For two years, New York-based comedian David Tuchman has been translating the Old Testament into English and recording readings in front of a live audience. Each episode of his podcast, aptly named OMGWTFBIBLE, features a special guest/co-reader/interlocutor. (Disclaimer: I have been one.) It’s an epic project—he’s just at the beginning of Exdous—but Tuchman is committed to seeing it all the way to the promised land. He’s the Moses, if you will, to a rag-tag but dedicated following of atheists, believers, Jews, Christians, and skeptics. (Except he won’t die at the end of Deuteronomy. I hope.)
Anyway, it’s a really fun podcast, and I highly recommend it. But don’t just take my word for it: the 2014 Presentense NYC Fellowship committee thinks so too, so they made Tuchman a fellow. We sat down to chat about the genesis* and future of the project.
Where did the inspiration for OMGWTFBIBLE come from? How long do you think it will take to complete?
I find this question difficult to answer because I can’t really name one source of inspiration. To me, OMGWTFBIBLE is the merging of a few strands I was following at the beginning of 2012. I’d long been fascinated by how few people had read the Bible, let alone in the original Hebrew, and would sometimes drunkenly take a Tanach off my shelf and try to read the story of Tamar and Judah to people. In my stand-up, I started reading very loopy sci-fi stories I wrote when I was 9 and interrupting them with jokes about how silly they were. I had just learned about Mishnah Nazir and thought it was absolutely crazy and, for a week, was considering using the interruption story model for the Talmud: I’d project snippets of the Mishnah for stand-up audiences and translate them live, emphasizing their goofiness.
But then I realized I should go back even further. So one night in April 2012, in an attempt to procrastinate on another project, I took my Tanach off my shelf and started writing my own translation of the story of Tamar as a stand-alone bit. A few lines in, it occurred to me how essentially tenuous literally every existing translation of the Old Testament is. After all, the original Hebrew manuscript, the scroll that’s read every week in synagogues around the world, doesn’t even have punctuation marks. Or vowels. And that’s a big deal, because in Hebrew, vowels are everything. A word’s meaning can change substantially if even a single vowel mark is changed. Yet, for the most part, we accept the book’s meaning as given, even though it’s merely based on what generations before us had decided the words were and meant!
This ambiguity unnerved me. I couldn’t just rewrite the story of Tamar. To grapple with this slipperiness, I had to write an entirely new translation that represented what I thought the book meant. It’s the Bible, told by me. It’s funny because that’s what I like. If I’m going to tell a story, it’s going to be funny. No matter the source material.
I have no idea how long this will take me, but I intend to finish it all. I’ll put it this way: finishing it in less than a decade would take a miracle. Your move, God.
What’s your earliest Bible-related memory?
That’s a tough question, since I was raised Modern Orthodox, so the Bible was a big part of my life for as long as I can remember. I recall a felt chart of the Hebrew alphabet that hung over my childhood bed. I don’t remember when I first heard the story of Adam and Eve, but as a kid I felt a deep-seated existential anguish over them eating from the Tree of Knowledge and screwing us all out of immortality.
Who’s your favorite character in the Bible?
Korach, who was the titular character in my bar mitzvah portion. I sometimes wonder whether I’d have turned out differently were I born a week earlier or later. But Korach always stood out to me because he never seemed like a character who belonged in the Bible. While the Israelites were wandering in the desert, he essentially led a revolt challenging Moses’ rule by divine right. As a kid, though, I think I was more into the fact that he and all his followers get swallowed by a massive earthquake than the political underpinnings of his movement.
What do you do when you’re not sitting at home translating the Bible or recording the show?
I work in advertising, and spend most of my time doing that. My girlfriend works late most evenings, so I’m able to dedicate nights to writing, performing, and editing OMGWTFBIBLE. My stand-up writing has significantly dropped off since I decided to spend most of my free time writing my own translation of the Old Testament, but I still try to put together something for No Jokes Allowed, the alternative open mic I started that meets on the second Monday of every month at the back of Beauty Bar in Manhattan.
I’m in the middle of about a half-dozen books right now. I read a ton of comics. Recently, I discovered the amazing graphic novel collection at the Queens Library and am having everything I’ve ever wanted to read sent to my neighborhood branch. I’m reading both Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series for the first time and am slightly mad at myself that it’s taken so long to get to them. I’m also finally starting Jung, which is really fun and entertaining and probably required considering what I’m working on. I’m fascinated by how we create our relation to the world; how humans are constantly inventing stories that shift the way we see one another. I’m doing my own shifting through OMGWTFBIBLE. I hope I’m changing the prism through which people see the stories of the Bible. But I also suspect this thinking will lead to other projects.
Also, I love football.
What’s the funniest/most bizarre piece of fan/hate mail you’ve received so far?
The weirdest thing I got was the hate mail Julia Gazdag read and I recorded as a bonus episode back in February 2013. But looking back, I feel a little bad about that one, because the woman who wrote it was probably not having the best day if she put as much energy as she did into sending a very long e-mail to a random guy making fun of God on the internet. I think the funniest is the woman who sent the fan page a message saying “Horrible. Do not get this on the computer. Horrible.” And when I responded with “ok i wont,” she just sent me a big Facebook thumbs up.
The best fan mail I got was from Steve Wells, the creator of the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, after the Tablet piece went up. When I first started poking around to see if anyone had done anything like OMGWTFBIBLE, his website was one of the first I found, and it is INCREDIBLE and insanely thorough. He requested a guest spot on the show and I was more than happy to have his son, Philip Wells, on for episode 14.
Who’s your dream guest?
You’re starting to build up a dedicated following/community around the OMGWTFBIBLE. What do you hope people gain from it?
First of all, I feel like the Bible is full of some really great stories that are buried under a whole lot of debate over who wrote it. I hope that I’m helping people connect with those stories again.
It’s also really exciting to me that I’m reaching people both inside and outside of faith communities. With this show, I hope that I’m fostering conversation between those groups and helping people find some common ground when talking about the Bible.
I’m really curious to hear how people react to the show and to the stories I’m translating. It’s always great to hear other people’s thoughts and interpretations of this stuff. If people have anything they’d like to tell me, especially in response to a particular episode, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, if people wouldn’t take religion so darn seriously, that’d be pretty cool.
*Sorry, but I had to.