Alicia Ostriker

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When I Was Growing Up Our Teachers Told Us
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When I was growing up our teachers told us what a shy, timid creature Emily Dickinson was, frightened of everything. This presentation colored the way many of us were taught to read her poems. They were, we thought, timid, frightened, narrow poems. But when I began reading Dickinson with an adult consciousness I realized that here was one of the most fearless poets who ever lived. What is astonishing about her mind is its courage, its ability to take risks, its absolute willingness to face and examine the most outrageously impossible possibilities, and its entire subversiveness of all convention.

Among the forms of Dickinsonian outrageousness which I find most appealing is her religion. We have been told that she derives from Puritanism, as indeed she does. Yet when, during the religious fervor the Great Awakening, all her schoolmates and every other member of her family were undergoing public conversions, the adolescent Emily held out and would not surrender herself. She felt sinful and guilty, but she held out. "They are religious, except me," she later wrote Higginson when describing her family, "and address an eclipse, every morning, whom they call their 'Father.'"

Her relationship with God, or the failure of a relationship, became an obsessive theme for Dickinson. Of course she writes impudently of churchgoing:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church -
I keep it, staying Home -
With a Bobolink for a Chorister -
And an Orchard, for a Dome -


Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice -
I just wear my Wings -
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton - sings.


God preaches, a noted Clergyman -
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last -
I'm going, all along.


(JP 324)

A somewhat less charming poem is this one:

I asked no other thing -
No other - was denied -
I offered Being - for it -
The Mighty Merchant sneered -


Brazil? He twirled a Button -
Without a glance my way -
"But - Madam - is there nothing else -
That We can show - Today?"


(JP 621)

A number of my own poems concern matters of faith, definitions or redefinitions of the sacred. Dickinson wrote about her dog Carlos as a kind of alter ego. Perhaps Dickinson's dog was in the back of my mind when I described my soul--an odd sort of soul--in a poem called "What Else":

Here is what else the soul does. It tugs me
Like a strong dog pulling on a leash.


It doesn't remember how to heel, or refuses.
Unlike the well-trained dogs in the neighborhood,
It won't obey the master. It puts its head
Deep down between its shoulders, drags me stumbling


Zigzag up the block, while the joggers, plugged
Into their Walkman devices, smirk and stare.


And I have to confess, I am secretly glad of this,
Inwardly sympathetic toward its brute


Will to escape, curious what its world
Of holographic smells is like


To its mysterious doggy senses. And here's
What it causes me to do: sing, dance, kiss men,


Make poems, sometimes fiercely pray, invent
Gods and goddesses though I am an atheist,


Grow strangely sullen at dinner parties,
Forgetful at faculty meetings.


I wish I too could investigate the whole
Garden with my perceptive vibrant nose,
And I wish I too could shed my fur in handfuls
Twice every year; or fall asleep in a moment.


In autumn it elevates itself, it is ten feet high,
A column, a work of architecture.


Springtime it goes completely crazy. Summers,
It likes the beach. In winter, it wants to die.

Another poem, "Everywoman Her Own Theology," is about seeking God but being dissatisfied with the existing religions, and consequently having to invent my own:

I am nailing them up to the cathedral door
     Like Martin Luther. Actually, no,
     I don't want to resemble that Schmutzkopf
     (See Erik Erikson and N.O. Brown
     On the Reformer's anal aberrations,
     Not to mention his hatred of Jews and peasants),
     So I am thumbtacking these ninety-five
     Theses to the bulletin board in my kitchen.


     My proposals, or should I say requirements,
     Include at least one image of a god,
     Virile, beard optional, one of a goddess,
     Nubile, breast size approximating mine,
     One divine baby, one lion, one lamb,
     All nude as figs, all dancing wildly,
     All shining. Reproducible
     In marble, metal, in fact any material.


