The Yiddish Quran
There was an unusual event in Haifa the other day. Muhammad Sharif Odeh, the leader of the Israeli community of the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam, announced the 25th anniversary of an Ahmadiyya-sponsored translation into Yiddish of selections from the Quran. Called by Haifa’s Jewish mayor, Yona Yahav, the “Reform Jews of Islam,” the Ahmadiyyas, who claim tens of millions of followers around the world, are among the most moderate of Muslims. Their Yiddish Quran project, the only one of its kind, represents a reaching out to Jews — a touchingly naive one, it must be said, since just about the only native Yiddish speakers left are Haredim, who are about as likely to read the Quran as they are to replace their black hats with Arab keffiyehs. (And who could, in any case, read the Quran in the full Hebrew translations that already exist.)
Yet even if, out of sheer curiosity, an ultra-Orthodox Jew were to read the Quran in the Ahmadiyyas’ Yiddish, he would find it a disconcerting experience. This is not because the Yiddish is unidiomatic; on the contrary, it is clearly that of a native Yiddish speaker who either knew classical Arabic or worked with someone who did. Nor is it because of the Quran itself — a book, I must admit, of which I am not a great admirer. Rather, it is because Yiddish is so closely, so intimately, so inextricably linked to Judaism that there is something singularly odd about encountering it in the service of another, and in some ways anti-Jewish, religion. (The same thing can be said, I’m sure, of Yiddish versions of the New Testament, with which I don’t happen to be familiar.)
It’s enough to read the Quran’s opening verse, the well-known Arabic Bismi Allahi er-raḥmani er-raḥim, “In the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful,” which is rendered in Yiddish as In nomen fun Allah, dem gnediken, dem barmhartzigen, to feel a bit of a shock. In English, “Allah” simply comes across as the Arabic name of God. In Yiddish, in which God has His own special names, too (ha-shem, der koydesh-borekh-hu, der eybishter, etc.), it sounds blasphemous, as if one were acknowledging the existence of another God in the world besides the Jewish one.
Or take the translation of verse 137 in the Quran’s fourth chapter, the Al-Nisa Surah. The verse begins, “O ye who believe, believe in Allah and His messenger, and in the book which He has revealed to His messenger, and in the book which He revealed before.” These two books are, of course, the Quran and the Torah, both referred to as kitab in Arabic, and the Yiddish translation of the second half of the verse goes, “… un in dem seyfer, vos er hot entplekt tsu zayn sholiakh, un in dem seyfer, vos er hot entplekt friyer.”
Since the Hebrew-derived word seyfer, “book,” is used in Yiddish only for a Jewish religious text, this sounds strange to a Yiddish speaker when applied to the Quran. And on the other hand, although a seyfer-toyreh is a parchment scroll of the Pentateuch, the Torah itself is never referred to in Yiddish as a seyfer, let alone as der seyfer fun Moyshe, “Moses’ seyfer,” as it is elsewhere in our translation. It is simply the toyre, unique and unparalleled, and to speak of it as if it were just one more book among many has a demeaning ring, certainly to ultra-Orthodox ears.
Of course, the Yiddish translator had a dilemma: Had he used the word toyreh, he would have been promoting the Jewish rather than the Muslim sense of things. He had a similar dilemma with Verse 81 of Surah 3: “And when Allah made a covenant [with the Jews] through the prophets [saying]…. Do you affirm and accept My compact in this? They said: We do affirm.” This is translated into Yiddish as “…. Er hot azoy gezogt: zayt ir maskim, nemt ir oyf zikh di akhrayes, velkhe ikh leyg aroyf af aykh in dem inyen? Hobn zey hobn gezogt: Mir zenen maskim” — that is, “He [God] said: Do you agree to accept the responsibility [akhrayes] that I am putting on you in this matter?” [and] they said: “We agree.”
An ultra-Orthodox reader would have no difficulty identifying this as a Muslim retelling of the story in Exodus about the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, according to which God asks the Israelites if they will “keep his covenant” (im shmartem et briti, in Hebrew), to which they reply, “Na’aseh ve’nishma,” “We will do [it] and we will obey.” Had the Yiddish translation used the Hebrew of the Bible, which any Haredi reader would have been familiar with, such a reader would have recognized the Quran’s source at once — which is precisely what both the Quran and the Yiddish translation do not want him to do. The Jewish story had to be de-Judaized in order to be Islamized. Much of the Quran works this way.
None of this, needless to say, is a criticism of the Ahmaddiyyas. They were trying not to proselytize, but simply to make the Quran available to a specific audience of Jews. The fact that this audience could not possibly have appreciated it in the form in which it was made available does not detract from their good intentions.
Questions for Philologos can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org