Thursday, April 16, 2009

SUN IN HEBREW: Philologos has the story in Hot, Rare and Missed. Excerpt:
Mr. Goldman’s query, however, has nothing to do with the calendar. What bothers him, rather, is, “Admittedly, it is more than a half century since I attended Hebrew school, but the Hebrew word for sun that I remember quite distinctly is shemesḥ” He wants to know why, when we bless the sun, we don’t say a birkat ha-shemesh rather than a birkat ha-ḥamah?

The answer to this is that shemesh and ḥamah are synonyms for “sun” in Hebrew. Both go back to biblical times, with one or the other preferred in different stages of Hebrew’s history. Shemesh, the Hebrew cognate of an ancient Semitic word (in Arabic, it is shams), was the everyday word in the period of the Bible, in which it occurs more than 120 times.

Ḥamah, on the other hand, can be found only five times in the Bible. Formed from ḥam, “hot,” so that its literal meaning is “the hot one,” ḥamah was a relatively rare epithet for the sun that was reserved for literary or oratorical occasions. ...
For the calendrical issue in question, see here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

ARAMAIC WATCH: A long Haaretz article on the survival (so far) of Iranian Aramaic in Israel:
Guarding their language
By Aviad Segal
Tags: Hebrew, Aramaic, Israel News

"If Jesus returned to the Holy Land," wrote journalist Julian Borger in The Guardian in 1998, "probably one of the few places he would be understood in his mother tongue would be a basement beside the central bus station in Tel Aviv."

That basement houses the recording studio of music arranger A.B. Kazes, and often hosts successful musicians and singers. It was here that the Nash Didan band was born. "It all began thanks to my mother," says Arik Mordechai, 57, a soloist and the founder of the band, which has produced eight albums, all of them sung entirely in Aramaic.

"She came to me and asked why I didn't do something for 'our people' [nash didan in Aramaic]." A few weeks later the band recorded its first song, "Nash Didan Idaylu" (Our People Have Arrived). A first album, bearing the same name, was released shortly thereafter, and Mordechai claims that it sold 50,000 copies.

"Audiences attended our performances out of curiosity and were surprised to discover something different, something new," Mordechai continues. "Very soon we started getting phone calls from all over the world, from people who were surprised to find Israelis speaking the language. One day a fax arrived from Syria, informing us of the existence of communities there that spoke Aramaic. Another day a journalist working for a Mormon paper in Utah visited. What we did with Aramaic was like taking an archaeological finding, wrapping it in cotton wool and presenting it to the public."

Nash Didan is also the name by which the community of some 5,000 Aramaic-speaking Jews from Urmia, a city in Persian Azerbaijan (contemporary Iran), refer to themselves. Like the band, which rarely meets these days , the Aramaic spoken by Urmia's Jews has become almost extinct. Community members believe that very soon the general public will only revive the language of the Talmud, the language of Abraham and Jesus, on Passover eve, with the reading of the Haggadah, when Jews recall "ha lahma anya" the "bread of affliction" eaten in Egypt and sing Had Gadya. Aramaic references will also remain in idioms that have become rooted in Hebrew, such as treisar (dozen) and bar mazal (lucky person).


[Ora[ Jacobi continued researching the language and the community from her home in Ramat Gan. "I started writing down anecdotes from my mother-in-law's life, as a hobby. I never imagined they would grow into a book, but that is exactly what happened, based on her stories and things I learned about the Nash Didan from other people."

"Almos," the novel Jacobi published, follows the lives of two women, one Jewish and the other Assyrian, through the events in Urmia between 1914 and 1950. Musician Arik Mordechai's mother is among the book's other characters. "The things we have done - the band and Ora's book," he says, "made people stand up and feel pride in our Nash Didan identity."

There is no better way to explain the flood of calls Jacobi received after the publication of "Almos," which to date has not appeared in English translation. The positive feedback encouraged her to team up with Avraham Hachami, head of the association of Urmians in Israel, to write "Nash Didan," a historical book.

