Defiant Muse: Feminist Hebrew Poetry

Article excerpt

"TEN PORTIONS OF SPEECH CAME DOWN TO THE WORLD--nine of them were women's," according to a Hebrew maxim in one of the texts of the rabbis of Late Antiquity. The opposite, however, seems to be true of writing. Although the Hebrew language takes pride in an uninterrupted written tradition of at least twenty-five hundred years, there are few texts prior to the nineteenth century which are unequivocally attributed to women among the "People of the Book."

Our mapping of women's Hebrew poetry is indebted to the recent expanding contribution of feminist critics, and is based on a thorough bibliographic search of periodicals and archives. The resulting revised map of women's Hebrew poetry indicates that it developed gradually--after its beginnings in antiquity and rare but sometimes very impressive appearances in Andalusia, Kurdistan, North Africa, and Central Europe, until its emergence in Italy in the nineteenth century--rather than erupting in the early twenties of the twentieth century as critics have maintained. [1]

In order to outline this gradual development, we must reconsider the canonized history of modern Hebrew poetry. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Italian Jewish scholars and poets were among the leading figures of the Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement. Thus it is perhaps not surprising that Rachel Morpurgo (1790-1871), the first modern woman poet who wrote in Hebrew, was a member of the Italian Jewish community. This community maintained a continuous ancient poetic tradition from the Middle Ages onwards. Haskalah was not perceived there as being in sharp conflict with the traditional way of Jewish life, which in Italy was relatively moderate, especially with regard to women's social and cultural roles. [2] Rachel Morpurgo was descended from a line of great Italian poets and scholars. This talented woman was fortunate to be taught and to master the richness of the Hebrew language from biblical to rabbinic sources. Her deeply religious poetry was written in elaborate patterns, artfully exploiting th e art of allusion and adhering to intricate classic poetic forms, such as the sonnet. Although her poetry was conventional in form, thematically it was innovative and revolutionary.

Morpurgo signed her poems "Rahel Morpurgo Haketana" (Little Rachel Morpurgo) or just with the initials RMH, which in Hebrew constitute the word "rima"--literally "worm"--to which she sometimes added the idiomatic "tola'a" (maggot), creating the idiomatic phrase "rima ve'tola'a," meaning utter worthlessness. Yaffa Berlowitz has argued that Morpurgo was not thereby devaluing herself or her work; the signature was a metaphoric extension of the poems, and a protest against the status of women in Jewish religious culture, as non-persons-as good as dead. The poet was provocatively confronting her readers with the marginality of her status as a woman in Jewish culture and insisting that they read her poems as those of a woman, and not of an aberration that has renounced gender. [3]

Morpurgo's poem "Again I'll Try" culminates in a daring line praising freedom over conventionality.

Again I'll Try [*]

Again I'll try

to offer song,

I've left the kitchen

behind in anger -

I'm tired of vainness

and hope for release

from suffering: for grace

from my Lord I'll linger.

His blessings amass

for the hidden goodness -

I hope for the share to come;

the creator of mountains

and freer of slaves

from bondage will bring me to freedom.

And the day of my death

and in place of dirge

and instead of a sackcloth

and I'll dance

will be my delight

there'll be gladness;

elegant dress,

to his forgiveness

for in my divorce is my marriage...

translated by Peter Cole

Women's poetry in eastern Europe internalized the conventional poetics of the time, like Morpurgo's oeuvre in Italy, but seemingly without any knowledge of her work. …