Thursday, January 16, 2014

Standing Again: Three Female Poets Meet At Sinai

In honor of our newest batch of Alumni Venture Fund grantees, especially this one.

Blessed be the Lord, Maker of Heaven and Earth, who has brought us to this generation. For too long our sins and the sins of our fathers caused us to languish in the exile of patriarchy. Until our mothers broke down the barriers, reclaimed their seats in the halls of Torah and called us all to stand again at Sinai. Now a new light shines on Zion: on women, on men, indeed on the whole wide world.
Yet as then, so now, standing again at Sinai “the divine word speaks to each and every person according to [her] particular capacity” (Pesikta 12). In the aftermath of that great event, I hear three female poets meet at the foot of the mountain:

I shall not float
unreined in space –
lest a cloud swallow
the thin band in my heart
separating good from evil.
I have no existence
without the lightning and thunder
that I heard at Sinai.


Zelda (1914-1984)
For Zelda, Sinai is encountered straightforwardly. No feminist reading of history can pry her clenched knuckles away from the “lightning and thunder that [she] heard at Sinai.” She grasps tightly to the lessons and memories created there, as she struggles to maintain the “thin band between good and evil.” Without Sinai, humans “float unreined” in a universe of moral relativism, like an astronaut lost in space. Who dare tell her she wasn’t there?
Not so for others. Merle Feld, in a canonical poem which captures the gender predicament of history (his-story), also heard the “lightning and thunder”. But she was never given the chance to write it down:

  We All Stood Together | Merle Feld

My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him
I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me there
It seems like every time I want to write
I can’t
I’m always holding a baby
one of my own
or one for a friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down
And then
As time passes
The particulars
The hard data
The who what when where why
Slip away from me
And all I’m left with is
The feeling
But feelings are just sounds
The vowel barking of a mute
My brother is so sure of what he heard
After all he’s got a record of it
Consonant after consonant after consonant
If we remembered it together
We could recreate holy time
Sparks flying

Merle Feld
Feld yearns to be of the consonants, of “the hard data, the who what when where why.” It’s a refreshing desire, especially as most liberal Jews prefer to settle for a Judaism of sounds (“the vowel barking of a mute”), staying away from the “particulars”, the consonantal certainty. It is a myth of a lost opportunity. Read this poem while standing in a Beit Midrash full of books. Feld invites us to imagine what was lost, what opportunities for Torah, wisdom and truth we had in reach – but never recorded because 51% of the Jewish people never had their hands free (or never had a spouse to pass the baby to...). If we can regain our standing together at Sinai, sparks would fly.
Back at the campsite, though, with an endless domestic to-do list, stands Israeli poet Chava Pinchas Cohen. She did not make it to the mountain. But what she gained instead was the explicit name:

Explicit Name | Chava Pinchas Cohen

Everyone’s gone to the mountain already, and they’re waiting,
waiting to see, waiting in great quiet –
even, strangely, the camels, the donkeys –
In this quiet not a bird twitters 
or children on their fathers’ shoulders. 
An overwhelming quiet, as if before some
wondrous thing.  Still—I want time
to hang out the laundry, 
time for myself to freshen up
and I warmed the baby’s milk so he won’t get hungry— 
and God forbid, cry at the wrong moment,
however long till then. You can expect
the laundry to dry—but the baby  
No one knew. 
And I saw that a light breeze, 
like the breath of a sleeping man, passed 
through the laundry and ballooned 
the belly of my nightgown, 
and the Shabbat tablecloth
was a white sail in the middle of the desert
and we went from there across the blue
far away to a place where 

we’ll split open pomegranates and suck their juice, 
to a place where 
love has 
an explicit name 

(Translation by Glazer: 2000, with emendations MZ; Hebrew original below)

