It was a daunting task she undertook: to translate from the Greek the work by the first-century historian Yosef Ben Matityahu - better known as Flavius Josephus - "The Jewish War." It took 10 years for her to complete the monumental effort of rendering into Hebrew the book's seven sections, originally written on papyrus. She finally finished it six months ago. Almost daily for a decade, she ensconced herself in her study to work on the project throughout the morning and in the afternoon. Like a good soldier, she hunched over the keyboard of her white Apple computer and coped with a 1,940-year-old Greek text.

"The language was clumsy and difficult," Lisa Ullmann says in a soft voice. She was 87 when she finished the translation, which is one of the highlights of her life. "Look how young you are!" I say, and she laughs heartily.

And how, after all, did you deal with the text?

"I took it page by page," she replies.

She was not fazed by the challenge, even though she was well acquainted with a number of earlier translations. In 1961, her son, Shimon, received for his bar mitzvah the dense and ponderous translation into Hebrew by Yaakov Naftali Simhoni, entitled "The History of the War of the Jews with the Romans," which was published in Warsaw in 1923. She herself owns a copy of a translation into German which her older brother, Yosef, was given for his bar mitzvah in 1933, when the family still lived in a spacious home in the center of Vienna.

The Ullmann translation is a tour de force, written in contemporary literary Hebrew. The result is a riveting edition of the book more commonly known in English as "The Jewish War" - a key historical text about the Jewish people in the Second Temple period. Indeed, "The Jewish War" is almost the only description, and by far the most comprehensive one, of a sequence of events that changed the course of the Jews' history. Yosef Ben Matityahu / Titus Flavius Josephus offers a dramatic account of the events beginning with the decrees issued by Antiochus Epiphanes after his conquest of Jerusalem in 170 BCE, to the fall of Masada just over a century later, in 73 or 74 CE. An added bonus is the vivid character sketches Josephus provides of major dramatis personae in the history of the Land of Israel.

"The translation into Hebrew involved a deep, thoroughgoing linguistic and grammatical effort," Ullmann notes. "I delved deeply into Josephus' language, which is far from simple, and it was quite a task to immerse oneself in it. You have to try over and over again until you come up with a translation you find acceptable. As my knowledge of Greek isn't bad, I drew on the last critical edition of Josephus' works in Greek, which was published in Berlin at the end of the 19th century. I also worked with a complete concordance in Greek for all the works of Josephus, which was published in four volumes in 1986, and with a dictionary of the names of the people and places that appear in his writings. I compared my translation with translations from the Greek into English, Italian and French. Naturally, I was aided by the multi-volume Even-Shoshan Hebrew-Hebrew dictionary, which I pretty much got to know by heart."

Ullmann knew exactly the style of Hebrew she was after. "The language changes in every generation. It was clear to me that I didn't want everyday colloquial Hebrew. I wanted a modern literary style." An example is Ullmann's translation of the sentence "Antony [was] now a slave to his passion for Cleopatra," which in the 1923 Hebrew edition was rendered, "Antony was caught in the web of his love for Cleopatra." Says Ullmann: "In this case I translated exactly what Josephus wrote in Greek. 'Dolous' means 'slave' and Antony was a slave to his passion. That is what the author wrote." (English translation, here and below, from "Josephus: The Jewish War," general editor Gaalya Cornfeld, Zondervan Publishing House, 1982.)

The new 754-page Hebrew edition was published last month by Carmel Publishing House. In addition to a foreword by Ullmann which sets the background for Josephus and his book, the new edition also has an introduction by Prof. Jonathan Price from Tel Aviv University's history department, and illuminating notes and appendices by Prof. Emeritus Israel Shatzman from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Maps, genealogies and illustrations help bring the period alive. Shatzman notes that the translation is aimed at the broad educated public. Price writes about the literary qualities of the historical document. "In 'The Jewish War' we read about the vicissitudes in the life of Josephus and about the events to which he was a witness as though we were looking over his shoulder ... and we experience them together with him. He tells a riveting tale and weaves a spellbinding plot."

National mission

In her apartment in Jerusalem's elegant Rehavia neighborhood, Ullmann is personable, vital, and displays a razor-sharp mind. On the living-room sofa, below a fine early Zaritzky aquarelle, are copies of the book sent to her by the publisher, which she is going to send to the members of what she calls the "Ullmann-Margalit tribe." It's an impressive tribe by any standard. Her eldest daughter, Prof. Edna Ullmann-Margalit, is a philosophy and social sciences researcher, translator and human-rights activist. She and her husband, the philosopher Prof. Avishai Margalit, have four children who are engaged in economics, curating and communications. Lisa's son, Shimon, a brain sciences professor at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, is married to Dr. Hanna Ullman, a psychologist. Their two children are pursuing their studies at institutions on the east coast of the United States.

