Alan, Approach and Listen...

by Seree Cohen Zohar

Why Alan ventured into a new versified translation of Psalms is a story best told by Timothy Murphy. But part of the Psalm story is how Alan and I came to work together, and how the work was conducted. Did Alan post his version of  Psalm 11 on the poetry forum just to garner and judge general reader reaction? In any event, I saw it, and set out to safeguard a text close to my heart from yet another translation attempt lacking access to source materials—not knowing yet that this was the tip of a translation and versification iceberg. Much later, Alan would say that being enticed by a post based on classical Hebrew, the remarks I sent privately to him, and the whole of our manner of collaboration, were no less than “perfectly providential”. How very true!

And as customary in my tradition, instead of talking about a person special to many, I call on the soul to approach and listen:

Alan –

It was not long after that initial, egg-shell-careful set of exchanges that we developed an always-respectful but very fun mode of correspondence. Any worry about how things might progress proved groundless as our collaboration went from strength to strength. You cross-referenced from various sources; then, as though stepping into Psalm 7:13, you  prepare[d] your [..]armament, ordained your arrows in pursuit of understanding, by challenging discrepancies with precise arguments and questions.

Sometimes the concepts latent in those ancient words were linked in complex and clever ways to cultural modes of existence derived from Torah. You requested more elaborate explanations; these were studied and absorbed. You mulled over these notes; inspired, enthused, you clinched one tough wording after another. ‘Gold-star’ days, those were, of elation and celebration. Sometimes, though, your further delving was sincere fascination with a detailed esoteric extrapolation which would not necessarily have a great effect on the final outcome, but provided a fuller picture of the phrase under discussion: this was your deep pleasure in learning coming to the fore.

The focus was always on psalms – there was just about no time to probe the workings of English metrical poetry, but on blue moons, wanting to learn from your vast skills despite being the most non-metrical person in the world, I would gulp by prefacing with please don’t pull your hair out over this, Alan , and dare a sample metrical line. Mostly you would respond with moan groan, followed by but don’t worry too much: no hair—then explain briefly. Occasionally I got it right; once you even said  metrically and conceptually excellent. A gold-glow day, that was! How I valued your approval.

As “To every coin... ”, so to every situation:  the pluses and minuses. The upsetting minus of you working at 3 or 4 am Florida-time meant that your nights, in fact, were disrupted rather than restful.

On more than one such no-sleep occasion, we joked about King David’s influence on you, adapting Psalm 57:7-9. Like King David, your

07: [...] heart is ever steadfast.

And like King David, you

08: […] wake the dawn.
09: (to) celebrate you, Lord,
among the people; and sing
your praise among the nations.

But the plus of those sleep-arrested nights was that the time differences between us seemingly dissipated, and emails could fly back and forth. A 3 am mail from you was a welcome midmorning coffee break for me. And how could it be anything but welcome, this respite, full of mind teasing, brain twisting, and word tweaking, a stimulating flurry of exchanges? Combat over the difference between awe – yir’AH – fulfilling G-d’s laws through our observation of His wondrous works in our surroundings, and fear – PA’khad – keeping G-d’s laws only to avoid punishment; and the implications of each of these words in the texts. Battles over the fine line between mercy and pity. Tug-o-war over “loving-kindness” – what does one do with such a long and awkward word? – which incidentally is quite short in the original: KHESS’edd. But which also raises the issue of synonyms… and the fact that a synonym in English isn’t necessarily so in Hebrew. Bit by bit, you prized the treasure chest open, Alan, its trove of prizes being polished by your special touch.

And there was plain old fun teasing too. Lots of it. Like the time you advised that you’d come up with a great solution to Psalm 68:4 after extensive debate, but that you wanted to think it over for a day before releasing it. Another brilliant clinch in the offing... The suspense was too much – were there two or three or more whining requests from me? — oy vey, no, no, please – send – now! You sent it shortly afterwards, of course, with your trademark heh:

04: Sing unto G-d and laud his name.
Prepare the way for the sky’s rider.
His name is LORD. Exult before him.

