All posts by Jill Hammer

Shekhinah

I invite you to encounter Her as I encountered Her— with mystery, and with surprise.

The Sabbath night is the joy of the Queen with the King, and their uniting… Scholars who know this secret are intimate with their wives only on the Sabbath night.

This is a text from the Zohar, an important kabbalistic work.  We all know who the King is—the disembodied yet fatherly entity who creates the world by word— not by sex with a goddess— and who gives the Torah.  But who is the Queen?  Don’t Jews reject the idea of a divine queen?  Didn’t the prophet Jeremiah scold Israelite women for worshipping the Queen of Heaven?

There is a Jewish custom to recite the poem Lecha Dodi “Come, My Beloved”— on Friday night, as they turn to the door of the synagogue to greet the Sabbath.  What most Jews don’t know is that Jewish mystics regard the Sabbath as an embodiment of the immanent, feminine face of God.  The Sabbath’s entry into the synagogue, and the sexual coupling of lovers on Friday night, are embodiments of the divine union of the masculine face of God and the feminine face— dare we say— of Goddess.

This feminine immanent face of God has many names, but the most prominent of them is Shekhinah. Shekhinah means “dwelling,” with the noun-verb force of that word: the act of dwelling.  The state of being somewhere.  This talmudic word describes the numinous presence of God that abided in the Temple. In the centuries following the destruction of the Temple, sages begin to depict the Shekhinah as a woman.  They see her as a loving mother who suffers the same exile as her people:

When the Shekhinah went forth from the Temple, she hugged and kissed its walls and pillars and wept, and said: “Shalom, goodbye, my Temple, goodbye, my royal dwelling, goodbye, my beloved house!… —Lamentations Rabbah

In an era when Jews feel punished by God, they turn to a divine mother who loves them and takes to the road with her people.  Shekhinah is the estranged wife of God, beloved but living separately as long as the world remains unredeemed.

This divine mother, according to Raphael Patai (author ofThe Hebrew Goddess) and other scholars, has her roots among the earliest Israelites, who worshipped the divine mother Asherah along with the God of Israel.  The mysterious female figure of Proverbs, Lady Wisdom, may be a version of Asherah, since she is called “happy” (asher) and described as a tree, as Asherah was depicted as a tree:

She is a tree of life to all who hold her fast,
And all who cling to her find happiness.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.

The Divine made me at the beginning of his road,
the most ancient of his works of old….
And humankind was my joy.
Now, children, listen to me,
Happy are they who keep my ways.
                             Proverbs 3:18, 8:22, 27-32

Centuries later, kabbalists take these biblical references, and later talmudic references to Shekhinah, and create a fully-formed female divine figure.  Sometimes she is a warrior, sometimes a mother, and sometimes she is all of nature. A kabbalistic scholar, Hayyim Vital of sixteenth-century Sfat, reports a vision of Shekhinah:

Behold, I saw a dignified woman, beautiful like the sun, standing on top of the ladder.  And I thought in my heart that she was my mother.

The kabbalist vision of Shekhinah still has issues of sexism and heteronormativity— the Shekhinah is often portrayed as passive and defined by her relationship with the divine masculine. Yet she is a powerful antidote to our idea that the Jewish God is male.  Even more interesting is what Jewish feminists have done with the Shekhinah.  She becomes, not a piece of the pie, but the whole pie— an all-encompassing Divine presence who can receive prayer, be in relationship, tend to the world.

Alicia Ostriker, the poet and critic, writes in her poem “Prayer to the Shekhinah”:

you folded wings patched coats
dragged mattresses pans in peasant carts, lived your life
laboring praying and giving birth, you also
swam across the hard Atlantic
landed in the golden land
they called you greenhorn
you danced in cafes
bargained pushcart goods ice shoes Hester Street
put on makeup threw away wigs
and you learned new languages…

Here, the Shekhinah is an exile, but a lively and joyful one.  She is embodied in Jewish women in all their fullness.  In an untitled poem from her book The Volcano Sequence, Ostriker writes of Shekhinah as a complicated figure of compassion and natural law:

womb compassionate pitiless
eyes seeing to the ends of the universe
in which life struggles and delights in life
Alicia Ostriker