     Ethically, I am looking for
     An absolute endorsement of loving-kindness.
     No loopholes except maybe mosquitoes.
     Virtue and sin will henceforth be discouraged,
     Along with suffering and martyrdom.
     There will be no concept of infidels;
     Consequently the faithful must entertain
     Themselves some other way than killing infidels.


     And so forth and so on. I understand
     This piece of paper is going to be
     Spattered with wine one night at a party
     And covered over with newer pieces of paper.
     That is how it goes with bulletin boards.
     Nevertheless it will be there.
     Like an invitation, like a chalk pentangle,
     It will emanate certain occult vibrations.


     If something sacred wants to swoop from the universe
     Through a ceiling, and materialize,
     Folding its silver wings,
     In a kitchen, and bump its chest against mine,
     My paper will tell this being where to find me.

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.


Touch me not, thou shalt not touch, hiss the texts. Thou shalt not uncover. But I shall. Thou shalt not eat it lest ye die. I shall not surely die.


The stories call me simultaneously from outside and from within myself. They are composed, it is said, by a male God dictating them to a male leader, Moses, so they are composed by Not-Me. The heroes of the stories are Not-Me. Likewise the many commentators, who until now have been Not-Me, are wise men who I am sure would feel it unseemly for a woman to have opinions regarding a sacred writing. What then compels me to comment? What made me feel (as with all stories of this degree of depth) when I first read them that I had known them always, as if they were dreams of my own that I had forgotten? The tales of the tribe. What do the stories mean to me and what do I mean to them? I cannot tell until I write. And then each story opens to me, as I climb into and into it. And then each story opens like a flower, and I climb down into its throat.




It is a strange invention of the children of God, God's "justice." That God should be "just," obliged to reward good men who obeyed his laws, cared for widows and the poor and so forth, and punish evil ones who did not, was not a notion that occurred to the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Canaanites. We appreciate, if we step back a bit from our post-Christian assumptions, what a unique expectation this is. That justice should be intrinsic to a god, and still more odd, that human beings need to remind the God about it, as Abraham does before the destruction of Sodom, and as Job does when he complains of his afflictions. They remind God that he is not supposed to harm the innocent.


Now when Job confronts God of course God is not put exactly in the wrong. Indeed Job's afflictions have been a sort of sport for God, the result of a sort of bet with Satan, in the folktale frame of our story. But there is a challenge and argument. Job's friends insist that he must have secretly sinned or he wouldn't be suffering, and that no mortal has the right to question God. Job maintains his own righteousness and integrity and begs the Almighty to answer him. "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him; but I will maintain my own ways before him," (13:15) he cries. And again, "Oh that I knew where I might find him! That I might come even to his seat! I would order my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments" (23:3-4).


When the Lord answers Job out of the whirlwind--"Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?"--his magnificent speech seems designed to smash Job and mankind into humility by an overwhelming display of gorgeous creative might. Were you there when I created the earth, the morning stars that sang together, the floods, behemoth, leviathan, the horse that has a neck clothed with thunder and saith among the trumpets, Ha ha? Is it you who guides Arcturus, is it you who gives the eagle the taste for blood? I am the Creator! I am the Destroyer! I am not just! --That is the essence of the Lord's reply, and it is very splendid to read, a verbal equivalent of a nuclear explosion.

Yet the very end, the folktale frame of the story where Job gets everything back and is richer than before, vindicates man and his challenge and is almost a divine apology. It is as if God were saying: It's true that I'm unjust and that's the way I like it, and of course the conventional piety of your friends which claims that I am just and that your suffering is justified is false as you are well aware; but, do you know, you have embarrassed me a little. There. I hereby rebuke your friends and give you back your health, sons, daughters, and cattle. And Job was more blessed in his latter end than his beginning, they will repeat. For it is important that reputation, too, be repaired.

