Poetry, Midrash, and Feminism

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Poetry, Midrash, and Feminism

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. …