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David Shulman’s Improbable Journey Through Language

The Israel Prize-winning Hebrew University scholar, a native of Iowa, tackles Tamil in his new book

Daniel Bezalel Richardsen
February 03, 2017
Main photo courtesy of David Shulman; background: Wikipedia
Main photo courtesy of David Shulman; background: Wikipedia
Main photo courtesy of David Shulman; background: Wikipedia
Main photo courtesy of David Shulman; background: Wikipedia

Scholar David Shulman has made an improbable journey, geographically and academically: from small-town Iowa to Jerusalem, where the Hebrew University professor received the Israel Prize in 2016 for his research on southern India.

The rigor in Shulman’s erudition is tempered by a deep pathos and love for his subject. The acclaimed Indian novelist Kiran Desai professed being “moved to tears” on reading Shulman’s travelogue Spring, Heat, Rains: A South Indian Diary. Commenting on Shulman’s More Than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India, Yigal Bronner, a specialist of Sanskrit poetry, writes that it is “hard to compare Shulman’s work with any other book because nobody has ever tried to accomplish anything remotely similar.”

Shulman’s latest offering is the book Tamil: A Biography, a detailed story of one of the few ancient languages to maintain an unbroken vim and vigor over the millennia among its over 80 million speakers around the world, myself included. One of the most astonishing revelations in Shulman’s biography of the language is that Tamil makes an appearance in the Hebrew Bible through its linguistic antecedent, Dravidian:

A famous verse from I Kings (10:22) contains three Indic loan words describing imports to the kingdom of Solomon from a mysterious land called Ophir … and [one of these words is] tukkiyim, always translated today as “parrots,” as in modern Hebrew tukki, but originally taken from Tamil tokai, the male peacock’s tail, thus metonymically signifying peacocks. One can, I suppose, imagine ancient Israelite mariners pointing to the splendid tail feathers and asking their Tamil-speaking colleagues what name it had.

It is quite difficult to be immune to the charms of Shulman’s scholarship in this book; his fealty in following his curiosity wherever it leads and his eye for the esoteric are seared on every page. Originally conceived as an essay, Shulman anticipated a brief treatise, he told me, “but Tamil thought otherwise.”

It’s not as unusual as it might first seem for someone from a small town in America to take such a keen interest in a language mostly spoken thousands of miles away. Shulman has termed this principle “the compensatory intensity of the periphery,” alluding to the surprising seriousness and ambition of lives lived far from cosmopolitan centers. According to Shulman, these denizens on the margins often bring a fierce focus to bear on subjects that interest them.


Tamil’s unlikely chronicler began his life in the American Midwest. Waterloo, Iowa, of the 1950s and ’60s had an “exotic flavor” for Shulman, he said, in that it was an undertaking by the hundred or so Jewish families resident there “to keep the Jewish thing alive among the cornfields.” Both of Shulman’s parents also had their upbringing in Iowa. His physician father and his culturally inquisitive mother had Judaism as “unquestioningly the center of her life, a psychological anchor.” Growing up in nearby Marshalltown, Iowa, Shulman’s maternal grandfather, who wrote Yiddish poetry, taught his young daughter Hebrew, an unusual education for the time and place.

One of the key episodes in Shulman’s young life was a trip to Israel in 1962 for his bar mitzvah, a luxury at a time when overseas trips from Iowa were rare. This ignited a love for both Hebrew and Judaism in Shulman, so that on his return to Waterloo, he became obsessed with mastering Hebrew. A couple of microbiology and nutrition texts in Hebrew were “like religious texts” for the teenaged Shulman, who developed his own methods to learn the language. Reading the “classical canon in Yiddish” with his grandmother and participating in religious life in the one Conservative shul in town rounded out his bespoke Jewish education.

Gaining both a National Merit Scholarship and entry into Harvard, Shulman could have easily opted to stay and pursue his studies in America, but he had fallen in love with Hebrew. So, despite his parents’ reservations, Shulman left for Israel in the spring of 1967, parachuting into a tumultuous year in the history of the young nation-state. Despite the turbulence, Shulman was glad to exchange the confines of the Midwest for the Mediterranean vibrancy of Israel. He started in Semitic linguistics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, dabbling in Talmud, archaeology, and history. Then there was a trip during the winter break to Greece and Turkey that Shulman says “changed my whole orientation.” He became “completely enthralled” by Istanbul, leading to an undergraduate concentration in Islamic history, in what was commonly considered to be the “best [Islamic-studies department] in the world” at the time.

Shulman’s interest in Islam had an inexorable pull toward Persian literature and culture, which he now considers the “acme of Islamic civilization.” A summer trip to Iran (“on a direct El Al flight,” he recalled, “it’s hard to believe now”) indulged Shulman’s deep wish to be “drunk on classical Persian poetry.” But his supervisor, Yohanan Friedmann, an expert on Indian Islam, asked Shulman to consider India as a focus of study instead, as Hebrew University at the time did not have a dedicated institutional structure devoted to it, but was interested in starting something.

