It is customary for people to greet one another on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, with the phrase “L’Alter, L’Chaim Tovim U’Lshalom”, translated roughly as to old age, to good life, and to peace. On the dawn of this secular New Year I’ll proclaim a different kind of L’Alter, in tribute to the author of a new Translation and commentary on the Tanach.
Although you can’t judge a book by its cover, or its casing for that matter, each of the three volumes of Robert Alter’s are adorned by the beautiful cover artistry of Mordecai Ardon, housed in a box showcasing the Aleph of his Creation Series.
Ardon donated his tapestries to Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, where they are permanently exhibited, and you can view his Kabbalistically-inspired artwork online at the Tali Visual Midrash.
In his introduction, Robert Alter reveals the flavor of his translation. Consider the sentence from Job (אִיּוֹב):
אַחַי, בָּגְדוּ כְמוֹ-נָחַל; כַּאֲפִיק נְחָלִים יַעֲבֹרוּ
Alter comments: “It is truly helpful, for example, to know that biblical נָחַל most commonly indicates not any sort of brook, creek, or stream, but the kind of freshet, called a wadi in both Arabic and modern Hebrew, that floods a dry desert gulch during the rainy months and vanishes in the heat of the summer.” The poetic imagery of the נָחַל now takes on the vivid connotation of brothers who betrayed אִיּוֹב like water that evaporates when the heat is turned up.
In this instance, Alter’s scholarly new work is every bit as inviting as its cover(s).