Though vital to your health, paradoxically you often viewed medical appointments as another setback in this race against time. When the second half of your week hadn’t been easy, following treatment, you sadly let me know it would not be possible to finish the particular psalm we were working on before the Sabbath commenced. With your keen sensitivity to wording, even when I mentioned no names in brief messages, you learned to identify which of my children would be coming home, and wish us a restful Shabbat.

Luckily, unproductive “long weekends” were not too common. Instead, there were many other evenings when, around midnight or later as I was about to close the computer and go to sleep... ping! Who can resist the tantalizing ping of the inbox! OK, skim through, acknowledge: I’ll check first thing tomorrow. But this work was so rewarding for us both that it was impossible to ignore your draft until the next morning, especially knowing that you’d probably have time to review response notes that very same day if you received them back immediately.

So: coffee, close reading, corrections; and 30 to 40 minutes later, sometimes an hour for a longer or more complex piece, back the notes went. Always considerate of my schedules, you would add something like: It’s very late for you now. Don’t stay up for the sake of this draft. But the beauty of the project burned within our hearts, yes, like a kind of love, and who can turn away from love?


How many parallel experiences we discovered in our lives, Alan, from orchards to puppies and the lure of water. Both of us, sticklers for accuracy in our work; both of us sharing two pet peeves, “proactive”, and “impact” as a proactive(!) verb; both of us loving our language of preference.

We worked well together because we truly admired each other’s spheres of knowledge. Your gratitude was warmly sincere. And your humility in the face of the powerful poetry woven into these ancient words made working with you a delight. You tackled the raw material, hammering at it until you spun – as described in Psalm 12:6:

silver, refined in earth’s crucible,
strained and purified seven times over.

I was awed by how you approached the work, and told you what a privilege it was to observe the process closely, from the inside out, as it were. We both felt privileged by this versified translation, the chance, as Psalm 33 says, to

03: Sing a new song to the Lord.
Play it with skill and verve.

In psalm 9 verse 12, King David delineates how G-d

[…] recalls them:
he never forgets the cry of the meek.

We weighed the inferences of “recall”, and “never forget”, the first being active, a purposeful raising into the conscious mind, by stating and restating; the second being more passive, an undertone or background; we explored how these words connected with that core of Bible, the Ten Commandments. Working intensively with you this past year-plus leaves me with so many funny or special shared moments and anecdotes; I will never forget them. As for classes on Davidic Psalms and their link to principles of Torah, I will keep my promise to you, Alan, and dedicate them in your name, this year, next year, whenever I give such classes, thereby actively, publicly recalling – for, as we discussed in Psalm 86, a name mentioned in connection with study of Bible gladdens the namesake’s soul.

Throughout, your achievement was a source of encouragement to many, as we watched you determinedly gain time with the Psalms. It was only recently that you wrote the following:

When we got done with 145, I had no idea so much work might still remain. It is daunting, but it has gone well, I think, and it certainly motivates me to stay alert and fight through my medical troubles. I shall be grateful to let go when the time comes. I am so tired. But not yet.

And still you managed to edit so many of the psalms since that note, even completely recasting some of them. But with every day that passed since your hospitalization, and no email winging into my inbox, my heart fractured that bit more. You could, chronologically, have been my older brother, and what a wonderful older brother you often seemed to be throughout this laden but beautiful year of working together. Who better to express how I feel now, than King David in Psalm 22:14?

 I am spilled like water.
All my bones disjointed;
my heart is beeswax,
melting within.

This, because I mourn you as only a close Elder Sister can.


Alan — May your insightfulness be a long-lived tribute to your depth of thinking;

May your keen learning that so enhanced our working together, and the many other traits of character that we all respect and admire, infuse our memories with hues of love;

May these, and so much more, be a comfort to all who were close to you.

And may these words which I have spoken stand as testimony in your good stead before G-d.

Alan, dear spirit-kin, if I have unthinkingly offended you or been inconsiderate in any way, I ask your forgiveness.

Let’s turn again to Psalm Eleven, the psalm that brought us together:

01: I hope in the Lord.
Would you wish of my soul
be off like a bird...

May your soul, like the bird, be off — to settle beneath wings of everlasting peace and blessed rest. ta’NOO’akh ba’sha’LOM.

First published on Alan Sullivan’s Fresh Bilge site
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