In 2014, at age 56, I took a DNA test and learned that I am 32.1% Ashkenazim. Growing up, my family never hinted at Jews under the bed and I doubt they suspected. My mother and grandmother were evangelical Christians and the atmosphere in our home was pro-Israel and Jew-positive.
Some of my ancestors might have lied to the Inquisition, feigned conversion, and celebrated religious holidays away from public scrutiny so I can walk the earth. I wanted to read their Book.
The Tanakh is both boring and soaring. A horror show and a balm. The imagistic poetry doesn’t quite counter-balance the bloodshed and misogyny. The biggest challenge was reading genealogies and specifications for constructing the Ark of the Covenant and Tabernacle without nodding off.
What I love about the Book is its empathy. The Jews outlawed human sacrifice 3,000 years ago while their neighbors still practiced it. Joseph forgiving his brothers for selling him into slavery is one of the oldest (possibly the first?) examples of forgiveness in written record. The Jews gave us the Sabbath. I’ve worked most of my life standing on my feet and a day of rest is a holy thing.
Today tiny , modern Israel is a beacon of human rights in the Middle East.
Making intellectual aliyah in late middle-age is strange. I’m still a liberal Democrat but I’ve chosen different people to inform me these days: Phyllis Chesler and Ruth Wisse replaced Leslie Feinberg and Angela Davis on my bookshelf. Judith Hauptman’s endearing little video on Youtube about a conversation between Naomi and Ruth and the process of conversion inspired me to “think midrashically” while writing these pieces. The Talmud helped me to see ancient Bible stories in new ways.
Judaism and feminism are the milk and honey of the human race. Am Yisrael Chai!
Whisper my death and mourn me with thirst.
I am the midwife* that calms the newborn by cooing to her sweaty mother.
I am the sister who conspires with crocodiles; Moses is rocked to sleep on their backs.
God is the rock that weeps when struck; pomegranate trees spring from His tears.
Daughters of Jacob raise your tambourines and hear the chimes splash like rain in the desert, parched for mercy no more. The gates of emancipation slam shut on helmet and horse and quench Pharaoh’s last fevered hope. Dead soldiers know the God of Israel is no rumor.
Neither honey nor milk are mine to taste. Slander is dry affliction; regret bled from my cracked lips. Sibling love is precious when it drips and presumed when it pours. But a prophet’s pleading prayer is a force no accusation can prevail against; the wind of forgiveness baptized me with sand and my scabs fell away.
O Israel, bury me on the edge of promise and I will serenade you with water.
*In the Talmud Miriam and her mother Yocheved are midwives.
Israel, your enemies’ jaws are wide. They devour your land before you. There is no place left to stand. Your temple is smashed like an almond shell. The pieces lie on the ground, a habitation for mice. But the Lord concealed its precious kernel, the ark, from pagan teeth.
Rich man did you bother to learn the name of the orphan whose legs your chariot wheels crushed because you were too busy to stop? Did the glint from your gold bracelets blind you? Did you hear his plea for bread before the snap of bone? Or were your ears still clanging with the false praise of corrupt judges who fattened your ledgers with widow’s houses? When the Babylonian soldier placed his foot on the back of your head and ground your face into the earth, did the gravel in your mouth remind you at all of withheld bread?
Why are these babies mouths contorted in the broadest of grins? Are Baal and Moloch such merry company? Their eyes stare at nothing. Their ears cannot hear your supplications. Yet, you placed your little ones in the Satanic cradle of their outstretched arms. Why did you abandon the God of Israel for graven images? Did you forget that it hurts to burn?* The day you evicted mercy from your hearts, your nation’s fate was determined. Rachel is wailing.
Unscrupulous merchants, your visits to the temple were a waste of time. You sold wine weakened with water and silver polluted with dross. You ignored the Sabbath; your servants, your slaves, your burden animals cried out for a day of rest. The stench of counterfeit piety caused God to turn His back on Jerusalem lest He vomit.
Grief is a barber in Gaza.** She scrapes the haughty pates of those who broke divine laws. Bow down then, show the God of Israel and Judah your polished skulls that He may see His reflection.
The Lord’s tools are devastating. His hammer is Assyria. His chisel is Babylon. The tribes are shattered. Your craftsmen hew strange gods and temples in foreign lands. Your wise men advise rulers who do not recognize the true God. The siege of Jerusalem was hellish. Famished mothers ate their children. The sound of bones tinkling in the wind is extinction’s hymn.
Yet, His hand is stretched out still. Let the remnant pass under the Shepherd’s staff and be counted. The stone cutters blows will ring again in Jerusalem like Miriam’s tambourine.
Let the basket of bad figs be overturned. Rake the putrid fruits of greed and human sacrifice across the earth and trample them underfoot. The basket of good figs beckons the righteous. Taste the nectar of justice and of Sabbath-keeping. Jacob’s beard is sticky with sweetness.
* Inspired by Adrienne Rich’s poem The Burning Of Paper Instead Of Children.
