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Apr 2009 Journal

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Letter from Israel: A friend and mentor

The following paragraph in a review of the book My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search For His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq by Ariel Sabar, on the internet site of the San Diego Jewish World, made me jump:
It was his Hebrew History teacher, Professor Chaim Rabin, who lit the spark to study his own ancient tongue, Aramaic. There were many ancient texts that up until that point were never deciphered for lack of knowledge of the language. Rabin encouraged Sabar to study Hebrew and Aramaic side by side and see how one linked to another.
The book describes the history of the Jewish community of Kurdistan, the experiences of the author’s father, Yona, as a youngster growing up in Kurdistan, the family’s immigration to Israel soon after the establishment of the State of Israel, and Yona’s determination to attend university despite the difficulties encountered by Sephardi immigrants at that time. The author, who grew up in California, was estranged from his father for many years, primarily because of the cultural gulf between them. However, a chance encounter triggered his interest in the history of his father and the Jewish community of Kurdistan, and this helped him to overcome the gulf.
All very interesting and worthwhile, but what interested me was the reference to Chaim Rabin, who died in 1996 aged 79. Chaim was a friend and mentor to me and my family for many years. In fact, when I moved to Israel, in 1964, to study and work at the Hebrew University, Chaim and his wife Batya were among the first to invite me to their home for a meal on a Friday night or Shabbat. In fact, my family’s association with Batya, née Emmanuel, goes back to Hamburg, Germany, where her parents and my grandparents lived near one another. But that’s another story. Our paths crossed again in London, when Batya, who qualified as a social worker, worked in that capacity for the Jewish Blind Society, of which my late father, Manfred Vanson, was secretary.
Chaim Rabin had a very distinguished career as Professor of Semitic Languages at Oxford University and later at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was a brilliant man, with an extensive knowledge of ancient and modern languages. He once told me that the way he learned any new foreign language was simply to pick up a detective novel in that language and read it. He was also instrumental in establishing the Israel Translators’ Association, as well as the concept of translation studies as an academic subject.
But above all, Chaim was a kind person who never put on the airs and graces or professorial demeanour that are sometimes adopted by persons who have failed to achieve even half the distinction that he acquired. It was always interesting to talk to him, though he never tried to impress his interlocutor by displaying erudite knowledge. He loved to tell a good joke, especially if it had a linguistic twist, and I still remember the one about the French professor of linguistics who complained about the sad, harsh cadences of Hebrew but noted that there was only one word with a happy sound: ‘umlala’ - meaning miserable.
A few days after reading the book review I attended a meeting of the Jerusalem Translators’ Association. The guest lecturer was a specialist in preparing indices for academic books who had studied ancient languages. I happened to mention the fact that Chaim Rabin’s name had cropped up in far-off San Diego and, when I described the paragraph quoted above, she said ‘You must be talking about Yona Sabar.’ The world of Jewish scholarship is both wide-ranging and intimate, it seems.
 

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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