Ullmann embarked on the strenuous translation project at an age when most people no longer set themselves new goals in life. She was 77. "The healthiest thing to do is get up in the morning and know that you have an assignment and that you have to work," she said. "You sit down at the desk and work. That's all. I don't see anything exceptional about it."

You undertook an intimidating task. Were you sure you would have 10 years at your disposal to complete it?

"I never imagined that it would take so long. I didn't promise anyone anything, but I also had no fear of anything. When Yisrael Carmel came to me with the suggestion, I took it on myself because I knew what everyone knew: that the book had to be revised and that it had to be done by someone who knows Greek well. I undertook it as almost a national mission. It is a basic text in the history of our people. It was necessary to make a readable translation available to today's public. It was a challenge, and what I thought was that I had to sit down and work. There was no emotional side to it beyond the importance of the task."

And now, with the stack of books on your sofa, are you emotional?

"I am emotional over what is happening in connection with the book. At the end of last month there was a book launch at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, and both halls were packed, with people sitting on the stairs and standing, which is never allowed at Van Leer. That was very moving."

Ullmann's determined, opinionated, businesslike approach - maybe it just comes from being a yekke, a German-speaking Jew - is deeply ingrained in her. She was born in Vienna in 1922. Her father, Samuel Findler, sold textiles, and her mother, Margaret, was the firm's accountant. Lisa's older brother, Yosef, died two years ago, and her younger sister, Ruth, lives in Australia. The Findlers were an affluent family who lived in an impressive home in the center of the Austrian capital. Lisa, who from a young age showed herself to be independent and headstrong, attended a prestigious private girls' school. As befits a bourgeois girl from Central Europe, she played the piano and frequently attended the opera with her parents. The family vacationed in northern Italy or at the Austrian lakes.

In March 1938, when Austria was annexed to Germany in the Anschluss, it became apparent to Samuel and Margaret that the children had to leave the country. Yosef, 18, left first, to study at the Technion in Haifa. Following Kristallnacht, on November 9, 1938, Lisa, then 15, realized that "we had to leave Austria immediately and that there was no other place for Jews than Palestine," she recalls. She joined the Young Maccabees movement and within a few months was placed on the list of those who would immigrate to Palestine.

"In January 1939, when I said goodbye to my parents on the train station platform in Vienna, my mother said: 'We'll see each other at Passover.'" Her parents sent a few containers to Palestine, which included carpets, paintings, silver utensils and other objects from the household. A few days before the outbreak of the war on September 1, 1939, they managed to place 11-year-old Ruth on a train bound from Vienna to England under the Kindertransport project.

"We heard that our parents helped Jews from Vienna who needed money to pay for the certificates that enabled them to escape the Nazis, but we have no idea why they did not look after themselves," Ullmann says. Her parents were transported to the Lodz ghetto and murdered toward the end of 1941 in one of the first Nazi gas vans.

Arriving in Palestine within the Youth Aliyah framework, Lisa was sent to a camp in the Nahalat Yitzhak neighborhood of Tel Aviv. Among the items in the suitcase her mother packed for her were a few pairs of white linen shorts, which she never wore. She lived with 19 other girls in an abandoned factory. They slept on iron beds and every three girls shared one small cupboard. They did farm work from 6 A.M. until the evening and had courses in home economics, cooking and household chores. The evenings were devoted to schooling. At the age of 18 she had two choices: enter the British Army or attend a nursing school in Jerusalem. Together with her best friend, who would later marry Ullmann's brother, Yosef, she chose the latter option.

After completing her studies in 1944, Ullmann worked as a registered nurse at Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. It was in the corridors of the medical institution that she met her future husband, German-born Dr. Theodore David Ullmann, who was 12 years her senior. Their great love lasted 30 years, until his death. They were married in Jerusalem in 1945 and a year later their first child, Edna, was born. In April 1948, as fighting raged prior to the War of Independence, Ullmann found herself alone in the midst of the battles, with a 2-year-old girl and a new baby.

"We lived in Sheikh Jarrah [now part of East Jerusalem]. The city was under siege and I went with the two small children to fetch water in pails. It was a hard time. My husband was on the convoy to Mount Scopus that was attacked on April 13 and was one of the few to survive."

In 1950, the family accompanied Theodore to the United States, where he studied nephrology. Upon their return a year later, Ullmann decided not to work until the children were in elementary school. When the time came, she returned to her nursing job at Hadassah and also worked in the laboratory managed by her husband, by then a professor of internal medicine and the director of the Nephrology Service. It was the first laboratory in Israel to offer treatment by means of dialysis - an "artificial kidney." In 1962, when she turned 40, Ullmann decided to change her life and fulfill an old dream, dating back to her adolescence in Vienna, by enrolling at Hebrew University.

