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Alicia Ostriker (1937- ) Biography by Maeera Y. Shreiber
Editorial Note by Jeannette Schollaert, April 30, 2019:
Maeera Y. Shreiber’s “bio-bibliographic” essay on Alicia Ostriker was originally published in Anne R. Shapiro’s 1994 collection, Jewish American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical and Critical Sourcebook. As such, Shreiber’s essay reflects a specific point in Ostriker’s career, and is reprinted here for its historical significance. In 1994, Ostriker was still teaching at Rutgers University, at which she is now professor emerita. She has also since taught at Drew University and New England College. Shreiber’s essay predates the eight collections of poetry that Ostriker published after 1994, from 1996’s The Crack in Everything to 2017’s Waiting for the Light. Additionally, in updating a bio-bibliographic essay on Ostriker, we would be remiss not to include her 2015 election as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and her 2018-2020 appointment as New York State Poet. Below is a complete list of the poetry collections and critical and scholarly works Ostriker has published since the original publication of Shreiber’s essay. The complete list can be found also in “Writings by Alicia Ostriker: A Chronological Bibliography of Her Books” in the print edition of Everywoman Her Own Theology (191-192).
The Crack in Everything. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996.
The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968-1998. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998
the volcano sequence. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002.
No Heaven. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005.
The Book of Seventy. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009.
At the Revelation Restaurant and Other Poems. Washington, DC: Marick Press, 2010
The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems, 1979-2011. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012.
The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014.
Waiting for the Light. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017.
Critical and Mixed Genre Writing
The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.
Dancing at the Devil’s Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics, and the Erotic. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.
For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009.
Blake, William. William Blake: The Complete Poems. Edited by Alicia Ostriker. New York: Penguin, 1977. Rpt., Penguin Classic, 2004.
Alicia Suskind Ostriker was born in New York City on November 11, 1937. Now the mother of three grown children, she resides with her husband, Joseph Ostriker, in Princeton, New Jersey. Ostriker’s father was an employee of the New York City Commission of Park Services; her mother was a folk-dance instructor. Ostriker received little in the way of formal Jewish education. In a recent autobiographical essay, Ostriker describes herself as a “third generation Jewish atheist socialist raised to believe that religion was the opiate of the people” (“Back to the Garden” 24). Although she received her bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University and served briefly as an editor for a newsletter issued by the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, Ostriker did not, until recently, claim affiliation with any Jewish institution.
After receiving her Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Wisconsin in 1964, she joined the faculty of Rutgers University, where she is now a full professor in the Department of English. She has been the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including grants from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the American Association of University Women. Ostriker is currently a board member of The Poetry Society of America and creative editor of the journal Feminist Studies. Long recognized for her literary scholarship, first in Blake studies and then in women’s poetry, Ostriker has recently begun to make Judaism a focus of critical and pedagogical as well as creative concerns. She has just completed a collection of feminist essays on biblical hermeneutics, Unwritten Volume: Rethinking the Bible, and has written review essays of such works as Judith Plaskow’s Standing Again at Sinai and Harold Bloom’s interpretation of the Book of J. Ostriker has taught graduate seminars on “The Bible and the Feminist Imagination” and workshops at the Havurah Institute on women’s midrash. Ostriker is currently composing a “revisionist midrash” – poetic reinterpretations of biblical material from a feminist perspective. Many poems from this collection, entitled Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions, have appeared in such diverse journals as Tikkun, The Kenyon Review, and the New Yorker. In an effort to remedy the self-proclaimed ignorance of Hebrew texts, Ostriker has begun to study Hebrew formally at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Her commitment to study should not, however, indicate her desire to align herself with normative Judaism. On the contrary, Ostriker is intent on shoring up her own transgressive practice. As she puts it, “It is easy to be an atheist, but it is not a light thing to be a heretic” (“Back to the Garden” 12).
Alicia Ostriker has long been recognized for her poetry and for her scholarship as an important voice in American letters. Her poetry in particular constitutes a profound exploration of what it means to write as a woman. Beginning with The Mother Child Papers (1980), her concern with questions of sexual identity has led to an increasing awareness of the need to challenge long-standing assumptions about women’s writing as occupied exclusively with private matters – affairs of the heart rather than the world. In The Mother Child Papers, Ostriker tracks the complex psychic interplay between the joy and ambivalence she experience with the birth of her first son and the abhorrence she feels as witness to the violence of the Vietnam War. The resistance to simple divisions between private and public matters leads to such powerful expressions as the poem “The War of Men and Women” (The Imaginary Lover 1982). Bombarded by the daily news reports of the violence men have wracked upon the world, the poet finds it nearly impossible to comfort a friend mourning the end of his marriage: “Forgive me / You are crying / I like to see men cry” (83).
