Aviya Kushner’s book The Grammar of God: A Journey Into the Words and Worlds of the Bible is profoundly personal. Kushner grew up in a Hebrew-speaking, scholarly household in which the Bible—read in the original Hebrew—was often the center of conversation and debate.The interview follows. One excerpt:
She didn’t read the Bible in translation until her second year at the Iowa Writers Workshop, when she took a yearlong class with Marilynne Robinson that required reading the Old Testament in English.
Kushner was surprised at the differences between the Hebrew original she knew almost by heart and the nearly unfamiliar English translation she encountered.
From this experience grew an obsession. Kushner embarked on a ten-year project of reading and collecting different versions of the Hebrew Bible in English and traveling the world retracing the steps of the great biblical translators, searching for their motivations. It was a dangerous undertaking, considered heretical by some.
When Robinson read Kushner’s MFA thesis, which had grown out of notes taken in the Old Testament class, she told her: “this will be a book.” And so it is.
The Grammar of God is part memoir, part treatise. Kushner’s careful attention to historical, linguistic, and personal detail paints a story of universal importance, one realized through the sum of countless small, significant parts.
Q: How do the technical and the personal coexist in The Grammar of God? How did you strike a balance between the two—and how did you manage to make grammar a personal issue?Recent essays by Aviya Kushner were noted here and here.
I’m so glad you asked this question. I wanted to show English readers why ancient Hebrew grammar matters, and this meant I had to include some of the nitty-gritty; incredibly detailed passages about sentence structure, word structure, or grammatical structures like the cohortative mode—which exists in Hebrew but not in English.
But at the same time, I thought it was essential to show how ancient Hebrew is alive, how it’s talked about and argued about and laughed about, and how it is as deeply personal for me and for my family as the English is for so many others.
It wasn’t easy to balance the grammatical and the personal, but I felt both were essential, so I wove grammar and memoir together, sentence by sentence.