Rachel Adler, in her poem “Second Hymn to the Shekhinah,” plays with the mystical idea of nothingness and relates it to the hollow space of creativity. She cries:

Nothing is my own mama and
I am nothing myself…

Hollow in the pot                     nothing
Hole in the flute                       nothing
Rest in the music                      nothing
Shabbat in the week                 nothing

I am your daughter, Lady,
And pregnant with you… 

Holy wind whistle through me
Been a long time since you had a pipe for this music

Many others, men as well as women, have been inspired in the modern age by the image of Shekhinah, emerging from the hidden depths of the Jewish psyche, changing as She is spoken, not only by male mystics, but by women seeking language for their own spiritual experience.

Along with Holly Taya Shere, I am the co-founder of the Kohenet Institute, an earth-based, ecstatic, embodied, feminist spiritual leadership program for Jewish women.  Through ritual, study, and self-reflection, we are reclaiming a vision of Jewish women as priestesses: vessels for Divine presence in the world.  We use the name Shekhinah when we pray, as well as other feminine and masculine God-names.  Like the mystics, we believe in the power of seeing God/dess as a woman, and in all the other ways we authentically experience spirit.  We, and many others, are rebirthing Shekhinah into the world.

One of our students, Tiana Mirapae, writes:

Since the destruction of the Second Temple, we have carried the Spirit of the Divine One within us. Wherever we go, wherever we are, we are home; within us is Shekhinah, Divine Spirit. It is our duty to ourselves and to the Divine, to heal and love ourselves, that we may open fully to serve Her and others, as Her.

This article originally appeared on http://feminismandreligion.com/2013/06/10/shekhinah-by-rabbi-jill-hammer/

Lilith, Lady Flying in Darkness

“Half of me is beautiful
but you were never sure which half.”
—Ruth Feldman, “Lilith”

Lilith is the most notorious demon in Jewish tradition. In some sources, she is conceived of as the original woman, created even before Eve, and she is often presented as a thief of newborn infants. Lilith means “the night,” and she embodies the emotional and spiritual aspects of darkness: terror, sensuality, and unbridled freedom. More recently, she has come to represent the freedom of feminist women who no longer want to be “good girls.”

Biblical and Talmudic Tales of Lilith

The story of Lilith originated in the ancient Near East,where a wilderness spirit known as the “dark maid” appears in the Sumerian myth “The descent of Inanna” (circa 3000 BCE). Another reference appears in a tablet from the seventh century BCE found at Arslan Tash, Syria which contains the inscription: “O flyer in a dark chamber, go away at once, O Lili!”

Lilith later made her way into Israelite tradition, possibly even into the Bible. Isaiah 34:14, describing an inhospitable wilderness, tells us: “There goat-demons shall greet each other, and there the lilit shall find rest.” Some believe this word “lilit” is a reference to a night owl, and others say it is indeed a reference to the demon Lilith. A magical bowl from the first century CE, written in Hebrew, reads:” Designated is this bowl for the sealing of the house of this Geyonai bar Mamai, that there flee from him the evil Lilith…” Ancient images of Lilith which show her hands bound appear to be a form of visual magic for containing her.

In the Talmud, Lilith becomes not only a spirit of darkness,but also a figure of uncontrolled sexuality. The Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat151a) says: “It is forbidden for a man to sleep alone in a house, lest Lilith get hold of him.” Lilith is said to fertilize herself with male sperm to give birth to other demons.

Lilith as Escaped Wife

In Genesis Rabbah, we encounter a brief midrash that claims that Adam had a first wife before Eve. This interpretation arises from the two creation stories of Genesis: in Genesis 1, man and woman are created at the same time, while in Genesis 2 Adam precedes Eve. The rabbinic tale suggests that the first creation story is a different creation, in which Adam has a wife made, like him, from the earth. For some reason this marriage doesn’t work out,and so God makes Adam a second wife, Eve.