This sustained inquiry into the links between personal identity and political obligation informs Ostriker’s relatively recent turn to explicitly Jewish concerns. Before 1987, only a few poems suggest that questions of Jewish identity will become central to her aesthetic vision. In the opening scenes of A Dream of Springtime (1979), Judaism is treated largely within the framework of family relations. Like a taste for pickled herring, Judaism is an old-fashioned habit belonging to that generation of immigrant relatives who speak in “anxious syllables.” The poet remembers, “Shayne Maydel was me,” invoking the Yiddish phrase in such a way as to mark the distance that separates her from those “Armies of aging Jews, soaking up sun / As if it were Talmud…” (“Benny and Becky in Farockaway,” Dream 9). Ostriker sustains this distance in a later work, “Poem Beginning With a Line from Fitzgerald/Hemingway,” where she addresses the lessons of the Holocaust by focusing on the heroism of righteous Gentiles. Her identification with the profound courage of Raoul Wallenberg, a “righteous Gentile,” is at once characteristic of her ability to represent the familiar to an unfamiliar light and reflects her professed disassociation from Judaism that is a consequence of a secular upbringing and a feminist sensibility.
Because Judaism plays a relatively minor role in Ostriker’s early poetry, her current interest in the Hebrew Bible may strike readers as unanticipated. But Ostriker is an extremely thoroughgoing artist who works both by intuition and by induction. Early models for her visionary poetics include Allen Ginsburg, Walt Whitman, and William Blake, whose work has occupied a good deal of Ostriker’s critical attention. (She has published a book-length study of Blake and an annotated edition of his collected poems.) Like Blake, Ostriker is a religious poet in the sense that she is compelled by questions of ultimate being. And, like Blake, whom Ostriker celebrates as a “true poet….a partisan of energy, rebellion, and desire” (“Dancing at the Devil’s Party” 580), she is driven to challenge the dominant view of theology that takes divine authority to the unassailable and absolute. Like her poetic mentor, Ostriker is not known for piety.
As much as Ostriker’s current interest in Jewish texts can be linked to her early passion for the radical energy of Blake, it must also be understood within the context of her extensive work on women poets, particularly those who are engaged in what Ostriker describes as “revisionist myth-making.” In the last chapter of her landmark study, Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America (1986), Ostriker discusses how contemporary women poets take on mythic personae in the interest of interrogating the past, as well as in imagining social change. Such is Ostriker’s own strategy in Green Age (1989), her most recent collection. In a poem ironically entitled “The Bride,” Ostriker depicts Jerusalem in her familiar guise as a once-beautiful woman now abandoned and bereft. Instead of a dream of redemption, the poem is dominated by a chorus of street cats who cruelly transform the classic vow “If I forget thee O Jerusalem” into a bitter chant: “Forget even the fleshy mothers / Sarah and Hagar / Praying, shopping, cooking…” (Green Age 44). In a subsequent poem, “Meditation in Seven Days,” we learn that the poet’s commitment to classical biblical and Hebraic texts entails more than twisting familiar images to lodge a political critique. She begins by confronting the paradox posed by a religion where identity is a maternal legacy but where authority belongs to a violent paternal deity. Rather than dwell exclusively on those aspects of the tradition that view woman as “a defilement and a temptation” or a more affirmative image of the feminine as fecund and redemptive, Ostriker lays out the range of conflicting images asking, “What can I possess / But the history that possesses me…” (Green Age 55). The question is central to her understanding of the relation between Judaism and feminism as a matter of mutual implication. She considers both the difference Judaism makes to her understanding of feminine, as well as the difference feminism makes to her experience of Judaism.
The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions constitutes Ostriker’s most sustained effort to interrogate the Hebrew Bible from a feminist perspective. In its structure, the “revisionist midrash,” as Ostriker calls it, reflects the influence of both Judaic and non-Judaic texts. In her analysis of twentieth-century women poets and revisionist mythology, Ostriker pays particular attention to several long poems that inspire her own aesthetics. Like H.D. in her epic, “Helen in Egypt,” Ostriker gives voice to quasi-historical female figures who have been largely inaudible. In the spirit of Susan Griffin’s encyclopedic poem Woman and Nature, Ostriker takes on a variety of personae, male as well as female, from Isaac to the Queen of Sheba. And in the spirit of Anne Sexton’s Transformations, Ostriker adopts a heretical approach to culturally revered stories, using colloquial, often comic, language to counter any charges of sentimentality to which she might be liable.