** Shaving the head and face was a sign of mourning in the ancient world.
It is well that he slept through my creation lest he recognize himself in the guts and vulnerability and never want to leave. Our senses were acute: The tiniest bugs turned their faces to us and smiled. Nature was beautiful and pointless. There was no waste; what we swallowed turned into nothing inside us. When I ate that apple I felt full for the first time.
I squat and the earth pulls feces and infants out of me. Everything involves strain, from the plow to our love. He named the animals, but I invented a new word: Patience. And we have purpose – to defy and to seek God. When His hot breath chases us to the river in the afternoon, we feel grateful.
And when my children kill each other, there is no end to the mother-blaming.
We are the brothers of a righteous daughter; a sister of twelve brothers, she sorts lentils in our mother’s tent. Tiny shekels fill the kettle and her exit is purchased.
The daughters of water remember swimming through salt and drowning in the bright world. They mourn broken pitchers. They hear their mother’s heartbeat in rain. They slap babies and the tears of fathers are loosed.
The daughters of land scratch the earth’s back with sticks. They sing: “My husband is a dirt surface. I love him like God loves hardship. I left the Garden to plow the world open.” Their purses are fat with seeds and they are generous to visitors.
The daughters of barley say that God spits in their clay pots and His bubbles are spiced with laughter. Rotten sugar is a merry beast! Joy awaits the drinkers of heavenly brew!
The daughters of fire know that heaven is warm at night and hell is the absence of fire. They fill hungry shepherds with bread and stew. There is no eating without fire. Fire is feared and coaxed like God.
The daughters of cloth know the sadness of the loom. They hear tearing when flesh is violated. Spiders skate across their pillows at night and whisper in their ears: “The world is poorly woven.”
Our father wrestled an angel and gained a blessing. Dina fought a brute and received bruises and bloody clothes. He spoke sweetness after but his words blessed only himself.
Shechem died because we do not slay the innocent. What honor is there in killing a blameless woman? Heed this: Next time WE deliver the circumcisions. Let our father stack curses upon our heads and we shall wear them like crowns for we are not ashamed.
In Ur I prayed to clay women. Breasts and buttocks spilled from my fingers. I kissed dimpled bellies. Their mineral surfaces warmed under my breath and I smelled iron, green figs, mushrooms. I felt fertile.
I married an idol-smasher. One God became sufficient. One Father. One heavenly beard wagging admonishingly.
In Egypt lies spilled from my mouth like beads from a broken strand; opalescent words rolled under Pharaoh’s bed. My husband paid the pearl tax. My face became a blunt flag of no country, slick with calm, and Pharaoh’s gaze slid off. My husband paid the silk tax. My womb was a wind-filled cave where prayers blew around like rags. My husband paid the vessel tax.
I asked my best friend to bear fruit in my place. “Go in to her.” I told my husband. Did she rub green olive oil on her skin? Did her neck smell like spring grass when he kissed it? Does contempt replace sisterhood when tent flaps part like labia?
When God visits the yeast activates, the dough rises. The ancient bowl holds promise yet. “I made you laugh” He said. And a dialogue began.
He has filled my lungs with prophecy: Twelve tribes will call me “Mother”. He has filled my womb with stars, without number. My children shall fill Canaan and their strength will astound nations. By their hands the wilderness will bloom: Sand will turn into bread and brackish water into wine. The world will feast on their surplus. Must Ishmael walk in rage all his days? Let him lay down his spear and sit at the table.
Note: In the Talmud Abraham, Sarah’s husband, pays taxes for silk, vessels, and pearls upon entering Egypt.
Bored people have sex on the back of a gold calf. Rumors abound of a god with breasts that squirt milk and honey. You serve THE God who provides for needs and is indifferent to desires. You swallow Him daily and try not to choke on His shoulders when He shrugs in your throat.
You remember the nectarous kiss of the fig and the melon, their heart a womb of seeds. Egypt was fertile with sweetness and misery. It’s better here in manna-land away from the double sting of sweat trickling into lash wounds.
You must keep this stiff-necked people united even as their dissatisfaction expands like the darkness between stars spinning away from each other.
Blessed is she who sets the price. Silver sings in her pockets. God is her servant. He hews wood. He draws water. He chases pimps from her yard. He repairs cracks in her walls but more appear every day.
Her eyes are gifts from her mother: She weighs melons with her gaze. She counts charred spots on flatbread, tastes the earth in their smoke.
Her stomach is a heart-shaped room furnished with well-being; want does not echo there. The devil whispers: “Hey sister, stay away from the yogurt sauce, the red wine, the honeyed fig cakes, and all other deliciousness. Glory in the emptiness of privation. Or, stick your finger down your throat.” Her hearing is closed to reproach. She is full of triumph and hummus.
Her thighs are a gentle vice for the lamb’s neck: The blade is sharp. Her hand is swift. A kosher death is nearly effortless.
Rumors fly like spies: It is said God holds up her roof. It is said she earns a living. It is said her pubic hair is abrasive and cuts those who touch it.
Blessed is the nation born in her house. The scarlet umbilicus pulses in her window.
Note: In the Talmud the rabbis have Rahab saying “I have sinned with my eyes, my stomach, my thighs.” I decided to turn those three body parts into blessings.