Adam Rovner talks about translating Yehoshuah Bar-Yosef’s Soul Mate, an excerpt from which was published in this month’s issue of WWB.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Israeli playwright Yosef Bar-Yosef, who knew that I served as the Hebrew translations editor for Zeek. Yosef recommended his late father’s controversial 1979 novella Soul Mate [Ahavat Nefesh] to me for translation. The story, he explained, concerns a Jewish scribe who falls in love with his young brother-in-law. It’s not every day you hear about a tale of homoerotic desire set among the alleyways and yeshivas of Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox Meah Shearim neighborhood. So when I traveled to Israel a few months later, I sought out a copy of his father’s forgotten book in a second-hand shop in downtown Jerusalem. The promise of Soul Mate’s sensational subject matter drove me to purchase the book, but Yehoshua Bar-Yosef’s narrative voice gripped me from the beginning to the end.
I recognized right away that Soul Mate was a kind of Death in Venice in Meah Shearim. Bar-Yosef’s story of suppressed passion, wild dreams, emotional turmoil, and the search for youthful inspiration takes place entirely within the rigid roles of traditional Jewish life. The protagonist works as a sofer, the Hebrew term for a calligrapher of biblical verses for Jewish ritual artifacts: mezuzahs, tefillin [phylacteries], and Torah scrolls. The sofer’s craft requires piety and discipline. One error in forming part of a letter, or even a small deviation from the ruler-straight lines incised on parchment can render the sofer’s work unfit for use.
The word sofer is also used in modern Hebrew to mean “author”; Bar-Yosef himself was a sofer in this latter sense. Israel’s only Nobel Prize-winning writer, S.Y. Agnon, employed a sofer character in his famous allegory of authorship, “The Tale of the Scribe” ([Agadat Hasofer] 1929). Agnon’s story centers around the conflict between sexuality and holiness in a religious household. The social milieu and language of Soul Mate, as well as its erotic charge, are surely meant to recall Agnon for Hebrew readers. But Bar-Yosef offers a sly update on Agnon’s themes in his depiction of books themselves—secular literature and philosophy especially. In Soul Mate, the scribe’s locked book cabinet stands as a potent yet open-ended symbol of both freedom and constraint. Traditional Jewish life centers around textuality, especially the study of the Torah, the Talmud, and various rabbinic commentaries. Desire for the wrong texts, like desire for the “wrong” sex, threatens to make the word of God illegible. And for the sofer in Bar-Yosef’s novella, a crooked hand is indeed an occupational hazard.