As much as Ostriker’s book owes to these secular texts, its inclusion of prose and verse reflects a special debt to the generic diversity of biblical narrative. One must note, however, that The Fathers cannot be described as “revisionary” in the sense of seeking to replace or correct the precursor text. Rather, it constitutes an act of reading or, to use Ostirker’s own central metaphor, an act of wrestling with the Hebrew Bible. In this respect her work is aligned with the. Current trend in biblical scholarship that stresses the inherently fractured, discontinuous nature of scripture. But to view The Fathers solely as an imaginative synthesis of feminist, biblical, and literary criticism would mean eliding its explicitly spiritual objectives. Unlike readers such as Harold Bloom who dismiss normative Judaism on the grounds that it is all part of a “rabbinic fantasy” (“The Book of J” 43), Ostriker finds that the literary as opposed to the strictly historical account of the Bible indeed animates the possibility of a passionate engagement with tradition.
Divided into five parts, The Nakedness of the Fathers suggestively invokes the five books of Moses. But Ostriker departs from biblical chronology, gathering stories according to her own sense of their interrelated meanings. In the opening section, “Entering the Tents,” Ostriker explores the attachment and ambivalence characteristic of her relationship to scripture. Shuttling between personal memories and expository meditations, Ostriker asserts an indelible connection to Jewish tradition, even as she is enraged by the marginal position to which she, as a woman, has been assigned. From the outset, Ostriker foregrounds her interest in the Bible as the text central to her sense of self. For this reason, the section devoted to the stories of origins, “As in Myth…,” begins not with the creation of the world, but with the creation of humanity. “The Garden” playfully counters the typical focus on exile and loss, proposing that the story of Eden be read as an account of the pleasures as well as the pains attendant upon the acquisition of identity—a process imaginatively staged as a consequence of the interplay between Divine Presence and Absence.
Although many poems are spoken by the lyric “I,” The Nakedness of the Fathers is filled with numerous other voices, including those of Abraham and Isaac. The latter is figured as a stand-up comic in a bitter-sweet portrait entitled “Laughter.” To those feminist readers who would question the attention paid to those patriarchs Ostriker replies, “I am my fathers as much as I am my mothers” (“Back to the Garden” 24). In the sequence devoted to “The Wrestling of Jacob: Man of Touch,” a retelling of the biblical narrative is intertwined with a contemporary story of the poet’s own invention. The latter does not so much update the ancient text as interpret it. In the contemporary version of the tale, a mother is conspicuously excluded from the final agon between a young man and his father, who must wrestle to dissipate the cold silence engulfing them. The exclusion comments powerfully on the biblical account of Jacob at Peniel, where the maternal figure is altogether absent.
Ostriker’s book concludes on a prophetic note with a section entitled “The Return of the Mothers.” The sequence owes something to the recent scholarship of such feminist theologians and biblical theorists as Judith Plaskow and Ilana Pardes, who seek to recover a long-repressed history of feminine representations of the godhead. After a wrenching explication on the anger of Job’s wife, which Ostriker claims has yet to be fully voiced, the work takes a sharp-witted turn with “Intensive Care.” The scene is initially somber as we are presented with what. Seems to be a deathwatch at the bedside of God. But the mood quickly changes as two women reporters (named Olivia and Chloe in tribute to the would-be lovers in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own) speculate laughingly that the paternal deity isn’t in danger of dying; he is only pregnant. The imagined transformation concludes with a suite of three prayers “To the She-kinah,” sung in the future tense:
Thus in the spirit of the redemptive Jeremiah, Alicia Ostriker tempts her auditors with songs of possibility.