"I turned it over and turned it over in my mind and finally decided that I liked languages," she recalls. She registered for linguistics and classical studies. "In the first year I continued to work, but in the end I decided to devote all my time to studies." She specialized in Latin and Greek, and after obtaining a B.A. was asked to become a teacher in the department. In 1971, she obtained a master's degree summa cum laude; to this day she regrets not having gone on to do a Ph.D. She became a senior lecturer in Greek and continued to teach on a volunteer basis after retiring in 1989.

Nine years later, she decided to leave altogether. "They wanted me to continue," she says, "but in one of the classes I forgot the name of a playwright and I told myself that forgetting in front of a whole class is unacceptable, so I left."

Fickle opportunist

Ullmann was not one to become an idle pensioner. In 1998, shortly after she left the university, she got a phone call that thrilled her. On the line was Yisrael Carmel, the owner of Carmel Publishing House. He told her he had asked people in the profession who was best suited to translate Josephus from Greek into contemporary Hebrew. The nearly unanimous recommendation: Lisa Ullmann. For Ullmann, who was then 76, it was an offer she could not refuse.

Yisrael Carmel, 71, founded the publishing house that bears his name 22 years ago. To date, it has published about a thousand titles, 135 of them in the great works category. "I believed that Josephus' book was important and relevant: how politics is managed, how people rebel against reality and why civil wars erupt. I considered the 1923 version antiquated. After all, since then the archaeologists have excavated and researched the land."

Carmel says he embarked on the project because "someone has to see to Hebrew culture." He believes he will recoup the approximately NIS 100,000 he invested in the book. "The book has a good chance of becoming a steady seller. In the long term, it will be economically worthwhile," he says.

Ullmann agrees that the book remains relevant for today's society. "I am afraid that fanatic extremists generally succeed in taking over and tend to be against compromises." Josephus was inclined to take a compromise line with the Romans, citing pragmatic reasons. However, the rebels considered him a traitor; during the siege of Jerusalem an attempt was made to assassinate him. In the Jewish historical consciousness, Josephus is perceived to have betrayed his people. He himself was aware of this. The history he wrote is also his own story, an attempt to cast off the suspicions against him and justify the decisions he made. But despite the tendentiousness, "The Jewish War" remains the central, if not the only, testimony from this dramatic period, and is considered largely accurate. "We have practically no account of this period from another source, and any information we can extract comes almost solely from this book," Ullmann explains. "Josephus provides an accurate description of the siege of Jerusalem and of the city's conquest, and he is the only one who remained to tell the story."

After 10 years of immersion in his four books, and especially "The Jewish War," what impression did you form of the man?

"He is very complicated, and from many points of view not very likable. He is enigmatic and rife with contradictions. He was ambitious and learned, devoting himself to the study of Greek and to reading. The book contains his great speeches, which attest to a very high level of literary rhetorical ability. He wrote in a complex style, reflecting his inner rift. He wanted to please the Roman emperors Vespasian and Titus, and to prettify their character in the eyes of Jewish readers. On the other hand, he was also out to explain the approach of his Jewish compatriots and their character traits to the Roman public. That often led to dilemmas of how to phrase and describe things, which makes 'The Jewish War' problematic in terms of the complicated grammar and modes of expression."

In her foreword, Ullmann describes Josephus as having a fickle character, as an opportunist who kowtowed to the rulers of the time. "He constantly reiterates that the majority of the nation was peaceful and objected to the extremist minority of the rebel groups, which brought about defeat and destruction," she writes, adding that she does not consider Josephus a traitor.

Everything we know about the life of Josephus, she notes, derives solely from his own written testimony. He was born in 37 CE to an aristocratic family from the "course" of Yehoyariv, one of the most distinguished of the priestly clans. A highly gifted student, he was only 14 when he was asked to take part in discussions of religious matters with the Temple priests. Josephus (then still Yosef Ben Matityahu) acquainted himself with the doctrines of the three leading schools of thought in the Jewish society of the time: the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes. He spent three years in the desert, leading the ascetic life of a hermit, living on herbs and immersing himself in ritual baths of purification every day. At the age of 19 he returned to Jerusalem and joined the community of the Pharisees. In the winter of 64 CE he was sent to Rome to defend priests who were on trial before the Emperor Nero. A theater actor he met in Rome introduced him to Nero's wife, who helped to get the priests released.

Returning home at the end of the year 65 CE, Ben Matityahu saw that the situation of the Jews had worsened under the harsh rule of the Roman procurators. In 66, when the Jewish revolt broke out, he was appointed commander of Galilee, where, he writes, he fortified the cities under his command and trained an army according to Roman military methods.