"People suddenly started coming out of the woodwork, wanting to help," recalls Jacobi, who has been working with the community and its language for a decade. "There was a sense of urgency, that if we didn't do this now, the opportunity would be lost. After all, in addition to this being an interesting community, my children also happen to belong to it."

There's lots more. Worth reading in full.

UPDATE: Plus, there's another article on Maaloula (Ma'aloula, Malula) and its new Aramaic Institute. Apparently it was first published in the Guardian (I must have missed it) but here it's at UTV News.
Endangered Aramaic language makes a comeback in Syria

Syrian President Assad has set up an institute to revive interest in the language of Christ

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

* International News

Ilyana Barqil wears skinny jeans, boots and a fur-lined jacket, handy for keeping out the cold in the Qalamoun mountains north of Damascus. She likes TV quiz shows and American films and enjoys swimming. But this thoroughly modern Syrian teenager is also learning Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.

Ilyana, 15, is part of an extraordinary effort to preserve and revive the world's oldest living tongue, still close to what it probably sounded like in Galilee, now in Israel, on the brink of the Christian era.

"In Nazareth when Jesus was born they spoke more or less the same language as we do in Maaloula today," said teacher Imad Reihan, one of the pillars of this picturesque village's Aramaic Language Academy, where Barqil is studying.

"Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani" ("My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me") – Christ's lament on the cross – was famously uttered in Aramaic.

Recognised by Unesco as a "definitely endangered" language, Aramaic is spoken by 7,000 people in Maaloula, dominated by Greek Catholics (Melikites) whose churches and rites long pre-date the arrival of Islam and Arabic. Western Neo-Aramaic, to use its proper linguistic title, is spoken by about 8,000 others in two nearby villages, one now wholly Muslim.

Background here.

Monday, April 13, 2009

HARRISON FORD is to be honored at an AIA event:
Archaeological Institute To Honor Harrison Ford

April 13, 2009 (Look to the Stars)

The Archaeological Institute of America will celebrate its 130th anniversary by holding a gala on April 28 to honor Harrison Ford and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.

The theme and décor of the AIA Gala will offer guests a unforgettable experience, providing a glimpse into ancient cultures and civilizations. In organizing the evening’s program, the AIA is pleased to partner with the Consulates, Trade Offices, and Tourism Boards of the following countries: Chile, Croatia, Egypt, Greece, Guatemala, India, Israel, Italy, Mexico, and Peru. As a result, the auction, which includes archaeologically themed items, will feature exclusive tours to destinations across the globe, all of which are rich in art, culture, and archaeological sites. Also featured in the auction is a prize-winning piece of Guatemalan jade sculpture courtesy of the Guatemala Tourism Commission and the Guatemala Trade Commission.

THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS by Elaine Pagels gets a thirty-year retrospective by Michael Kaler in the Globe and Mail:
Hip gnostics


Globe and Mail Update

April 10, 2009 at 5:41 PM EDT

If there ever was one unified Christian movement, it probably died with Jesus at the first Easter. Ever since, Christianity has been a collection of any number of diverse groups.

Some – such as the Roman and Egyptian churches – have survived for millennia; others have vanished. Over a period of several centuries, the men we now call church fathers (the leaders of several of the factions of early Christians) fought opposing factions in the battle to define and control this new religion. Polemics were waged, books were destroyed, history was rewritten, all in the hope of eliminating “heresies” such as gnosticism.

It didn't work. Gnosticism is everywhere these days, in the movies, in the headlines and on bestseller lists. And this year marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of Elaine Pagels's The Gnostic Gospels, the book that more than any other brought knowledge of gnosticism back into the mainstream.

The article also surveys some key scholarship about Gnosticism during this period.
ARAMAIC INCANTATION SKULLS get some attention in Haaretz:
'Ancient Jews used skulls in ceremonies despite ban'
By Ofri Ilani, Haaretz Correspondent

Tags: israel news, skull

Newly published archaeological evidence attests to the fact that ancient Jews used human skulls in ceremonies, despite a strict Halakhic prohibition on touching human remains.