We believe that you live
Though you delay We believe that you will certainly come
SURVEY OF CRITICISM
Most of the critical attention paid to Alicia Ostriker’s work focuses on her literary scholarship. Her 1983 volume, Writing Like a Woman, which appeared as part of the series Poets on Poetry, was lauded by Robert. McDowell for its historical acuity and careful rhetorical analysis of Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. Her subsequent book, Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America, has been the subject of some controversy. Reviewed widely in academic journals such as Signs, Contemporary Literature, and Georgia Review, Stealing the Language has provoked both high praise and strident critiques. Some reviewers such as Cheryl Walker and Wendy Martin proclaimed Stealing the Language to be a landmark study in the then-burgeoning field of feminist aesthetics. The study was praised particularly for its encyclopedic overview of contemporary women poets, many of whom had previously gone unnoticed. Other readers, most notably Bonnie Costello and Mary Karr, questioned the conspicuous absence of experimental writers in Ostriker’s account of contemporary poetry. They also took issue with the emphasis placed on the idea of female identity as the driving concern of women poets in America. Costello’s review led to a thoughtful and lively exchange between Ostriker and her critics which was published in the pages of Contemporary Literature (Spring and Fall 1989). These remarks on the field of women’s poetry provide Ostriker’s readers with further opportunity to understand her interest in gender as a category of analysis which addresses poetry in light of its social and political concerns.
In contrast to her scholarly work, Alicia Ostriker’s poetry has not received extensive analysis. Her two most recent collections, Imaginary Lover and Green Age, have received favorable notices in such journals as Virginia Quarterly and Canadian Literature. Both volumes of verse have been recognized for their candor and deeply ethical concerns. Although Ostriker’s poetry has yet to be discussed specifically in light of its Jewish themes and concerns, it is worth noting that works such as “Poem Beginning….,” a Holocaust poem, and “Meditation in Seven Days” have been singled out by critic Judith McCombs as particularly moving examples of Ostriker’s own brand of visionary poetics (202-04).
Works by Alicia Ostriker
Once More Out of Darkness and Other Poems. Berkley, CA: Berkeley Poet’s Cooperative, 1974.
A Dream of Springtime: Poems 1970-78. New York: Smith Horizon Press, 1979.
A Woman Under the Surface: Poems and Prose Poems. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.
Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. Boston: Beacon, 1986.
The Imaginary Lover. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 1989.
Green Age. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 1989.
The Nakedness of the Fathers (forthcoming). Poems to be included in The Nakedness of the Fathers have appeared as follows:
“The Story of Noah.” “The Story of Joshua.” Lilith (Fall 1989): 10-14.
“Cain and Abel: A Question in Ethics.” “The Cave.” Ontario Review 30 (Spring 1990): 11-13.
“The Poem of Sarah.” “The Opinion of Hagar.” Tikkun (September 1990): 52-53.
Critical and Scholarly Works
Writing Like a Woman. University of Michigan Press, 1983.
Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. Boston: Beacon, 1986.
“Job: or, the Imagination of Justice.” Iowa Review 10 (Fall 1986): 87-92.
“Dancing at the Devil’s Party: Some Notes on Politics and Poetry.” Critical Inquiry 13. (1987): 579-96.
“The Garden.” Michigan Quarterly Review 27 (1988): 38-94.
“Intensive Care.” Santa Monica Review 1 (1988): 30-36.
“The Bible and Feminist Imagination.” American Writing Programs Newsletter 6 (1988): 10-15.
“Entering the Tents.” Feminist Studies (1989): 24-32.
“The Wisdom of Solomon.” Kenyon Review 12.2 (1990): 149-55.
“Back to the Garden: Reading the Bible as a Feminist.” Reconfiguring Jewish Identity, ed. Shelley Fisher Fishkin. University of Wisconsin Press: Forthcoming.
Unwritten Volume: Re-thinking the Bible. Cambridge: Basil Blackwell. 1993.
Works about Alicia Ostriker
Broomley, Anne. Rev. of Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. The Georgia Review. (Fall 1987): 630-33.
Costello, Bonnie. Rev. of Writing Like a Woman. Contemporary Literature 29.2 (1988): 304-10.
Rev. of Green Age. Virginia Quarterly 66 (1990): 65.
Karr, Mary. “Sexual Politics.” Poetry (1987): 294-303.
Martin, Wendy. Rev. of Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. American Literature (October 1987): 474-67.
McCombs, Judith. “Territory.” Canadian Literature (Spring 1989): 202-04.
Walker, Cheryl. Rev. of Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. Signs. (Fall 1988): 110-14.
Maerra Y. Shreiber is Associate Professor of English at the University of Utah. Her areas of expertise include Jewish-American Studies, Modern Contemporary Poetry, and the 20th and 21st century Literature and Art. Her most recent articles include “Embracing the Void: A Short Essay in Memory of Chana Bloch” (2018) and “Passover in the Jewish Christian Border Zone” (2018).