No woman can read the story without thinking: other sons, other daughters, other cattle. Not the original ones, who were killed when enemies attacked, when the fire fell from heaven, and when the great wind destroyed her eldest son's house while all of the children born from her body were eating and drinking there. The dead ones are permanently dead. The daughter who could run as fast as a boy, the one with the hot temper. The gentle one with the eyes of a deer. The son who was wild, lazy, a womanizer, along with the secret, sententious, prosperous and hard-working one. They are all under the ground now. "And I only am escaped alone to tell thee," said each servant after each scene of malefic catastrophe, as she well remembers. Job has his recompense but the killed children remain under the ground where she cannot touch them again. And by the way, who compensates the wife, who has had to live with Job in all his phases: as righteous and complacent servant of God and super-holy man; as stricken beast; as the vibrant rhapsodist of an absent justice? She would be cooking breakfast and darning the clothes. He in all his phases the focus of the story, she its periphery, like the sheep and the sons and daughters, but preserved alive so that she can be conscious of her peripheral status, rather than mercifully and suddenly annihilated. Job has many lines to say in the Book of Job but Job's wife has one line and says it early: "Curse God and die." That is woman's wisdom. Look at it, a large cinder in her outstretched palm.


For she knows all along that God is not just. Never in her heart of hearts has she been deluded by the pieties she mouths along with the rest of the community. Any fool who looks with her eyes can see that God is not just--to daughters, to wives, to mothers. They don't even exist for him. As for the man's world, why do the wicked prosper? But her husband has been lucky, and confidently believes his good fortune to be the consequence of his uprightness. So when he is stricken, and complains, she rushes in immediately with knowledge of which the distillation is "curse God and die." It is interesting that he has to do this, in her eyes; perform this brave rebellion; for her, too, he is the protagonist. He is a sort of dinosaur, howling when wounded. She is the leaf-green lizard slipping among the pebbles between his feet. She would never curse God and die herself. Shrew that she is, she is too timid for heroism.


But one day it will be the woman who rises, wounded and agonized, empty-handed, having thrown away needle and pan, her body pustulant from crown to toes. Rage will blister her and the blisters will be bursting as if it were an orchestra playing. Tiny as her body is, insignificant speck as she knows herself to be in God's universe, she will become so swollen with the demand--justice for me! Justice for me!--that she will bellow it out against all rationality. And when she makes that cry, God will appear violently to her and the play will be played. She will taste, bitterly on her tongue, the condensed cruelty and beauty of the universe. She will recognize her own nothingness as she has never done before, and the experience will be the most rapturous torture for her so that she wishes only to be dead and not conscious or crazy and not conscious, and she fears she will be made to stay alive forever with this consciousness unchanged, bright and flaming as a thousand suns. That would be a hell indeed, to avoid which she will repent in dust and ashes. And then finally God will recompense her. It will have to be a large recompense. God will be embarrassed by her as by her husband Job.


Or rather, he was waiting for her to issue her challenge. That is what really happens. God does not know how to be just until the children demand it. Then he knows. After all, he is merely the laws of physics, the magnificent laws of physics, and then the adorable laws of biology. And then, like excitable microchips, the laws of conscience.


So she will need a large recompense because she will be asking: Where are my dead sons? What about the women executed as witches and whores? What of the beaten wives? What of the flogged slaves? Where are the souls who rose in smoke over Auschwitz? You teach me to say The wicked shall vanish like smoke, when all tyranny shall be removed from the earth, but it was innocent babies who vanished. She wants the unjustly slain to be alive and for singing and dance to come to the victims. Somewhere in her reptile brain she hopes the Lord will run the film backward, so that she can see, speedily in her time, the smoke coagulate and pour back down the chimneys, the stream of naked Jews and Gypsies walk backward out of the buildings.


We already know what she wants. She wants justice to rain down like waters. She wants adjustment, portion to portion, so that the machinery of the world will look seemly and move powerfully and scrape and scream. The children of God do not really say God is just. But they invent the idea. They chew it over and over, holding it up to the light this way and that. And though blood drips from the concept, staining their hands, they are persistent. It is their idea. They want justice to rain down like waters. Justice to rain like waters. Justice to rain. Justice to rain.

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