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Jewish Journal

PASSOVER: You Say Charoses and I Say Charoset

by Nancy Sokoler Steiner

April 6, 2006 | 8:00 pm

I was so excited when a publishing house in New York accepted my children's book for publication. Geared to preschoolers, it's a short piece that recounts the steps of the Passover seder in simple, upbeat verse.

What I didn't realize was that the work would need to be translated.

It's not that the manuscript was in a foreign language. Or that they wanted to print it in another country. I had written the piece in "Secular" and the publisher wanted it in "Traditional." So, in order to use words with which their young readership would be familiar, the publisher changed "plagues" to "makos," "Jerusalem" to "Yerushalayim" and "God" to "Hashem."

That left me with a new problem: By substituting words more familiar to Orthodox Jews, we'd be inserting terms that would fail to resonate with Conservative and Reform Jews -- whom I'd also hoped would be interested in the book. And that meant I'd be further narrowing an already limited audience.

In my attempt to keep the piece as universal as possible, I found myself trying to avoid using these lost-in-translation words altogether. I was pretty impressed with myself when I managed to get God/Hashem out of the picture -- even if it was a piece about a religious holiday. Thus, "Once we were slaves and now we are free/The way God intended all people to be" became "Once we were slaves and now we are free/The way it is meant for all people to be."

That wasn't so difficult. But removing plagues/makos proved trickier. There aren't too many synonyms for plague. I thought about "punishment," but ultimately I just mentioned spilling out 10 drops of wine and left it at that.

Other words simply could not be avoided. So "charoset" became "charoses," "Elijah" became "Eliyahu" and "Egypt" became "Mitzrayim." Lucky for me, "maror" is spelled the same way in both languages, even though one group places the accent on the second syllable, and the other on the first.

Just as I grew frustrated revising her "Traditional" words, I'm sure my editor got tired of correcting my secular terminology. She had to tell me, for instance, that "prayer" would not be a familiar term -- "tefilah" or "davening" would be preferable. At least I didn't have to worry about Shabbat/Shabbos.

I considered asking the publisher about printing two versions of the same book -- one in "Traditional" and another in "Secular." But then I remembered we're supposed to be One People.

So why is it that we don't seem to speak the same language?

Maybe there should be some kind of multidenominational commission appointed to negotiate and standardize pronunciation among the various stripes of Jews. They could publish a stylebook of sorts -- one which specifies the officially sanctioned version of these troublesome words.

Maybe it would even get us talking to one another. And maybe then we'd feel a little more like One People.

As for my book, it's still going forward with a planned release date of next Passover/Pesach. I've tried to make it as appealing to all constituencies as possible, but I hope, in the effort, I haven't made it appealing to none.

That would be a real shame/shanda.

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