"Poetry, Midrash, and Feminism" by Steven P. Schneider
This article was originally published in Tikkun vol. 16, no.4 (2001), and is published here again with permission.
At a time when critics and literary reviews laud the emergence of a "new" Jewish American Fiction, enough so that we began to talk in the late 1990s in America of a Jewish Literary Revival, much of the work of contemporary Jewish American poets has either been ignored by the press or scorned by prominent Jewish scholars. Perhaps the most telling sign of this can be found in Jacob Neusner's review of Steven Rubin's recent anthology of Jewish American Poetry, Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry. As an attempt to canonize Jewish American poetry of the twentieth century, Rubin’s anthology is an ambitious effort. It ranges from turn-of-the-century poems by Emma Lazarus to a concluding section of poems by contemporary poets born after the Holocaust. These latter-day "saints" might be considered emerging writers on the Jewish American scene. Yet Neusner laments the lack of a Jewish message in their work, noting that this entire collection of poets representing the twentieth century in America understands "vaguely or not at all what Jewish is all about, which is Judaism." He notes that "little of the heritage of sanctity and moral regeneration captured by the word 'Torah' affects these poets." So much for canonization.
Yet such a view of their work fails to account for one of the most interesting currents in contemporary Jewish American poetry, the use of poems to create commentaries on the Jewish Bible. This impulse, which I shall call midrashic, is especially strong in the work of contemporary Jewish women poets, who strive to give voice to biblical figures, especially women, whose stories have either been muted in the Bible or who often are represented as flawed, deceitful, or simply a liability. As a mode of writing, postmodern Jewish American poetry by women delights in creating "midrashic commentaries" as a strategy to counter this silence, to challenge the perception of women as inferior, to strengthen Jewish female identity, and to register political and social concerns.
Gerald Bruns, in his now famous essay "Midrash and Allegory" in The Literary Guide to the Bible, explains that "the term midrash derives from darash, meaning 'to study,' 'to search,' 'to investigate,' 'to inquire': it means 'to go in pursuit of.'" For Jewish women poets, midrash is a way for them to investigate biblical texts and to pursue new meanings in them. While halachic midrashim are concerned with laws, aggadic midrashim use stories and poems to expand scriptural narratives, verses, words, or even single letters.
Of course, not all contemporary Jewish women poets are writing midrashic poems. Adrienne Rich, Marilyn Hacker, and Robin Becker, for example, seem more concerned with other subjects while male Jewish poets like Alan Shapiro and Robert Pinsky express ambivalence about Jewish identity.
Moreover, the marriage of midrash and literature is a phenomenon not exclusively limited to poetry. Many contemporary fiction writers, including Steve Stern, Allegra Goodman, and Tova Reich draw upon midrash in their stories and novels. The recent success of Anita Diamant's novel The Red Tent, a story that springs from Genesis 34 and its brief reference to Shechem's rape of Dinah, is indicative of the vitality of the midrashic imagination in contemporary fiction. Diamant's novel can be read as one long midrash on its biblical source. In Israel, a women's theater group, Theater Company Jerusalem, has had great success dramatizing talmudic and midrashic stories, staging them from the side of female characters like Beruriah, Sarah, and Esther. However, poetic midrash has given women a way to express in concise and lyrical forms their (re)interpretation of biblical texts.
Who, then, are these women poets writing contemporary midrash? And what might we learn from them?
Some of the most prominent Jewish women poets writing midrashic poems today are Alicia Ostriker, Enid Dame, Marge Piercy, and Jacqueline Osherow. These poets have turned to midrash as an interpretive and creative tool that allows them to engage the Torah and Talmud in ways that had been previously restricted to men. Moreover, they have produced a body of poetry that is significantly midrashic, exploring the lacunae in biblical texts and developing poems that give voice to women like Sarah, Hagar, Dinah, and Lilith. According to Marge Piercy, author of The Art of Blessing the Day, "for women, midrash is a way to make the texts reflect our experiences, as differentiated from those of the male participants and male readers. Women are present in the Bible, but seldom do they speak. We can give them voices."
