by Alicia Ostriker

Page 5

I would like to conclude by reading from a long work in progress tentatively entitled "The Nakedness of the Fathers," which will be a set of meditations on the heroes of the Old Testament. I hope in this work to come to terms with Judaism from my perspective as a female Jewish atheist--there are many of us--and to think through more seriously certain questions that have long concerned me. The portions I will read are from the "Introduction" and from a meditation on the Book of Job.


I am and am not a Jew. My case is something like that of the poet Emily Dickinson, who worshiped and did not worship God. I am a Jew in the sense that every drop of blood in my veins is Jewish or so I presume, and every thought in my head, my habits of thinking, my moral impulses and burden of chronic guilt, my sense of humor if any, my confrontational and adversarial inclinations. They say a Jew is somebody who loves to argue, especially with God and other Jews. My laughter and tears are Jewish laughter and tears. What else could they be? My ancestors are Russian-Jewish ancestors. The peasant mud is hardly shaken from my roots. When I stand before a classroom, who stands inside but a long line of rabbis, cantankerous and didactic, hungry and fading. In the 1880s when the great pogroms swept Russia and eastern Europe, it was me that the madmen hated and wanted to kill. Me, an innocent girl in my babushka throwing grain to the chickens. In 1944 it would have been me, my long nose no longer in a book, wetting my pants in a cattle car, or among the soft slain bodies layered upon each other in the great mouth of a trench at Babi Yar. Here is my violin, hidden in a closet of the Warsaw apartment, kicked into splinters by a soldier's boot, going up in flames. And I have fantastically escaped and can breathe air, enjoy freedom. Can't be a Buddhist like Allen Ginsberg (who anyway gets more and more rabbinical), or a Sufi like Doris Lessing. It would be a joke, silly to pretend. Could I despise the drops of blood in my body? To deny my Judaism would be, for me, like denying the gift of life. But I'm not a Jew, I can't be a Jew, because Judaism repels me as a woman.

To the rest of the world the Jew is marginal. But to Judaism I am marginal. Am woman, unclean. Am Eve. Or worse, am Lilith. Am illiterate. Not mine the traditions of Talmud of Midrash, not mine the centuries of ecstatic study, the questions and answers twining minutely like vines around the living Words, not mine the Kaballah, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet dancing as if they were attributes of God. These texts, like the Law and the Prophets, are Not-Me. I am not allowed to study Hebrew. I am not allowed to be a scholar. I am not given access to the texts. I am supposed to light candles in their honor, revere my husband and raise my children, cook and clean and manage a joyous household in the name of these texts. What right have I to comment? None, none, none. What calls me to do it? I have no answer but the drops of my blood, that say try.

Is there a right of love and anger?

I'm afraid: but it seems obvious, doesn't it. Everyone is afraid. Do what you fear. I don't know if it says that in some text, but women have to run on hobbled legs, have to pray and sing with throttled voices. We have to do it sometime. 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. It won't kill him. He won't kill us.

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