When it was suggested to Joshua Blau, at the start of his professional career, that he study the letters of Maimonides, there were those who warned him not to undertake the task. The three scholars who had previously begun dealing with the letters had died unnatural deaths. The first was found deceased at his desk after having translated just one and half missives; the second died prematurely from an illness; and the third was murdered in a terrorist attack midway through his research. “I paid no heed to the warning, of course,” Blau says. “In the meantime, I seem to be doing all right.”
Indeed. Blau, emeritus professor of Arabic language and literature at the Hebrew University, turned 99 earlier this month. His sonorous voice, firm handshake and sarcastic humor – and the vigor with which he continues pursuing his linguistic studies – attest that he’s doing better than “all right.” In what has become an annual tradition, a family celebration was held in his honor on his Hebrew birthday, with the participation of the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and, as of this year, a great-great-grandchild – a total of 39 souls. His colleagues also threw him a party, in which congratulations and accolades flowed for the nonagenarian who’s considered the world’s preeminent scholar of medieval Judeo-Arabic.
Blau enjoyed himself (who wouldn’t?), but when he’s asked about the praise, the paeans and the prizes that have been heaped on him over the years – among them the Israel Prize and a medal from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences – he responds, “‘Prizetitution’ – that’s what [the poet] Avraham Shlonsky called it, and I agree completely. Deserving people get prizes,” he smiles, “and a great many undeserving people. That’s how it is, you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. When all is said and done, it’s human beings, you know.”
That observation is not motivated by bitterness, of course. It’s just Blau’s worldly-wise approach, a blend of self-irony and perspective, which gazes at reality without embellishment. Like when he talks about a certain discovery and exclaims, “Listen, this is really interesting!” And immediately adds a demurrer, emanating from acute self-awareness, “For those who are interested, of course.”
Setting up a meeting with him is not easy. His schedule is dense and unvarying. He begins each day with prayers in the synagogue, then goes for a swim, and only after breakfast, about 10:30, and only if it’s one of the rare days on which he hasn’t already arranged to receive a scholar who wants to work with him or speak with him, is a meeting possible. Still, we find time.
After greeting me in the foyer of the assisted-living facility in Jerusalem where he lives with his wife, Shulamit, who’s 96, he rushes to his study with the aid of his walker, leaving me to try to keep up.
Judeo-Arabic is the language spoken by the Jews who lived in the Arab lands in the Middle Ages. Like Yiddish and Ladino, Judeo-Arabic is categorized as one of the “Jewish languages”: Its vocabulary resembles that of the surrounding tongue, but it’s written with Hebrew letters. Thus, “Good night” varies in accordance with the region in which it is uttered: In Judeo-Arabic, it is “masa alkhir,” in Judeo-German (Yiddish), it’s “a gutte nacht,” and it’s “buenos noches” in Judeo-Spanish (Ladino).
Read more: Haaretz