In the ninth or tenth century, a clever collection of legends titled the Alphabet of Ben Sira draws on earlier stories of Adam’s wife, and of Adam’s coupling with demons, and spins an elaborate story in which Lilith is Adam’s first wife:

When the first man, Adam, saw that he was alone, God made for him a woman like himself, from the earth.God called her name Lilith, and brought her to Adam. They immediately began to quarrel. Adam said: “You lie beneath me.” And Lilith said: “You lie beneath me! We are both equal, for both of us are from the earth.” And they would not listen to one another.

As soon as Lilith saw this, she uttered the Divine name and flew up into the air and fled. Adam began to pray before his Creator, saying: “Master of the universe, the woman that you gave me has fled.” God sent three angels and said to them: “Go bring back Lilith. If she wants to come, she shall come, and if she does not want to come, do not bring her against her will.

The three angels went and found her in the sea at the place where the Egyptians were destined to drown. There they grabbed her and said to her: “If you will go with us,well and good, but if not, we will drown you in the sea.”

Lilith said to them: “My friends, I know God only created me to weaken infants when they are eight days old. From the day a child is born until the eighth day, I have dominion over the child, and from the eighth day onward I have no dominion over him if he is a boy, but if a girl, I rule over her twelve days.”

They said: “We won’t let you go until you accept upon yourself that each day one hundred of your children will die.” And she accepted it. That is why one hundred demons die every day. They would not leave her alone until she swore to them: “In any place that I see you or your names in an amulet, I will have no dominion over that child.” They left her. And she is Lilith, who weakens the children of men….
Alphabet of Ben Sira 23a-b

Some believe that this story is a serious attempt to explain the death of infants, while others are convinced it is a humorous tale of sexual quarrels and unsuccessful angels. The Lilith of this story confronts both Adam and God: she defies patriarchy, refuses a submissive sexual posture,and in the end refuses marriage altogether, preferring to become a demon rather than live under Adam’s authority. Notice that Lilith flees to the Sea of Reeds: the place where the Hebrews will one day go free from slavery. In this version of the Lilith story, Lilith becomes what all tyrants fear: a person who is aware she is enslaved.

This version of the Lilith tale in the Alphabet of Ben Sira quickly spread throughout Jewish life, and others expanded on it. The Zohar, a mystical work from 12th century Spain, imagines Lilith not only as the first wife of Adam but also as the wife of Satan. In the kabbalah, Lilith takes on cosmic power. She is a chaotic counterpart to the Shekhinah (the feminine Divine Presence, the bride of the Infinite). In fact, the Zohar imagines that while the Jews suffer in exile, the Holy One (the masculine aspect of the Divine) separates from the Shekhinah, and consorts with Lilith.Lilith’s sexual-spiritual link with the Divine will only end when the Messiah comes and the brokenness in the world is mended.

In folk Judaism, the primary myths about Lilith continue to identify her principally as a stealer of babies. Numerous amulets for pregnant women and babies from medieval through modern times use the three names of the angels mentioned in the Alphabet of Ben Sira (Sanvi, Sansanvi, and Samangelof) to ward away Lilith. Such amulets may also contain a circle with the names of Adam and Eve on the inside of the circle, and the name of Lilith on the outside: a clear warning to Lilith to stay outside the family realm. A red ribbon is also sometimes placed on a crib to ward off Lilith.

Lilith and Modern Jewish Feminist Midrash

In the modern period, the tale of the put-upon wife who flees to a place of liberation became a celebrated paradigm. Numerous modern Jewish poets and authors, female and male, wrote accounts of Lilith that use old stories to express new ideas.

Perhaps the most well-known of the new Lilith tales is”The Coming of Lilith,” by Judith Plaskow. In this feminist midrash,Lilith flees the garden because she is an “uppity woman” who doesn’t want to be pushed around by Adam or God. However, she misses female companionship.Lilith soon sneaks back into the garden and befriends Eve. Eve has been told Lilith is a demon, but once the two women share their stories, they become allies and companions in the search for knowledge.

Enid Dame, in her poem “Lilith,” imagines Lilith as an eternal bohemian who leaves Eden, drops in and out of men’s sexual fantasies in the Middle Ages, and now lives with a cab driver in New Jersey,where she still cries in the bathroom as she remembers Eden “and the man and the God I couldn’t live with.”

