PASSOVER: Speaking In (Passover) Tongues
Staff Writer
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A speech technology researcher and a pharmacist from nearby New Jersey have devoted the last 15 years to the Haggadah’s Four Questions. But this year they are answering one question. Why? Why have Murray Spiegel (he’s the high-tech guy) and Rickey Stein (the pharmacist) spent all their spare time lining up experts around the world to translate the seder highlight into well-known and little-known languages for the sake of “300 Ways to Ask the Four Questions” ($39.95, 368 pages, with an accompanying CD and DVD)? Their handiwork is a full-color, lavishly illustrated, self-published coffee-table book that weighs in at 2 1⁄2 pounds and presents pictures of world cultures and renderings of the Ma Nishtana in tongues from A (Abkhaz, spoken in the Abkhazia region of Georgia, Turkey and Ukraine) to Z (Zulu, from South Africa, Swaziland, Malawi and Mozambique). “To make seders fun,” Spiegel says, answering the question. Fun for people like him and Stein, who met in a synagogue choir and discovered that they share an interest in running creative seders and collecting translations of the Four Questions. Spiegel, 57, from Roseland, whose orientation is oral, had gathered recordings of the Four Questions in many standard languages, in a Donald Duck version of Hebrew and in Klingon, the language of “Star Trek” provenance. Stein, 67, from New Brunswick, favored written translations; he too had Klingon. “The Klingon is how the whole thing started,” Spiegel says. They decided to work together. “It’s a good marriage,” Stein says. “Our fields of interest are completely complimentary.” Eventually, their collection grew to more than 200 languages — eventually, they had enough for a book. Talking to friends, they found that many people shared their quirky interest in reading the Four Questions at the seder in a variety of languages. Friends contributed photographs, from trips abroad, for the pages on tongues from around the world. Strangers, usually contacted via the Internet, did the translations and recordings, for free. Each page also contains a translation and sometimes a transliteration, and a brief bio of the translator. Among the people who helped the pair’s “international cross-cultural linguistic project” were Muslims and Christians, professors and students, a Circassian princess and a Maasi warrior. “Not only did people not refuse” requests for assistance, “but they gave us much more than we asked for,” Spiegel says. Native speakers of languages spoken by few people were delighted to preserve a few words, even in an unfamiliar context, he says. “The translators thanked us.” Some of the choices, the authors concede, are obscure, if not outright bizarre. There’s Yiddish and Ladino, Amharic and two types of Aramaic. There’s Sumerian and Old English. There’s also Pig Latin and Valley Girl: “Like, why is this night like, totally different from, like, all other nights?” “Ask someone who knows a foreign language to read it at your seder,” the book’s extensive “Suggestions for Use” section states. Other suggestions: “Use a translation to welcome a guest from another country, or someone who has married into your family. ... Choose languages and countries to illuminate and relate to current events. ... Read some of the African languages, and relate the story of Nelson Mandela’s struggle to win freedom and rights...” Spiegel and Stein did not include dialects or speech patterns they considered too filled with slang. Besides that guideline, the authors took “everything we could get,” any language that came their way and for which they could find a willing collaborator, Spiegel says. “We didn’t consider [the book] strictly Jewish.” People from many non-Jewish cultures found familiar elements in the seder’s themes of freedom and redemption. “This is a message that resonates with other people.” Some of the translation efforts stretched over seven or eight years, as the authors struggled over the nuances of cultures that have either no precise word for one in the Four Questions, or a choice of several. “There is a story [behind] every page,” Stein says. Why the Four Questions, instead of any other part of the Haggadah? “It’s a natural,” Spiegel says. Everyone knows it. Kids look forward to reading it, and adults to hearing it.” He and Stein are still collecting translations. If their first book sells well, they may consider another edition, with other languages. “There are 6,500 languages in the world,” Stein points out. Working with the translators and finding a Hong Kong publisher and doing the book’s layout was “a lot of work,” Stein says. But he made friends during the process and learned a lot about other cultures. Was it worth the effort? Yes, says Spiegel. “No question.” Information about “300 Ways to ask the Four Questions” is available at

Last Update:

10/19/2009 - 10:32

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