British researcher Dan Levene from the University of Southampton published findings in Biblical Archaeological Review about the human skulls, known as incantation bowls, some of which bear inscriptions in Aramaic.

The skulls are comparable in many ways to incantation bowls, but are not themselves bowls.

I have already noted the BAR article here.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


This article in the Boston Globe has several:
Words made fresh
A look at the real Jesus, Judas, and how religion has shaped history

By Rich Barlow

THE FINAL DAYS OF JESUS: The Archaeological Evidence By Shimon Gibson

HarperOne, 272 pp., illustrated, $27.99

JUDAS: A Biography By Susan Gubar

Norton, 453 pp., illustrated, $27.95

GOOD BOOK: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible By David Plotz

Harper, 336 pp., $26.99


Lion, 224 pp., $34.95.

Perhaps you're celebrating the Resurrection in church this morning. Or you may be catching "Meet the Press" and scoffing at those sitting in their pews. Either way, it's clear that the trial and crucifixion of the historical Jesus mark one of the pivotal moments in humanity's stay on the planet. Scholars - atheists and believers alike - doggedly hunt for what really happened during that last week in Jerusalem.

More of Gibson's book here. I have noted David Plotz's Bible project here, here, here, and here.

Also in the Boston Globe, yet another review of Michel Faber's The Fire Gospel, the novel about newly recovered Aramaic scrolls about the life of Jesus:
In Faber's satire, ancient scrolls reveal another Gospel
Michel Faber has constructed a collection of beads hastily strung together, some paste and some precious.
By Richard Eder
April 12, 2009

By Michel Faber
Canongate, 213 pp., $20

Michel Faber has devised some lovely notions for "The Fire Gospel," a kind of myth or allegory that starts with the discovery of nine biblical scrolls and goes on to satirize all manner of American ways. He has devised a fair amount of clunk, as well, in much of the satire and in a story that flies for a while and crash-lands. It is a collection of beads hastily strung together, some paste and some precious.

Background here.

In Haaretz, a review of a historical novel in Hebrew:
Historical Fiction
Archaeologist of the soul
By Doron Bar-Adon

Tags: Haaretz book supplement
Natalie Mesika turns the remnants and fragments of the Roman era into a richer, more complete world that brings together Pompeii and the Galilee town of Yodfat

Adama Shehora (Black Earth)

by Natalie Mesika Dofen Publishers (Hebrew), 338 pages, NIS 78

Between 66 and 70 C.E., Romans and Jews fought each other throughout the Land of Israel, most significantly in Jerusalem. The Lower Galilee town of Yodfat was captured by Vespasian in 67. And Yosef Ben-Matityahu, the leader of the Jewish revolt, surrendered and moved over to the Roman side, becoming the historian known as Josephus Flavius. Twelve years later, Mount Vesuvius erupted, and the volcano destroyed the southern Italian city of Pompeii.

Fast forward to contemporary times, to Israeli archaeologist Natalie Mesika, who has excavated at both the Yodfat site and Pompeii. While excavating Yodfat, she tells us in the foreword to this historical novel, she met a Bedouin girl who had discovered ancient coins in a pile of soil that had already been meticulously sifted and checked by professionals. That woman, the author says, made Mesika realize she could follow her intuition - the wisdom of the heart that gives added strength to feelings, emotions and primarily, the imagination.

"Black Earth," Mesika's first book, retells the well-known stories of Yodfat and Pompeii, in a way that inevitably links their shared fates. The novel flits back and forth between the Land of Israel and Roman Italy, and the descriptions of each complement the other. It has three narrators, who switch off in the telling, but their connections and the full picture of the narrative become clear only at the end of the book, which not only tells a story, but also addresses questions of fate, the logic of war, the existential state, the psychology of nationalism, contemporary politics and the human experience of the individual.

The aged Josephus is one of the characters.
HAPPY EASTER to all those celebrating.