In Lynn Gottlieb’s story of Lilith, Lilith is made from the sky and Adam from the earth. In her love for Adam, Lilith chooses to forget she came from the sky, and she becomes Eve, settled and happy but ignorant of her own true nature. In her story, Gottlieb dramatizes the struggle of women to love men while still loving themselves.

On the other hand, Jacqueline Lapidus’s brief poem”Eden” imagines a lesbian encounter between Lilith and Eve. Using the Lilith legend, Lapidus invents an origin story for love between women. Scholar and author Ohad Ezrachi frequently writes about Lilith as a split-off sexual component of women, an image created by men fearful of a full relationship. He encourages men and women to see Lilith and Eve as the same person.

Lilith has become such a popular figure that whole enterprises (like the women’s music concert Lilith Fair and the Jewish feminist journal Lilith Magazine) are named after her. Once a source of fear, Lilith has been transformed into an icon of freedom. While some disapprove of this widespread embrace of a former demon,Lilith’s rehabilitation makes sense. The frightening character of Lilith grew,in part, out of repression: repression of sexuality, repression of the free impulse in women, repression of the question “what if I left it all behind?” As modern Jews begin to ask questions about sex, freedom, and choice more directly, Lilith becomes a complex representation of our own desires.

This article originally appeared on MyJewishLearning.com.

“Woman” is the Gateway to Full Humanity

A Conversation With Poets Jill Hammer and Joy Ladin

 

HER KIND: Prompted by comedian Elayne Boosler’s quip, “I’m just a person trapped inside a woman’s body,” Jill and Joy takes on a conversation that opens our minds and hearts to the limitations of gender identity, with letters and poems that speak to the things in which we have a difficulty in naming—spirit, body, sexuality, love, womanness, humanness. Their exchange is one of compassion, and it serves to affirm the bodies in which we are blessed to inhabit and inspires us to develop a more precise, richer, and embracing language for ourselves. Thank you Jill and Joy for being a part of the conversation.

 

Sept. 22, 2012

Dear Joy,

I don’t feel like a person trapped in a woman’s body. I try very hard not to believe in the mind-body split. I try not to think of myself as a non-gendered person, or soul, or personality, inside a woman’s body. I try to think of myself as a body with biological and spiritual dimensions. I think this way of understanding the self is an important resistance to the mind-body split that governs so much of Western civilization and takes us out of our own experience. So for me, having the body I have isn’t an accident of birth; it’s part of my identity.

For me, that means finding language to describe my body experience, particularly those parts of my body experience that mainstream society hides. I’m bothered by the ways that the body experience of people identified by society as biologically female (i.e., people with a vagina and uterus) is commodified or erased, along with body experiences that don’t jibe with normative views of body or gender. For example, my pregnancy experiences were a complete surprise to me because real experiences of being pregnant aren’t discussed in the public sphere. And there’s more complicated stuff, like how body interacts with sexuality, or what it means to be a woman born of a woman, with that connection of sameness and difference.

As part of my effort to find a language, I’ve been part of communities that explore liturgy and ritual based on the body experience of women. I’ve also tried to write from that place of inventing language for what our bodies feel. In a poem called “Ariadne,” I write:

Trust what the body tells you.
Everyone else is lying.

The girl with the lantern is here,
disorganized, stubborn,
to take you through the dark tunnels.
You don’t want to trust her,

but she knows the way.

Follow her down
into the arms of the earth:
the other disorganized, stubborn body
that never lies.

Do not turn left or right.
Below the skin,
the pulse is singing.
Follow that sound.

Cynthia Ozick writes in an essay called “The Meaning of Life”: “Our task is to clothe nature, to impose meaning on being.” Ozick has also expressed that her body experience as a woman is irrelevant to who she is as a human being. I disagree with both statements. I think we don’t need to clothe nature but to relate to it. I don’t think we need to impose meaning on being, but to uncover it. And I don’t think we should deny our body experience; we should embrace it. To me, that doesn’t mean embracing easy dualities about gender, but it does mean taking our bodies seriously as sites of being.

