Monday, May 20, 2013

Israel Davidson, a 19th century Hebrew translation of "Yankee Doodle" and Michael Rodkinson's lack of English

Here's part of a great exchange in the pages of the American Hebrew in 1899, notably because one protagonist was a young Israel Davidson, and the other's rejoinder included a pretty amusing Hebrew translation of Yankee Doodle.

What had happened was, Jacob Goldstein (1855-19? well, he was alive and a chaplain in the US army in 1918), an English-born, Australia-raised rabbi in Newark, and also a one-time editor of the American Hebrew, had written a review of Menachem Mendel Dolitsky's book of Hebrew verse Kol Shirei Menachem.... In the review, Goldstein made several unpardonable sins. For example, he had not read each and every poem carefully, and treated one, a piyyut for Yom Kippur, that was actually satire, as if it were the real thing. Secondly, he wrote something about rhymes in Hebrew that Davidson considered to be an error. Thirdly, he approved of the poems being published with nikkud, making it useful to a student of Hebrew who, with the aid of a dictionary, will be able to enjoy the book. Here Davidson takes a really low blow and says that Goldstein personally needs the vowel points and a dictionary, i.e., he is a novice in Hebrew! 

Davidson is merely reiterating a sarcastic point he made early in the letter, claiming that "Hebrew is the most difficult language to acquire at a mature age, [so] if a man, old enough to write such a facile English as the reviewer does, begins to study Hebrew and in a short time presume to judge of the character of a Hebrew poem from the title [Piyyut Le-yom Ha-kippurim], he must indeed be a phenomenal being. Nay, it occurs to me just now, that we should regard one with awe, who attempted to divine the meaning of any kind of poem without first reading it." As you can see, he also criticized Goldstein's English - something that seems to have been something of a past-time among the scholarly immigrant crowd in those days. By the end - it seems to have passed sarcasm, and Davidson seems to believe that Goldstein doesn't know what he is talking about.

Israel Davidson, of course, knew a thing or two about Hebrew poetry, going on to compile the magnificent and still amazing Thesaurus of Hebrew Poetry/ Otzar Ha-shirah ve-ha-Piyyut. But he was young, and got carried away with sarcasm.

Goldstein rejoindered that Davidson is correct that he is guilty of not reading the book carefully, as far as that goes, although he said so in the review itself, that he was asked to write a "notice" not a review, of the book. But he takes serious issue with the other criticisms, correctly taking him to task for his nasty (and ungrounded) assertion that he is a Hebrew beginner. Finally, his response to Davidson's critique about rhymes is to print a few lines of his poem Yanki Dudel Ba Le-ir.

Incidentally, parts of these letters concern the Rodkinson Talmud, Goldstein having written critically of it the week before (Davidson approves, calling Goldstein's review a "eulogy"). Goldstein's letter is actually a response to Rodkinson's displeasure with the review. Since there is a current post at the Seforim Blog by Marvin J. Heller on the Rodkinson Talmud - link - I thought it worthwhile to post a comment made by Goldstein in the present letter. Rodkinson had charged that Goldstein only knows the Talmud "from an English translation"! Here is part of Goldstein's rejoinder:
It would be impudent for me to undertake a "new critical edition of the Talmud" because I have not the necessary equipment for the task. It is just as improper for Mr. Rodkinson to undertake a translation into English - simply because he does not know English. (emph. in the original.)
Finally, since Heller wrote concerning Rodkinson's surname as follows -
He was born to a distinguished Hasidic family; his father was Sender (Alexander) Frumkin (1799-1876) of Shklov, his mother, Radka Hayyah Horowitz (1802-47). Radka died when Rodkinson was an infant, and he later changed his surname from Frumkin to Rodkinson, that is, Radka’s son.
- I thought it would be fitting to post something that by coincidence I had come across a couple of days ago: Rodkinson himself gave his story of his surname in the pages of the American Hebrew (Nov. 13, 1903. Here it is, for posterity:
" father's name was Alexander Frumesch (see Toldath Besht, p. XXXVI), after his father, that grand man, Nacheur [sic?] Frumesch, and only his sons adopted the name Frumkin, for they were so called by the people. My name Rodkinson, after my mother, Rodke, who died one year after my birth, was given to me in childhood to save me from military duty, as was also done to my brother, Leib Hirsch, who lives in Jerusalem. In spite of this, being in Russia, we used to sign in private our renowned family name, "Frumkin."  
I, however, used to add my mother's name in private letters as well as in my publications, which can be proven by my books, published previously to 1876, when I emigrated to Konigsberg, Prussia." 
In the aforementioned "Toldath" he writes his grandfather's name as follows: מנחם נחום פרומעש משקלאוו. And he also gives his mother's name as: ראדא חאסיא.

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