Traditionally, Jewish women have been assigned the role of wife and mother and not encouraged to study Jewish texts in a sustained and meaningful way. The authors of classical midrash were men, as were most of the talmudic commentators. The one exception is Beruriah, wife of the great Rabbi Meir, whose opinions are quoted in the Talmud. But even Beruriah, a woman of great scholarly renown, was humiliated by her husband who had one of his own disciples seduce her in order to prove that women were immoral.
Ostriker, who has been a leading exponent of women's writing and midrash, laments the fate of Beruriah in her groundbreaking 1994 book, The Nakedness of the Fathers. Although proud of her Jewish identity, Ostriker also expresses anger at the second-class status bestowed historically upon women in Judaism. She declares: "To the rest of the world the Jew is marginal. But Judaism I am marginal." The question Ostriker poses in Nakedness of the Fathers is how she can be a Jewish poet when Judaism repels her as a woman. Her response to this dilemma has been nothing less than iconoclastic. She notes: "we have to enter the tents/texts, invade the sanctuary, uncover the father's nakedness. We have to do it, believe it or not, because we love him."
In the preface to Nakedness of the Fathers, Ostriker provides a manifesto for a new kind of Jewish women's poetry. "Throughout the history of the Diaspora, Jewish imagination has flowered through midrash--stories based on biblical stories, composed not for a narrow audience of scholars, but for an entire community. It is to this tradition which I hope to belong. In midrash, ancient tales yield new meanings to new generations. Not surprisingly, many midrashists today are women; we should expect many more in the future."
"The text is bare bones," says Piercy, "and midrash puts the flesh on those bones." Ostriker, Dame, Piercy, and Osherow are all engaged in a vital effort to make more central women's voices and roles in Torah commentary. They do so by "entering" the biblical texts and imaginatively retelling them. This work is a kind of literary "tikkun," a reparation of the rift women have felt between themselves and Jewish source texts. It is, of course, part of a larger movement which has engaged Jewish feminists on many fronts, including asserting more prominent roles for themselves in synagogue worship and in organized Jewish life.
Ostriker's short poem "Rachel Solo" provides a good example of the subgenre of contemporary women's midrashic poetry. It elaborates on a few terse verses in Genesis that describe Rachel's stealing her father Laban's household idols (Genesis 31:19-36). Laban, of course, had made life difficult for Rachel and her husband Jacob, tricking Jacob into working fourteen years in order to have Rachel.
In giving voice to Rachel, who has repaid Laban with a cunning act of her own, Ostriker's poem takes its place beside the commentaries of Rashi and Ibn Ezra. Rashi suggests that Rachel stole Laban's idols to prevent her father from worshiping them. Ibn Ezra speculates that Rachel stole them to prevent Laban from using them in divination to find Jacob. According to Ostriker's Rachel, however, Rachel's theft was an act of "getting even," a way of paying back Laban for all he had done to swindle Jacob.
Not getting mad, just getting even,
Papa, I'll say goodbye to you,
I'll load my camel with my goods
And take your household idols too,
And should you come in search of them
With indignation red and blue,
I'll sit upon your statuettes
And make good use of a bad taboo.
Papa, I'll say, forgive me but
My monthly's here; don't misconstrue
This failure to get up .... And you'll
Back off in dread. That's what you'll do.
Hagar is another woman who figures prominently in many contemporary Jewish women's midrashim. Ostriker's poem "The Opinion of Hagar," which appeared in Rubin's anthology Telling and Remembering, is a good example. The speaker of the poem is Hagar, who presents her side of the story and emphasizes Sarah's betrayal of her.
In the final third of her poem, the poet imagines Ishmael reincarnated as a radical Palestinian, perhaps even as a member of Hamas.
When my son was born
She was yellow with jealousy
Of my round breasts, of my strong healthy boy
Finally she too had a son
What a laugh, a thin stick of a baby
Who whined and spit up his food all day
Just what you would expect
From these threadbare sacks of parents
But that was the end of me
She threw me away
In these lines Hagar comments upon the consequences of a compact betrayed by Sarah. Whether we agree or disagree with the political implications of the poem's ending, that Sarah planted the seeds of hatred in Hagar and Ishmael that have sprouted today in the heart of Palestinian nationalism in Israel, it is clear that Ostriker has compellingly engaged her biblical sources and offered us a new way of looking at them.
