SidebarMeet the authors
April 08, 2008
Positioned on opposite sides of the Kol Dodi community choir for six years, bass Murray Spiegel of Roseland and tenor Rickey Stein of New Brunswick might never have discovered how much they had in common if Stein had not overheard Spiegel talking about translating the Four Questions into Klingon during a rehearsal break.
The result of that shared interest morphed into the newly published 300 Ways to ask the Four Questions (Spiegel-Stein Publishing, $39.95).
The coauthors recalled that moment 15 years ago.
“Murray had been collecting audio translations of various parts of the Passover seder ritual,” Stein said in an interview with NJ Jewish News. “‘Murray,’ I said when I heard him talking, ‘I’ve been doing this for 20 years.’ We looked at each other — no thought or idea about a book then — only collecting languages to enhance the seder, make it more interesting.”
“I work in speech technology,” Spiegel said. “I had only been interested in recordings. Stein’s an expert on the writing systems of the world. We were completely complementary, almost symbiotic.” It was “this amazing coincidence of two of us doing the same thing. It really was beshert [fated].”
Spiegel, who has been reworking his seder — changing Haggadot, decorating the house like a Bedouin tent, writing song parodies — since his college days, has found myriad ways to incorporate translations of the Four Questions into the seder.
“We’ve gone around the room having people read a line in a different language or matching a language with a culture or asking people to read the selection in the language of their ancestors,” he told NJJN. “You can say, ‘Link with your lineage. Here’s what it would have sounded like in Ukrainian or Polish.’”
Each of the 368 pages in this richly designed and handsomely illustrated book features one language and one translation — from Olde English to Mongolian, ancient Akkadian to American Sign Language, Eskimo to Esperanto, Panjabi to Pig Latin. At your seder, if you wish to recite the Four Questions as either Moses or the Pharaoh would have (Late Egyptian, 3400 BCE–300 CE), the hieroglyphics and the transliteration are provided. Those seeking something different might choose Valley Girl (“Like, why is this night like, totally different from, like, all other nights?”). In all, more than 740 languages from 61 countries are represented in the book (not to mention the variety of language games, puzzles, and parodies).
According to Stein, each page also “talks about the language and presents interesting facts, anecdotes, and biographical information on the translator, with photos of the country where the language is spoken.” On their Web site (www.Whyisthisnight.com), on the DVD and CD included with each book, and in the talks both authors give to groups all over North America, the emphasis is on the link between culture and language. For example: How do you translate “leavening” into Gujarati (India) when the language has no word for “yeast,” or into Polish, which has five synonyms for “leavening”?
Sometimes the hardest job was finding an expert in a rare or extinct language. “It took us eight years and 15 people to get a translation into Navaho,” Stein said. “There are 6,500 languages out there right now. Within a century, half of them are going to be gone. Our feeling is…if we have the opportunity to save even a fraction of a language, to say this language was alive and here, then we should use it. That’s my selling point when I go out to get languages: translations.”
Its educational dimensions — the information on culture, language, and history — make introducing elements from the book an easy fit into the seder, a ritual whose major purpose is to “actively transmit your Jewish heritage to kids of the next generation,” Stein said.
The two New Jersey linguists have amassed a collection they will never display on shelves or trade on eBay, but they are as passionately committed as any other hobbyist. “What motivates us,” Spiegel admitted, “is the fun of collecting. For us it was the excitement of getting another language from a far-away country — we’ve been in touch with some amazing people — we didn’t really want to stop. When we passed through 150 [languages], our friends said, ‘Enough.’ We said, ‘We can’t.’ We still have people all over the world working on translations for us. We really didn’t want to stop. Our interest in publishing was subsidiary. We really enjoyed making contact with people around the world.”
Judy Wilson is a freelance writer in West Caldwell.
Murray Spiegel — whose license plate reads “Pesach” — has always focused on doing “interesting, crazy things with the seder.” In the 1980s, he says in his book’s preface, “I started adding recordings of people doing odd versions of the Four Questions to my seders,” including a friend’s rendition of a Hebrew-speaking Donald Duck, a guest’s chanting in Ladino, and even a few costume dramas.
Rickey Stein, left, and Murray Spiegel, right, with singer and actor Theodore Bikel, who wrote the foreword to their book, 300 Ways to ask the Four Questions. Photos courtesy Robyn Stein
“Our true passion is just collecting,” he said, adding that a lot of material that did not make it into the book is on the 300 Ways Web site, www.Whyisthisnight.com.
Getting the book into print, he said, “was just agonizing. We went to 28 publishers. Once we committed to doing it, however, we self-published. We knew we had to.”
Spiegel and his wife, Randi, live in Roseland and are members of Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell. They belong to six singing groups and are skilled folk dancers, but during the last six years, preparing for publication took up much of their time. “The whole project is like taking a German Shepherd for a walk,” Spiegel said. “This project, this passion, takes me where it’s going to go. It’s hard but wonderful.”
“I have more interests than I know what to do with,” Rickey Stein said. “My hobbies are legion: photography, coins, computers, languages — and the connections between them.”
Stein and his wife, Dana, moved to the New Brunswick area 45 years ago with their three young daughters. In 1967, the family joined Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple.
At a seder one year, said Stein, “someone asked me to sing the Four Questions in Spanish; I had never thought of it before. We came back the next year and someone did them in…French and later someone did them in Yiddish…. That was the beginning.”
Inspiration comes from many sources. “I am the ultimate collector,” he confessed. “I have endless files. While I was still in Hebrew school I saw an article on semaphores illustrated with stick figures and I filed it away. Fifty years later, I found the file and created a font [for the book]. Several times since then, my daughter has cut out flags and done the Four Questions in semaphore.”
Stein created almost 100 type faces to reproduce some of the more esoteric languages in the book, such as Mongolian, which is written vertically but read horizontally.
“I was addicted to listening to short wave radio as a kid,” he said. “My dream deep within me was to spin the dial and wherever it stopped to understand what was being said.” — JUDY WILSON
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