“I didn’t even know where India was, except that it was somewhere past Iran!” Shulman told me, laughing. Prodding from a friend, the Welsh-born Rabbi Daniel Sperber, who left books on India outside Shulman’s door, finally persuaded him to consider India. The subsequent focus on Tamil was suggested by Chaim Rabin, a scholar who was famously paraded on an elephant through the streets of Madras (now Chennai) for suggesting that Tamil’s revival needed to follow the same course as Hebrew by becoming the language of instruction, replacing English at that city’s university, one of India’s oldest and most prestigious scholarly institutions. Rabin’s sales pitch was that Tamil has “very ancient classical literature, just like ancient Arabic poetry,” which Shulman knew, “but even nicer, and no one knows much about it.”

When a jaunt through India finally brought Shulman to Madras, it was “love at first sight”—and first sound, too. Tamil, which he describes as “the rapid rushing of a rivulet,” left an indelible impression akin to “a delicious, bewitching, incantational music, unlike any other that I have heard.”

Shulman first studied Tamil under the tutelage of John Ralston Marr at the School of Oriental and African Languages in London, and later V.S. Rajam in Baltimore and Philadelphia. Now, however, Shulman says he firmly belongs to “the Jerusalem school of linguistics,” where one is taught that “there is nothing trivial in language, nothing too minute to be studied and explored.”

The Jerusalem school’s ethos is evident in Shulman’s unearthing of Tamil’s history throughout his new book. Kuruntokai, a collection of what might be called “love poetry” dating from the early centuries C.E. and known in South India as the Sangam period, is the first Tamil-related book that Shulman encountered. Its concepts of akam, or “in-ness,” and puram, the exterior world, are still used by Shulman to examine the tactility of Tamil meter.

Another fascinating inclusion in his volume is the work of the Tamil Muslim poet Umaruppulavar, whose 17th-century work Cirappuranam recasts “the story of Muhammad in a Hijaz that has been reimagined in the verdant Tamil land.” When Shulman further notes the influence of Tamil-speaking merchants in the “Islamization of the Malay-Javanese sphere,” I can attest to this legacy first-hand from my learning of Malay during my formative years in Brunei. Donkey (keldai), mustache (misai), and pond (kolam) are instances of Malay words that have been borrowed directly from Tamil.

Shulman also notes the Christian influence of Tamil, and it is one I also grew up with. The translation of the Bible by the German Lutheran Fabricius, and Tamil translations of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and The Pilgrim’s Progress all formed a part of my own early literary furniture.

Shulman rejects the notion of purity in language, and also warns against the weaponization of language for political ends. He is bullish on the future of minor languages in the age of English:

No statistical percentage of English usage in Tamil, however high, is going to wash this language away. Creativity in Tamil, both in the expressive genres and, even more important, in playful, personal, everyday speech and thought, is as intense today as it was before, whatever “before” might mean.

Shulman may be correct in speaking about India. But I don’t share this confidence for Tamil’s resilience in the diaspora. Absent a strong religious or ethnic cohesion buttressed by institutions, minority languages do die.


The same penchant for curiosity and languages from his upbringing in Iowa is also responsible for imbuing Shulman with a sense of “social awareness and identifying with the underdog.” Shulman is an outspoken activist for the rights of Palestinian civilians in the territories, penning op-eds in The New York Review of Books. Shulman donated the winnings from his Israel Prize to Ta’ayush (Arabic for “living together”), an organization started in 2000 with the stated aim of fostering “concrete, daily, nonviolent actions of solidarity to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and to achieve full civil equality for all.” Shulman admits that he is “not a classical Zionist” in that it was his love for Hebrew that first brought him to Israel. Rather, Shulman believes that “states should not be the arena where questions of identity are worked out.”

Needless to say, Shulman’s actions have not been without controversy. For Shulman, his actions and his activism are part of his conscientious beliefs. “I’m an Israeli, I don’t want to be anything else,” he said emphatically, adding, “I do belong here. It is my struggle. I don’t want to turn away from it.”

Shulman speaks of the “deep affinity between ancient cultures” that exists between India and Israel, especially on a personal level, between peoples. For a Tamil speaker, such as myself, Shulman’s work is an inspiring reminder that, as he writes: “It is no small thing to be born into this milky tongue—in itself a privileged form of the god’s ‘maddening mercy’ (māl arul).”


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Daniel Bezalel Richardsen is the founder and editor of Foment, the literary journal of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, Canada’’s largest independent literary celebration. Daniel is a Global Shaper with the World Economic Forum’’s Ottawa Hub, and is a Prize Advisor to The Ross and Mitchell Prize for Faith and Writing.