch, which sounds exactly like the German word for person but, in Yiddish, means so much more: a Yiddish mensch is a truly decent human being. He’s not just a sentient ape; he is the apex of what ordinary people can aspire to be in their daily lives.
I don’t have anywhere else to go with this post. I just thought that both the Bible and Yiddish are unusual insofar as they are intensely aware of human nature.