 

Sept. 23, 2012

Dear Jill,

I love starting with that quote, though I see it as less about the mind/body, or human/nature, split than about the way the gendering of bodies dims and distorts our humanity. I think the quote is reflecting on the way our bodies are given meaning by others, meanings that are read as revelations of who we are rather than projections of social, cultural, or family assumptions: “woman” here is an existential cookie cutter, taking the pattern of the female body and cutting humanness down to fit. From that perspective, this joke is a sort of Zen distillation of feminist awareness of the inadequacy of the term “woman,” a term identified by most people with a certain kind of body, to name the humanity of those to whom it is applied.

Obviously, that’s never been my problem. I have struggled instead to make myself visible by embodying the sense of femaleness that my male body couldn’t embody. To me, the identity of “woman” is the gateway to full humanity, and one of my ongoing challenges is the reluctance of others to call someone with a body like mine a woman.

For me, the mind/body split has been a life saver. Thank God I wasn’t born into a culture that encouraged me to dissociate body and mind, body and self, body and soul! The mind/body split is the foundation of my experience. I’m not saying that you are wrong to see that split as something to resist—as your marvelous poem shows, there is much to be discovered about the richness and wholeness of life by insisting on the body as the fundamental fact of existence. I think you are right that we don’t have adequate language for bodily experience—I think that’s true of all bodily experience, actually, and I don’t think that we can ever really make language (a system of signs that will always be bound up with culture and that must apply to many bodies) adequate to bodily experience. As poets, I’d say that’s good news—we’ll always have plenty of work to do in the gap between language and bodily experience. As people, well, like other failures of language, this one can be painful, violent, and sometimes fatal.

I love the idea that truth can be found by listening to the body, that the voice of the body is the voice of the earth, the meeting point of the human and the largeness the human grows out of. For me, though, the body is most truth when it is in dialogue with the mind/self/soul it can’t adequately express:

Letter to My Body

Philosophers shilly-shally, but it’s true: you are me; I am you.
This dust, these rays, this strange internal sense
that after all these years, I finally exist – all of this
is only mine through you.

You still seem surprised – that’s part of your charm –
that I wish to be extracted
from your handsome bindings.
This, you say, is only the beginning,

which is why it feels like drowning
in what we’ve both survived.
Ever the politician, I say I’ll be your widow,
smiling cheerfully as you die.

Not yet, you say, as though
– this is the other part of your charm –
you still believe in time.
Violent laughter, yours and mine.

Let’s go out into the woods
of meaning and matter, among the laurels and the mustard,
the unlit suns and unnamed branches, listening shoots and loosening leaves
we only appreciate when we’re drowning

in one another. Let’s break up before we meet
and fall in love again
in the darkening parlor of the heart,
let’s wait for God in the gathering dusk

and watch the stars come out.

Love,
Joy

 

Sept. 23, 2012

Dear Joy,

Your reading of Boosler’s quote makes sense to me. It’s moving and challenging to me that the mind/body split has been so important to your emotional and spiritual health. I’ve spent so much time trying to undo that split in myself. I have felt that in my early life I rejected the body—because it’s so frail, so awkward, so inconvenient, so abused, and unloved by our society, and so easy to dislike. As an antidote to that, I have tried to be open to the truth and beauty of my body as best I can express it. I’m trying to figure out how to write about the soul within the body without dividing the two—as you do so beautifully in your poem about the dance of soul and body.

I deeply agree with you about the “existential cookie cutter” that is gender essentialism. I can remember the pain of being rejected because some piece of me fell outside the (visible or invisible) dotted lines. What’s complicated for me is the ways that mythic images of gender have helped me appreciate my own experience. I’m thinking, for example, of the sheela-na-gig (a vaginal figure meant to embody the gateway to life) I saw in a cathedral in Ireland, which is an image of rebirth—a very different image of vaginal anatomy than the ones we see in our own society. Those images are important for me, and they are also problematic because they may be used to reify what gender is or “means.”

I like when I can find a more complex mythic structure—such as medieval kabbalah, which has plenty of sexist aspects, but which speaks of gender as something that is relational. The Divine, and the individual, can have one gender in relationship to one entity and another gender in relationship to a different entity. That’s powerful for me as a reflection of how we might sometimes experience gender in our bodies and souls.

