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.