Writer Aaron Sorkin gave a rare glimpse into his relationship with Judaism during a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
During a conversation about Sorkin’s intellect—which he more or less downplayed, “I phonetically create the sound of smart people talking to each other; the characters I create would have no use for me,” he said—the creator of HBO’s “Newsroom” segued into a story about how he acquires knowledge.
Gross suggested that Sorkin’s penchant for rapid-fire, argumentative dialogue is related to having three lawyers in the family—his father is an intellectual property lawyer for Time Warner, his brother worked as a criminal prosecutor before entering private practice and his sister litigates for the Justice Department—and Sorkin agreed. “I liked the sound of our dinner table growing up,” he said. “Anybody who used one word when they could have used ten just wasn’t trying hard enough.”
“I hope this serves as an example of my relationship to the intelligence of my fictional characters,” he added.
“I’m Jewish but have never had any religious training. I never went to Hebrew school. But in seventh grade, nearly every Saturday I was going to a friend’s Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah—this was right around the time I was developing my love of theater—and I would go to these Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs and think, ‘Damn, I really missed out. These are great. You get to go up there and you’re wearing a costume and there’s theatrics and there’s singing and there’s an audience; I wish I had done this.’ Finally about six weeks before my 13th birthday—in my family the boys would just have a really nice party before their 13th birthday—I opened a local phonebook and called the local rabbi and said, ‘Rabbi I’m turning 13 in six weeks. I’d like you to teach me the Torah.’ And he said, ‘You know kid, I can’t teach you the Torah in six weeks. It takes years.’ And I said, ‘No, no, no that’s okay. I don’t need to really learn it. If you just say it into a tape recorder I can learn it phonetically. He pointed out that was hardly the reason to get Bar Mitzvahed…’”
“My point is, I have expert tutors around me who, with an IV needle, inject me with the information that I need to find the point of conflict, to find the point of friction in a particular subject, whether it’s the census on The West Wing or Arizona’s Immigration Law…”
But Gross wanted to get back to the Bar Mitzvah.
“We kinda dropped the Bar Mitzvah thing,” she said. “So you called the rabbi, he declined; you know there were records available that you could have bought to learn the haftarah—which is what the bar mitzvah boy has to sing…”
“Now you tell me,” Sorkin quipped.
“Did you have any kind of makeshift Bar Mitzvah in which you got to perform?” Gross continued.
“We had a party, and I had learned to bless the bread, and I did that: Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz—still do it. Even though I’m pretty sure the last time I blessed bread was on my 13th birthday. And, I don’t know what anything I just said means.”
Cynthia Ozick recently lamented the tragic non-existence of Hebrew in America, where once there existed a culture of few but formidable Hebraists who loved and lived the language. In a New Republic review of the book Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry by Alan Mintz, she describes a culture at once so rich, that at the beginning of the 20th century the novelist Henry James referred to a collection of cafes along the Lower East Side of New York as reflecting “the hard glitter of Israel”. James, Ozick noted, even feared that the intense “infiltration” of Hebrew would compromise the English language. But alas, it more or less disappeared.
THEN WHO IS TO BLAME? We are: we have no Hebrew. But who, or what, really, is this culpable “we”? An admission: inescapably, it is the educated American Jewish mentality, insofar as it desires to further self-understanding. The Hebrew Bible has long been the world’s possession, and those who come to it by any means, through whatever language, are equals in ownership, and may not be denied the intimacy of their spiritual claim. Yet spirit is that numinous essence that flies above history, inhabiting the moment’s exquisite experience: it is common to all peoples, hence native to none. History, in contrast, is linked to heritage, and heritage—preeminently its expression in language—is what most particularly defines a civilization.
What a pity, then, Ozick writes, that there is “an absence of Jewish literacy in a population renowned for its enduring reverence for learning.”
Quoting Mintz, the author who mined the depths of America’s long lost Hebraist culture, Ozick gets at the crux of why Hebrew is indispensable to an authentic Judaism (which unfortunately, she later claims, most American Jews do not have, herself included, even though her uncle Abraham Regelson was one of the famous American Hebraists).
[The American Hebraists] may have been wrong about Hebrew being the measure of all things—this was the monomania that contributed to their eclipse—but they were surely correct in seeing Hebrew as the deep structure of Jewish civilization, its DNA, as it were. They understood the unique role of Hebrew as a bridge that spans many cleavages: between classical Judaism and the present, between religious and secular Jews, and between Israel and the Diaspora. They further understood that any Jewish society that takes place largely in translation runs the risk of floating free of its tether to Jewish authenticity.
Sorkin often speaks of his relationship to dialogue as the most essential quality in his writing. He told Gross that he writes dialogue that aspires to musicality. Recounting how his parents took him to plays as a child, Sorkin said, “The sound of dialogue sounded like music to me. I wanted to imitate that sound.” Plot, he admitted, is his weakness. “My achilles heal is story. I’m not as good at constructing story as I’d like to be,” he said, but explained that he compensates with meaningful linguistic rhythm. “What words sound like is as important as what they mean.”
Hebrew seems to innately embody this quality, even without expert arrangement. It is, many say, a tough language to acquire and even harder to master. But just imagine what might be if writers like Sorkin had the opportunity and the will to learn it.