On another note, I love the moment in your poem when you say, laughingly, that the body still believes in time. In most spiritual systems, time is an illusion—but it’s the deepest reality for anything with a body. And I love the idea that the body can only appreciate the beauty of the woods when it’s accompanied by the soul, and vice versa. Time and the timeless have to go together.

I am always trying to understand the dichotomy between the weightless and timeless soul and the body, which feeds on other bodies and is implicated in death, violence, and time. In one of my poems, “The Face of the Deep is Heavy” (the title is a quote from the book of Job), I write this:

I give nothing
says my soul curled up in the night
I take away nothing

my soul does not know what is true
but the sea knows

we are the life that comes from death
we stand on crushed shells

of the creatures we once were…

Here is another poem, “The Dragon and the Unicorn,” on a similar theme. It was inspired by “The Lady and the Unicorn,” a series of six unicorn tapestries housed in Paris.

The Dragon and the Unicorn

She will never understand
why he does not eat the maiden
and be done.
If that white horn were hers, she would use it differently:
to play dance tunes for volcanoes. To pierce God.

She will not lay her head in a pale lap.
She despises halters,
and even before she was born, she was not a virgin.
She has a double portion of lust
for the world and for what lies behind the world.

The unicorn vanquishes death. The dragon is not impressed.
She curls around the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil,
flicks her tail, pretends to doze.
The unicorn gazes at heaven. The dragon eyes a bird.

The maiden shows the unicorn a mirror,
round and perfect as Venus, its blond handle graceful.
The unicorn looks into the mirror and smiles.
The maiden shows the mirror to the dragon.
The dragon breathes on it.
It cracks into a million pieces,
each one reflecting her burning eyes.
Has she not improved matters?

Death will be back. She has no doubt of it
and it will be her turn then. She will choose differently.
She will let death live
in her, and consult it
at every moment.

Thanks for this conversation, and much love,
Jill

 

Sept. 24, 2012

Dear Jill,

I love “we stand on crushed shells // of the creatures we once were”—that strikes me as a kind of transgender motto, although I find myself uncomfortably aware that whatever I mean by “I” at any given moment will end up as the “crushed shell” of whoever I become. I’m coming to think that one of the most interesting aspects of trans experience, both phenomenologically and in terms of poetry, is that it reverses the usual ratios of being and becoming. I mostly experience myself as becoming, a process, transition from not-being to—more transition. I have a sense of being too, but it’s tenuous, fractured, relative. As a result, neither my body nor gender feel like firm foundations on which to build or rigid templates that threaten to oversimplify my messiness. Reading your poems—I’m so happy to see them, they meld myth and archetype in a fluent, precise and personal tongue—I recognize the peculiarity of my trans perspective, and my fantasy that my transition was bringing me toward some kind of stable sense of gender and identity.

Most importantly, though, your combination of critique of gender cookie-cutters and embrace of gendered symbolic systems gives flesh to something I say but don’t, I think, fully experience: that whatever else it is, gender is a language of self-definition, self-awareness, self-expression. Some of the violence of conventional genders is social, physical, economic—beating up feminine boys or masculine girls on the playground, killing trans women in city streets, not hiring the gender deviant, not paying women as much as men, etc. But some of the violence is what happens to us when we try to understand and express ourselves with an inadequate language, a language that has too few verbs and nouns and only the most simplistic syntax, a language that renders much of us mute, inexpressible, unthinkable, unspeakable. So I don’t see a contradiction between your critique of the conventional meanings of “woman” and your embrace of feminine archetypes and myths: having suffered the effects of a gender language that is unworthy of and inadequate to you, you, as poet and scholar and teacher, have scoured the treasury of human song and story to create a more capacious language, one that enables God-piercing double-lusting carnivorous unicorns to name themselves, that offers women feminine symbolic language for the darkest, wildest, most violent, least conventionally feminine aspects of themselves. Your language doesn’t substitute one set of terms for another, insisting that women stop naming themselves as passive and only name themselves as violent; that would be just as inadequate and coercive as the conventional gender language you reject. Your unicorns and dragons stand in relation to maidens, your Persephones are passionately involved with boundary-blurring Hades figures. As you say, you are striving toward gender languages that are relational rather than static, and the sky of your conception of “woman” is crowded with wheeling constellations.