Zionist myth

Vespasian was placed in charge of suppressing the revolt and was later joined by his son, Titus. Josephus describes the Galilee campaign and its decisive peak at Yodfat, whose defense he commanded. The city fell after 47 days, and according to his account he then found shelter in a cave together with another 40 men of Yodfat. He recounts the speech he delivered to the group of fugitives, urging them not to give themselves up to the Romans but rather to kill each other, the order of killing being determined by lot. He and another man "happened to be" the last to remain; they emerged from the cave and surrendered to the Romans. Josephus was taken captive, but after prophesizing that Vespasian would become emperor was allowed to live, he writes. After Vespasian became emperor, he remembered the prophecy and released Josephus from prison.

Josephus accompanied Titus until the final suppression of the revolt. He maintains that he constantly implored the rebels to lay down their arms and stop doing battle against the Romans, begging for a compromise approach and urging a peace agreement. However, it was all in vain, he writes, and he was a witness to the ravaging of Jerusalem and the burning of the Temple. Afterward, he sailed with Titus' entourage to Rome, where he lived out his days as the emperor's protege. He took his new name, Titus Flavius, from the Flavian dynasty of emperors.

To the last day of his life, he received a monthly allowance and lived in one of the emperor's homes, devoting himself mainly to study and writing. He had four wives, all of whom were Jews. The first died during the siege of Jerusalem. He had three sons from his third wife and two by his fourth wife, whom he married in Rome. The date of his death is unknown, but was probably in or around the year 100 CE. The internal rift that impelled Josephus to write is palpable in the book. He praises the heroism of the freedom fighters who dared to rebel against a great power. They are described as superb fighters, brave and physically sturdy. At the same time, he calls the revolt a calamity and terms the rebels evil and despicable packs of brigands. Of Shimon Bar Giora, who led his own aggressive army and held views we might term socialist - he urged the abolition of slavery and the equal division of property - he writes: "What crimes did he not commit? Or what outrage was not perpetrated against the free citizens who had raised him to power?"

Ullmann: "Throughout the book, he vilifies and assails the rebels. He views them as being to blame for the great disaster and for the destruction of the Temple. In his view, if there had been no revolt, it would have been possible to save the Temple and the nation. In the seventh section he launches another concentrated attack against the rebel factions. He loathed them because their unwillingness to compromise caused the destruction of the Jewish people."

In her translation, Ullmann tries to preserve something of the complexity of the author's style. She notes that he refers several times to biblical texts, though without quoting directly from the Bible. He also revived phrases and coined terms, such as "theocracy," which in his book appears for the first time in the sense of the sovereignty and power given to God. He also uses the word "dramaturge," in the sense of a director and fomenter of strategems. Another word he uses is "hypokrites," meaning a stage actor, or pretender, in Greek; Ullmann surmises that already then the word assumed the meaning it has in its English form of "hypocrite" today.

The historian Jonathan Price points out in his introduction that Josephus' works are also a source of information about laws, customs, beliefs and interpretations that were previously unknown. "In 'The Jewish War' Josephus presents himself as a priest and a prophet alike. He refers to his sources and to his working method as drawing on notes made by Vespasian and Titus, and boasts about the endorsement he received from both of them as to the book's reliability. He had a variety of written and oral Jewish sources, as well as Roman sources, most of them written texts." Price notes that Josephus could have idled away his time in Rome and lived tranquilly under the emperor's protection, but that writing "The Jewish War" was a necessity for him.

Ironically, Price adds, it was none other than the Zionist movement that stirred renewed interest in Josephus who was perceived as a traitor to his people. His books were viewed as an important source of information about the history of Palestine during the Second Temple period. Moreover, the speeches Josephus places in the mouths of various heroes became cornerstones of the Zionist ethos. Thus, for example, the speech by Elazar Ben-Yair, ahead of the mass suicide on Masada, was seen as an expression of supreme heroism and as a model for emulation, so much so that in the past it was invoked in military ceremonies.

Josephus' writings were preserved in the ancient and medieval periods thanks to Christian scholars and scribes. The Christians were fond of "The Jewish War," which they viewed as proof of God's punishment of the Jews for not accepting Jesus as the messiah. Furthermore, it testifies to the fulfillment of Jesus's prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem.

"When all is said and done, Josephus is a trained and praiseworthy historian," Price sums up. He acknowledges that the book is tendentious, but explains that this is of historical value in itself. "In 'The Jewish War' we see how a person from Israel who lived in the final period of the Second Temple tries to cope with the difficult existential questions relating to himself, his faith and his nation."

This is how Josephus ends the book: "Here we conclude our history, which we promised [in the Preamble] to report with utmost accuracy for the benefit of those who wished to learn how the Romans waged this war against the Jews. How it is to be rendered must be left to the judgment of the readers; but as regards the truth, I would not hesitate to assert confidently that, throughout the entire narrative, I have aimed at nothing else." W