God’s preferred languages

In today’s NYT, in the New York Region section, a charming, funny, affectionate piece about Ed Koch: “Services to Reflect Koch: Proudly Jewish on His Own Terms” by Sharon Otterman. Much to admire in this piece, but as a linguist I was especially taken by Koch’s views on God’s preferred languages.

The final resting place of Edward I. Koch, the former New York City mayor, is, in many ways, very Jewish. A Jewish star tops his monument’s headstone. Its inscription, which he wrote, includes an epitaph proclaiming he was “fiercely proud of his Jewish faith.”

But the burial site is also classic Koch, contradictory and iconoclastic. Though his longtime Orthodox rabbi, Arthur Schneier, had taken him to see “a beautiful plot” at a Jewish cemetery in Queens, it would not do: he wanted to be buried in his beloved home borough, Manhattan. When the rabbi suggested that perhaps room could be found for him at an old Jewish cemetery downtown, Mr. Koch rejected that suggestion, saying he wanted to be buried in a “bustling cemetery.” So he selected Trinity Church Cemetery, an Episcopal burial ground open to all in Washington Heights.

… Upon Mr. Koch’s death, his Jewishness loomed large in the remembrances of many — his advocacy for Israel, his attention to Soviet Jewry, his passion for Catholic-Jewish relations and his obvious pride in his heritage. “He was the proudest of Jews,” the columnist Jeffrey Goldberg wrote for Bloomberg View. “He was just saturated with ethnic feeling, and rambunctious in his pride.”

His beliefs could be quirky, a mix of traditional Jewish thought and what he had picked up along the way, his friends recalled.

“He has his own rules on religion,” said George Arzt, one of his closest friends and advisers. “He’s Jewish, but he attended Mass. He believes that God hears prayers if they are in Greek, Latin or Hebrew,” which he felt were God’s preferred languages. “His Jewishness is mixed with a deep, abiding respect for Catholicism.”

What, no Aramaic?

And then:

in part because he knew how important Jewish voters were to his success, he did try not to offend. In 1981, after he choked on food at a Chinese restaurant, he told the press the offending object was watercress, but “it was pork,” Mr. Arzt said.

Even though he did not keep kosher, he wrote in 1989 that he “would never engage in a public display of eating pork products.”

Ah, the famous Chinese Exception to the Jewish dietary restrictions: pork and shellfish don’t count in Chinese restaurants.


3 Responses to “God’s preferred languages”

  1. Julian Lander Says:

    Depending on his upbringing, Mayor Koch may not have realized that Aramaic is one of the Jewish liturgical languages. Because it’s written in Hebrew script and we pronounce it as though it were Hebrew, the distinction is not obvious. And although I realize there is some Aramaic in the Jewish Bible, the presentation is more that there are some Aramaic loan words in the Hebrew corpus rather than there’s Aramaic text. (In fact, i don’t know where there are full sentences rather than individual words in Aramaic in the Jewish Bible. I think there are, but it’s a vague impression.) Finally, I dont know whether his list was meant to be exclusive; the intention may have been to include the canonical languages of Judaism and Christianity, although I realize that by omitting English he omitted a major liturgical language. (But English has no particular status: it’s simply the default vernacular language in the US.)

    • Alon Says:

      @Julian: actually, a good deal of the Jewish liturgy (including such key prayers as the Qaddish) is straight Aramaic.

  2. Bob Richmond Says:

    In the Anglican tradition (I’m an Episcopalian) the liturgical language is whatever the congregation speaks. Historically Anglicans have worshiped in English, but the Book of Common Prayer is translated into any language a congregation needs.

    Article 24 of the famous (and sometimes infamous) Anglican “39 Articles” states that “It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church, to have public Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments, in a tongue not understanded of the people.”

    My personal belief is that God created the world in every one of the world’s languages.

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