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Monday, September 28, 2020

Opinion: Lost in translation

“Our Passover seder is translated into Arabic,” I used to tell my friends in school. “Arabic?” they responded in bewilderment. “That’s so weird! How could you translate a seder into Arabic? Isn’t Arabic the language of the enemy?”

Growing up in a French-speaking Sephardic-Moroccan home in Los Angeles, my sisters and I were never taught that Arabic was the “language of the enemy.” That is, unless we considered our parents “the enemy” — they spoke it between themselves when they didn’t want us to understand what was being said.

I have vivid memories of Judeo-Arabic being spoken in my home. It was both a “private” language for my parents, as well as a form of cultural communication between my parents and their friends. In fact, there are several jokes for which, to this day, I don’t know the punch lines, as they started out in French, and just when the suspense was it its peak, the punch line rolled out in Judeo-Arabic. When my sisters and I would beg my father to translate, the answer always was, “I could translate, but it won’t be the same.”

I have come to understand my father’s principle of “I could translate, but it won’t be the same” to also mean that there are times when linguistic expression is often more powerful than the actual translation itself. Throughout my upbringing, the first chant at the Passover seder that really made it feel like Pesach for all of us around the table sounded like this:

Haq’da Qssam L’lah lb’har âla tnass l’treq ’hin khrzeu zdoud’na min massar, âla yed sid’na oun’bina Moussa ben Amram haq’da n’khrzeu min had l’galouth amen ken yehi ratson.

My father chanted this during yachatz, as he split the middle matzah. It was not a formal part of the haggadah. It was a text that stood by itself, and although none of us understood a word of what was being said, we all chimed in, and we all had our own images and perceptions of how this moment was speaking to us.

For me, in the truest spirit of Passover, this Judeo-Arabic chant represented a journey through my roots. In a language whose words I did not understand, but whose tone and music evoked deep emotions within me, this chant helped tell me the story of Jewish life in Morocco. On the night when we are mandated to “tell the story,” here came a chant in a language I did not speak, yet it told me the story of my Moroccan-Jewish heritage more vividly than any history book ever could. It evoked images in my mind of my great-grandfather Rabbi Yosef Pinto, sitting at his seder in Marrakech, dressed in a jalabiya with a scarf on his head, breaking the middle matzah and recounting the Exodus to his family in the same Judeo-Arabic. It transported me back to the Moroccan mellah (Jewish ghetto), a place I’ve only been to in my mind, but a place that I nonetheless could hear, feel and even smell, especially at that moment. “Haq’da Qssam L’lah” even reminded me — because it was in Arabic — that Moroccan Jewry once had positive and cordial relations with their Muslim neighbors, something we’ve painfully lost today.

As the seder journeyed on, it was peppered with other Judeo-Arabic chants. Examples include Had taam d’eef kleu zdoud’na fi ardi massar (Ha Lahma Anya — This is the Bread of Poverty) or Fkhrouz Israel mn masar (B’Tset Yisrael Mimitzrayim — When Israel Left Egypt — Psalm 114). These were the sounds at my seder — raw, unfiltered and deeply authentic. Hearing the haggadah in Arabic took us away from our first-generation American milieu and transported us back to a place where Judaism thrived in a deeply spiritual fashion, enriched by a cultural world that enjoyed an intimate bond with the cuisine, spices, music and language of North African Arab culture.

Although my parents are no longer alive, my family continues our Judeo-Arabic chanting at the seder. These chants continue to tell the story of Pesach — my Moroccan ancestors’ Pesach — to my children, in the original language of their ancestors. 

I am proud to raise my children to understand that, despite the ugly extremism of jihadists and fundamentalists, Arabic is still not the “language of the enemy,” and that Jews have a long-standing relationship with Arabic language and culture. It reminds my children that Jewish works of outstanding spiritual and intellectual stature, such as Judah Halevi’s “Kuzari” or Maimonides’ “Guide to the Perplexed,” were written in Arabic, and that nobody accused these great minds of writing in the “language of the enemy.”

After my father’s passing a few years ago, I found the translation of the text we read while breaking the middle matzah:

This is how the Holy One Blessed be He split the sea into twelve separate paths, when our ancestors left Egypt, through the leadership of our master and prophet, Moses son of Amram, of blessed memory. Just like God redeemed them and saved them from harsh labors and brought them to freedom, so, too, may the Holy One Blessed be He, redeem us for the sake of His great name, and let us say, Amen.

Sounds — and feels — so much better in the original.


Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center, an international organization with a campus in the Old City of Jerusalem. He is currently launching Makor, a new gap-year program combining Jewish studies, contemporary issues, social action and Israeli culture. Learn more about Makor at makorjerusalem.org.

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