The poetry of Merle Feld has made an indelible imprint on the contemporary Jewish spiritual landscape, included as it is in several new prayerbooks. Her memoir, A Spiritual Life: Exploring the Heart and Jewish Tradition, (SUNY Press, $19.95) became a classic of Jewish feminist spirituality following its first appearance in 1999. Now in a 2007 revised edition, Feld’s memoir, which combines both poetry and prose, remains accessible and widely relevant.
Feld is careful not to make assumptions about her readers’ upbringing, knowledge, sexual orientation or socioeconomic class. She is uncannily articulate about universal human concerns — the search for meaning in the everyday, family, love, death. That said, as a memoir, A Spiritual Life speaks most eloquently to the experience of Jewish women, particularly mothers. Consider the opening to “We All Stood Together.”
My brother and I were at Sinai.
He kept a journal
of what he saw,
of what he heard,
of what it all meant to him.
I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me there.
It seems like every time I want to write
I can’t —
I’m always holding a baby
Not merely concerned with inward journeying, A Spiritual Life is a personal account of the “birth-pangs of Jewish feminism” — from hunger-striking Hillel rebbetzins to work with the feminist collective Bnot Esh — as well as Feld’s social justice and dialogue work in Israel, Palestine and the Former Soviet Union; as such it is valuable to any “third wave” reader or aspiring activist. The revised edition expands upon her earlier accounts of these experiences.
This book provokes soul-searching. In a time when skepticism is enjoying a revival, and books that make a mockery of religions and their adherents fly off the shelves, Feld’s uninhibited quest for spirit combined with her engagement with Jewish tradition promises to fill a certain literary void. And her insistence on authenticity in the embrace of that tradition calls on the reader to rise to the challenge of an honest, courageous spiritual life in a culture so increasingly ambivalent about matters of the heart.
Spencer Merolla is a graduate student in rabbinic literature at NYU.