Chava Pinchas Cohen
Where Feld yearned for “hard data”, Pinchas Cohen was invited to sail across the blue and split open pomegranates. As Elijah discovered at Mt. Sinai centuries later – God was “not in the noise” which the men experienced at the base of the mountain. God fled that scene and traveled like a light breeze across the Israelites’ encampment, seeking someone with whom to steal away to the pomegranate orchard…
Pinchas Cohen uses the Jewish texts and traditions as her own, not begrudging her distancing over the generations but not unaware of it either. She sits as an equal at the table of Jewish study and weaves from the (male) midrashic vocabulary a new religious language. Struggling with the humdrum rhythms of parenthood and the existential uncertainty of life, she recreates a Sinai which is relevant to her life as a modern mother, a modern seeker of God (truly, an ode to the struggle to find “time for myself to freshen up”).
Pinchas Cohen’s poem might be seen as giving in to an apologetic spirituality which is often hegemonically thrown at women (“you are holier than men, so you don’t need those particulars”). But I see in her embrace of the Shabbat tablecloth, of her nightgown’s fertile encounter with the “light breeze”, an opportunity for both men and women. Feld is grappling to move from vowels to consonants, a necessary endeavor. But Pinchas Cohen is sailing across the blue to a land of eros, where a new revelatory language is given “an explicit name”. That’s a Sinai men and women alike can yearn to stand at.

Shabbat Shalom,

שֵׁם מְפורָשׁ - חוה פנחס-כהן

כֻּלָּם כְּבָר הָלְכוּ אֶל הָהָר וּמְחַכִּים
מְחַכִּים לִרְאוֹת, בְּשֶׁקֶט רַב מְחַכִּים,
שֶׁלֹּא כְּמִנְהָגָם גַּם הַחֲמוֹרִים, גַּם הַגְּמַלִּים
בַּשֶּׁקֶט הַזֶּה צִפּוֹר לֹא צִיְּצָה
גַּם יְלָדִים עַל כִּתְפֵי אֲבוֹתֵיהֶם,
וְהַשֶּׁקֶט רַב מִנְּשׂא כְּמוֹ לִפְנֵי דָּבָר
נוֹרָא וְגָדוֹל וַאֲנִי עוֹד רָצִיתִי
לְהַסְפִּיק וְלִתְלוֹת אֶת הַכְּבָסִים
לַעֲשׂוֹת זְמַן לְעַצְמִי לְתַקֵּן רֵיחוֹתַי
וְחִמַּמְתִּי אֶת הֶחָלָב לַתִּינוֹק, שֶׁלֹּא יִרְעַב
שֶׁלֹּא יִבְכֶּה חָלִילָה, בָּרֶגַע הַלֹּא
מַתְאִים, כַּמָּה זְמַן עַד כְּלוֹת. הַצִּפִּיָּה
שֶׁתִּתְיַבֵּשׁ הַכְּבִיסָה וְהַתִּינוֹק מָה.
אִישׁ לֹא יָדַע
וַאֲנִי רָאִיתִי שֶׁרוּחַ קַלָּה, כְּמוֹ נְשִׁימָתוֹ שֶׁל אִישׁ יָשֵׁן, עָבְרָה
בַּכְּבָסִים וְנִפְּחָה כְּרֵסָהּ
שֶׁל כֻּתָּנְתִּי וּמַפַּת הַשַּׁבָּת
הָיְתָה מִפְרָשׂ לָבָן בְּאֶמְצַע הַמִּדְבָּר
וְיָצָאנוּ מִשָּׁם עַל הַתְּכֵלֶת
הַרְחֵק לַמָּקוֹם בּוֹ  

נִפְרֹט רִמּוֹנִים וְנֹאכַל עֲסִיסָם
לַמָּקוֹם בּוֹ
שֵׁם מְפֹרָשׁ.

I shall not float
unreined in space
lest a cloud swallow
the thin band in my heart
that separates good from evil.
I have no existence
without the lightning and thunder
that I heard at Sinai.

Zelda, "The Spectacular Difference," translated by Marcia Falk, p. 231

לֹא אֲרַחֵף בֶּחָלָל
מְשֻׁלַּחַת רֶסֶן
פֶּן יִבְלַע עָנָן
אֶת הַפַּס הַדַּקִּיק שֶׁבְּלִבִּי
שֶׁמַּפְרִיד בֵּין טוֹב לְרַע.
אֵין לִי קִיּוּם
בְּלִי הַבְּרָקִים וְהַקּוֹלוֹת
שֶׁשָּׁמַעְתִּי בְּסִינַי.

זלדה, עמ' 215