A wild ass of a man
He can read and write
He can run a printing press
He can shoot an AK-47
I call him Ishmael, I whisper to him:
Fight to your dying breath
But I still wonder
Why could she not love me
We were women together
One of the little known biblical figures who has attracted contemporary Jewish women writers is Lilith, who in Jewish folklore and rabbinic commentary is described as Adam's first wife, prior to Eve. Enid Dame, a poet and critic, has written extensively about Lilith in a collection of poems entitled Lilith and Her Demons and in her co-edited collection of essays and poems, Which Lilith?
According to Dame, contemporary Jewish women writers have reacted to Lilith with such enthusiasm because Lilith represents "boldness, rebelliousness, and overt expression of sexuality."
In her poem "Lilith, I Don't Cut My Grass," for example, Dame describes an earthy, sensual Lilith:
Lilith has been transformed from a demonic figure into an heroic one.
Lilith, you smell like the earth and marigolds and mulchy leaves. Your arms are mud-bespattered. You don't look like my mother.
In The Art of Blessing the Day, Marge Piercy includes a section of poems entitled Toldot, Midrashim (Of History and Interpretation). One of them, "The Book of Ruth and Naomi," suggests that we consider Ruth and Naomi coequals. Although the Book of Ruth is much "concerned with inheritance, lands, men's names," Piercy avers:
The "beloved elder" is Naomi, whose name means "sweetness." Although she and her husband Elimelech are driven from their home by famine to live in Moab, where their two sons marry and soon thereafter die, Naomi clings to her Jewish faith and returns to Bethlehem with her daughter-in-law Ruth. In Ruth's devotion to Naomi, and in Naomi's love for her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth, Piercy discovers a model for female friendship that can triumph over adversity. Piercy frames Ruth's famous declaration of becoming a Jew in the context of genuine love.
Yet women have kept it dear for the beloved elder who
cherished Ruth, more friend than daughter.
In the very next stanza the poet describes the deep longing for female friendship in all women.
Where you go, I will go too, your people shall be my people, I will be a Jew for you,
for what is yours I will love as I love you, O Naomi
my mother, my sister, my heart.
Show me a woman who does not dream a double, heart's twin, a sister of the mind in whose ear she can whisper, whose hair she can braid as her life twists its pleasure and pain and shame.
In seeking "a sister / of the mind," Piercy constructs a midrash of unusual beauty and friendship between Naomi and Ruth, "co-conspirators... making do with leftovers and mill ends... whose friendship was stronger than fear." Her poem teaches a lesson about female identity and friendship.
The recent publication of Jacqueline Osherow's Dead Men's Praise signals her as a major poetic voice in contemporary Jewish poetry. Central to her most recent book is a sequence of "Scattered Psalms," in which the poet both talks to David the Psalmist and talks back at him. "Anyone can argue with a psalm," writes Osherow in her poem "Thrones and Psalms." At times, her argument is with David, at other times with God, and still other times with humanity for not praising God, for not singing "hallelujah." She even takes to task the Artscroll commentator and "the wishful Jesuit of the Anchor version" who get wrong, in her mind, their translations of the Hebrew. Each of the "Scattered Psalms" is introduced with an epigraph, often two or more verses from the Psalms of David. Osherow will then investigate their meaning in her Psalm, probing the verses for what they may reveal. In this sense, her composition is midrashic, writing "with" the original Psalms—sometimes incorporated as lines in her poetry—and turning and sifting through the words and verses to discover some new insight.
"Midrash is an entrance to the canon through the back door," says Piercy. "In the patriarchal world of the texts, we miss the voices and the ideas of women. So we put them back in. We replace our parts of the truth received by us when all Jews of that time and future time stood at Sinai. We women who write midrashim are putting our truths into the ongoing oral Torah that is remade, reinterpreted, and added to generation after generation so that Judaism remains alive, and not a fossil or a relic."
It is this dynamism and contemporaneity that makes midrashic poetry so very compelling. For the first time in Jewish history, Jewish women poets are not only entering the texts in a serious and sustained way, but lodging their own midrashim alongside those of such great midrashic commentators of the third and fourth centuries as Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Eleazar. As a result, this body of work will constitute a significant role in the continuing Jewish Literary Revival both in America and Israel.
Steven P. Schneider is the author of three books of poetry: The Magic of Mariachi/La Magia del Mariachi (Wings Press, 2016), Borderlines: Drawing Border Lives/Fronteras: Dibujando las vidas fronterizas (Wings Press, 2010), and Unexpected Guests (Blue Light Press, 2008). Schneider is the recipient of a Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Fellowship in Poetry and four Big Read grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.