Italian author Erri De Luca shares two passions with the Biblical lawgiver Moses: mountaineering and the Hebrew language. Such is the message of “And He Said,” translated from the Italian original which appeared from Feltrinelli Editore last year..
Born in 1950 in Naples, Luca was a militant leftist in “Lotta continua” (Continuous Struggle), a group which comprised several activists of Jewish origin, including Gad Lerner and Alexander Langer. After years in the masonry trade as a laborer, Luca became fascinated with the Bible and the Hebrew language, which he began to study in 1983 before making a humanitarian trip to Africa. This fascination increased, and Luca eventually produced translations into Italian of the Books of Exodus; Jonah; Ecclesiastes, and others. Luca also learned Yiddish in order to translate Itzhak Katzenelson’s poem “Song of the Murdered Jewish People,”, about the Warsaw Ghetto.
“And He Said” notes that Moses repeatedly climbed Sinai as the first alpinist in recorded history. An avid mountaineer himself, Luca describes the Hebrew language in lively poetic terms, likening the letter Yod to an “apostrophe located on top of a line, an almond on a branch.” Luca stresses the emotional ties between 20th century Jews and Southern Europeans who “boarded the same ships” as humble emigrants; Italians “fled poverty, and [Jews] the burning houses of pogroms.” Whereas Italians “left their bitter homeland, [Jews] went from one exile to another. We journeyed together to the four corners of the wind.” These emotional consonances inspired Luca to start every day at 5AM by reading a passage in Hebrew, although without any intention of actually converting to Judaism. As Luca puts it, “I share the journey of Judaism, not its arrival. My dwelling place is not in the Promised Land, but on the outskirts of the encampment…My share of manna is assured by readings in Hebrew, begun before each dawn.” Luca describes himself quixotically: “Just as a youth departing from his homeplace to follow a circus caravan, so did I begin to follow the people of Sinai.” Luca concludes that for him, Judaism is a “caravan pathway of consonants accompanied above and below the line by vowels flying hither and thither.”
“And He Said,” an ardent love letter to the Hebrew language, deserves prompt translation into English, as do Luca’s essays about Bible readings, “A Cloud-Carpet”; “Olive Pit”; and “My Tongue Doth Cleave to my Palate”, the last-mentioned an allusion to Psalm 137.
Listen to Erri de Luca on French radio here.
Watch Erri de Luca explain on Italian TV in 2011 why he wrote about Moses here.
Michael David Lukas’s first book, “The Oracle of Stamboul,” is now available. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog series. For more information on the series, please visit:
I’ve been thinking a lot these past few months about the year I spent in Tunisia. It was 2003, I had just graduated college and was living on the outskirts of Tunis. Officially, I was there as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar and was supposed to be studying Arabic while bridging the gap of understanding between the United States and the Arab World. It was, by all accounts, a good year. I did my best to bridge the gap between the United States and the Arab World, I read a trunk full of classic literature, and towards the end of the year I started writing what would later become my first novel, “The Oracle of Stamboul.” Those first few months, however, were full of loneliness and alienation. I missed my family and my friends, I missed my girlfriend, I missed being in college, and I missed those small American comforts (peanut butter, dryers, wood floors) which seemed not to exist in Tunisia. I had a few Tunisian friends at the Internet cafe around the corner, and my Eastern European roommates — Ozzie and Petr — were good guys, though I had difficulty connecting with them at first. One reason for this was that I got up early for Arabic class and they stayed up late partying, drinking cheap Tunisian beer, and playing hair metal at the highest volume Petr’s tinny laptop speakers could bear.
Earlier this week, Lavie Tidhar wrote about Jewish vampires and Hebrew punks and searching for Osama. His new novel, “An Occupation of Angels,” is now available. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog series. For more information on the series, please visit:
I’m living in Israel again after 17 years, which is a bit of a shock. The political discourse has always been ugly here, but it seems to be getting uglier, to the point that you might not want to open your mouth publicly about it. Seventeen years after I left, an 18-year-old with a passion for beaches, science fiction and smoking things that were not strictly legal anywhere but the Netherlands, it’s surprising how little has changed.
There is still an occupation, of course. Still half-hearted peace talks designed to fail, still an unwillingness to understand what it is that is so wrong at the heart of the Jewish state. An unwillingness to acknowledge anything can even be wrong. It occurs to me that we, Israelis, have forgotten what it means to be a Jew. I do not mean putting on tefillin, or going to shul, or knowing our Moses from our Abraham (or our Absalom from our David). As Jews we were never very good at being observant, we were merely good at being Jews. It is partly things like the erasure of Yiddish for Hebrew, the writing of a victorious, patriotic, often vitriolic official history, the changing of our names (my family was Heisikovitz before it was Tidhar), the very re-writing of what it means to be a Jew. We are not diaspora Jews, we were told. We are a new brand of Jew. A sabra. Prickly on the outside, sweet on the inside, yaddy yaddy yadda.
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