My sky is pretty bare by comparison. It’s foggy and quiet in the dawn of my gender, one or two birds are singing but I can’t name them. The little window of my self frames a world of familiar things to which I stand in new, still-evolving relationships. Whole histories unfold in a single day, histories that those around me would probably call the past or future, childhood or myth, or utopia or apocalypse. I call them “today,” and know that the today I call “tomorrow” will erase and rewrite them as patterns in sand are erased and rewritten by waves.

Letter to the Feminine

You are a dream of clam shell and olive,
dark places between tails and spines, sheets stained
to reveal the spiritual complications
of your carefully perforated wings,

a calculated performance I rehearse again and again,
style detached, breasts incandescent,
little theaters of impossibility, immature stages
of the women in which you clothe me –

dead women, married women, women stuck between medieval pages,
fluttering in slips, flirting with socialism.
mounted, judged, incarcerated,
rubbed by unknown hands.

I wade through your editions,
lives you’ve bound, lives you’ve stitched,
lives you’ve flushed with dedication,
to unearth the truths you’ve hidden

in my own time, my own skin,
my own self unfolding
toward you and away,
over your passionate objections, through your suffering.

Love,
Joy

 

Sept. 24, 2012

Dear Joy,

Thank you for reading my poem so carefully. I’m grateful. I’m just going to take a minute to enjoy “carnivorous unicorn.”

And I want to take another minute to appreciate your sense of becoming. So many of us build a castle out of our identity, holding strongly to the self-definitions we have won with great difficulty. The unfolding, shifting, unpredictable sense of becoming seems to me to be a real truth about all of us, one that many of us try to hide from others and ourselves. Thank you for exposing my sand castles!

You speak of the feminine as a “calculated performance,” but I love the image in your poem of the feminine as a book publisher, producing various bound volumes (which of course are not as neatly bound as history or society would have it) that we can read, but not experience. “My own self unfolding” then feels like your own book of the feminine coming into being, writing itself down, beginning to be read. “Clam shell and olive,” for me, dips into the world of myth: Aphrodite being born fully formed out of the sea. You’ve hidden creation stories in your poems! I love the phrase “spiritual complications”—it somehow manages to span theology, gender ambiguity, and childbirth.

I’m also very struck by what you say about gender and language. “Some of the violence is what happens to us when we try to understand and express ourselves with an inadequate language, a language that has too few verbs and nouns and only the most simplistic syntax, a language that renders much of us mute, inexpressible, unthinkable, unspeakable.” I’ve had the experience of having something I wanted to say or feel and not being able to get there because I didn’t have the language—and having to painfully, slowly, almost traumatically invent the language (which is why I love poet Alicia Ostriker’s phrase “stealing the language”). Sometimes I’ve brought together communities of women to try and find this language which is unknown, unmade—language about spirit, about body, about sexuality, about community, about love. It seems to me this is a necessary act of resistance: to attempt to discover what we would say if our language truly belonged to us, if our vocabulary was not deliberately scoured of words of self-knowing. It seems to me that you, “in the dawn of your gender,” are inventing your own language, from which I and others have learned and will learn so much.

I’m sending you most of a poem called “What is in the Goddess’s Tefillin?” (Tefillin are Jewish prayer objects containing sacred text, traditionally worn only by men but now worn by some women.) Like your “Letter to the Feminine,” it’s a search for “the dream of clam shell and olive.”

a tendril from a grapevine
one grape clinging like a jewel

a stone from a funeral
hide from a tambourine
the bag of a weary midwife

wicks of Sabbath candles
ink of burst berries
ground antlers
floodwater from a submerged city

seed from a barley harvest
emptiness of famine

sugarcane   quartz crystal sun

a parchment
who is like your people
one nation in all the earth

nothing
no words
nothing
blackness
blackness
stars

an orphic hymn:
creator of the world
diversity of the sea
you are the great fullness
and you alone give birth—

and who is like you
o my people
who bind your stories to your arms

I too
tie my story to the parabolic curves of my body
my physics like an alphabet

do not think
I have remembered
you must recover me
from the tar pits of the years

bind me as a sign upon your hand
let me be an ornament
between your eyes
my temple
is in the glands and synapses of your body

remember

So glad to be remembering with you.

