It’s not every day that a respected rabbi agrees to help a coven of vampires. When those blood-sucking creatures of the night turned out to be the stars of HBO’s series True Blood, however, Rabbi Dvora Weisberg decided to make an exception.
The request made to the Director of the School of Rabbinical Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles was simple: translate part of the script for a future episode from English into the ancient Aramaic language.
“That threw me off, because people usually want to translate from Aramaic to English,” Weisberg said.
“At that point I figured I had to do this.”
As someone who teaches the language to rabbinic and education students at HUC-JIR, she was well-qualified for the task. Weisberg’s credentials include a doctorate in Rabbinics and Talmud, the collection of Jewish writings from the 3rd to 7th Centuries that is largely written in Aramaic.
The short scene in question, which Weisberg estimates will last a couple of minutes, involves a religious ceremony. “It’s a vampire communion,” she said. That’s all she can guess, though, given that she was only given one page of the script and no other context.
The HBO’s popular vampire program starring Anna Paquin as a telepathic waitress will begin its fifth season this summer. Its narrative follows the co-existence of humans, vampires, and other supernatural creatures in a Louisiana town. Weisberg does not know when the episode containing her work will air.
The show found the rabbi through a chance connection – an employee at the translation company used by the show happened to be engaged to one of her former students. Her job included transliterating the Aramaic text and making a digital recording of it so that actors would know how to pronounce it.
“Translating from an ancient language to a modern language isn’t always easy,” Weisberg explained.
Even for an expert, it can be tough to deal with differences in vocabulary. Early Semitic languages such as Aramaic, for example, have few adjectives. This forced Weisberg to get creative. When one entity in the script was referred to as “the Eternal,” the rabbi had to translate it as “the mistress of all times.”
Some may wonder why a television show would go to such great lengths to authentically reproduce a dead, ancient language.
“I can’t imagine them getting a call from someone saying that the Aramaic doesn’t sound right to me,” Weisberg said.
Still, the rabbi – who had never seen the show before – never hesitated to help.
“It was really quite fun, actually,” she said. “It’s not what rabbis normally do.”
Being part of the entertainment industry, even briefly, had other perks too.
“Your stock goes up with all sorts of people,” Weisberg said. Those people included her children: “This obviously meant I was a much cooler person than they had assumed.”