Love,
Jill

 

Sept. 25, 2012

Dear Jill,

I’m so grateful for this conversation, for all you are teaching me both about your engagement with gender, the body and poetry—and about mine. I’ve never seen my own experience in this light before, and I’ve never reflected, even in the privacy of my own mind, with the feeling of safety, acceptance and affirmation, of compassionate welcoming witness, you have given me.

One of my deepest wounds—I think it’s common among trans people—is my lifelong awareness that most people won’t accept what I know about myself, won’t grant me the right of self-awareness and self-definition. I still carry on a silent argument with voices that insist that my drive to become myself is delusion or solipsism, that my expression of my gender is caricature and self-parody, that there is no perspective or set of values from which I am not essentially monstrous. I grew up telling myself that I really was who and what I thought I was, even though no one could see it and no one would believe it. Like many trans people, I kept combing and questioning my feelings, testing them, trying to prove to myself and to that invisible audience that they, and I, were true. The conventional model of transition—the one that gets publicized—seems to erase this argument by saying that I have always been “a woman trapped in a man’s body,” so that once my body is brought into alignment with the woman I’ve always been, all the conventional forces that reinforce non-trans people’s sense of gender identity should reinforce mine. But I have never been “a woman trapped in a man’s body”—I’ve been me, a person with a male body and female gender identity and little in the way of language or safety to explore what that has meant at different moments in my life. This conversation has given me both, freeing me to say aloud, to myself and others, that whatever else I am or seem to be, I continue to become. Thank you for accepting and embracing this truth. This me.

I celebrate the work you are doing to help women develop richer, more precise and embracing language for female selves. Having lived on both sides of the gender binary, I have found that neither masculinity nor femininity are adequate languages for selves. Gender is mostly elaborated as an external language, a means for identifying (and misidentifying) one another, and locating masses of people in large interlocking systems of relationship. Thus, the work that you and other feminists are doing to enrich the language of femininity is also blazing a trail for those who identify as male.

You recognize something in “Letter to the Feminine” that’s crucial to the language I’m working to develop—the idea that I can name myself and my relation to the world paratactically, through accretion, lists of overlapping and sometimes contradictory assertions that wave toward the truth that keeps growing through and beyond me. In your “What is in the Goddess’ Tefillin?” poem you do this too, bringing an extraordinary range of image and experience together into a torrent that washes away boundaries between modes of spiritual experience:

wicks of Sabbath candles
ink of burst berries
ground antlers
floodwater from a submerged city

This list reminds me how wide and wild the soul—my soul—is, how rich the birthright of humanity. Thank you.

Letter to God

You say because I’m always about to die,
I am truly alive. My shadow stretches
over fallen branches, my skin smiles
under fingers of light, grass smiles along the path

You say is mine.
When You look at me, you see a child.
When I look at You, I see
a woman under a tree, a dog, a sign,

libraries of books I neither read nor write.
Life for You is easy as death, You do both all the time.
Try it You say. Be dead. Now be alive.
Now be everything you desire. Now let desire lie.

 

Sept. 25, 2012

Dear Joy,

I’m so grateful, too, for your loving witness, your poetry, your friendship, and your courageous presence with these questions and becomings. You help me understand the evanescent images I am trying to look at without holding them too tightly. And you help me by being so vulnerable to your ephemeral self.

As per your penultimate request—Now, be everything you desire!

Love,
Jill

 

 

Joy Ladin, Gottesman Professor of English at Yeshiva University, is the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution, and author of the recently published Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, as well as six books of poetry, including newly-published The Definition of Joy, Forward Fives Award winner Coming to Life, and Lambda Literary Award finalist Transmigration. Her essays and poems have been widely published.

This article originally appeared on herkind.org, December 6, 2012.