Her Face in the Mirror & The Nakedness of the Father

Susan Schnur Interviews writers Faye Moskowitz and Alicia Ostriker

Two of Lilith’s editors, Faye Moskowitz (fiction) and Alicia Ostriker (poetry), have recently authored new books. Her Face In The Mirror: Jewish Women on Mothers and Daughters [Beacon Press], edited by Moskowitz, is a healing collection of poems, essays and stories by the likes of Linda Pastan, Myra Sklarew, Vivian Gornick and over 50 others. The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions [Rutgers University Press], is word-witch Alicia Ostriker’s pas de deux with that crazed life-partner on her dance card— the Bible.

Of book reviews there are enough (says our tradition), and so LILITH here chooses instead to interview Moskowitz and Ostriker about their feelings as once-again new mothers. We asked: From whence in your kishkas the urgency to produce this particular book? And, now that your baby (Moskowitz’s 4th; Ostriker’s 12th) is abroad in the world, how does it feel?
They reply:

OSTRIKER: I started this book 9 years ago. I worked on it very hard for a very long time, and it’s mysterious to me why I looped around and got to this at age 47. I didn’t choose this task. It chose me. I fell off a cliff and found myself writing about the Bible.

Everything I had written up until then felt like preparation. I had just finished writing Stealing the Language, and the last chapter was about women poets’ revisionist mythology—rewriting Orpheus and Eurydice, for example, from Eurydice’s point of view, or Odysseus and Penelope from Penelope’s point of view.

And so my object in writing this book was to take biblical stories—which belong to my mothers and my fathers and therefore to me—and to penetrate them, through writing, until they became truly mine. I wanted to understand biblical men and women and their God, with the sense that these people are my mothers and fathers. and their God is my God, for better or worse. My many revisions came from the sense of working ever deeper into the subject, to claim it on my own terms. I was obsessed. It felt like a calling, like I was being made to do this work.

I was a college student when I first identified with a biblical character—Jacob. I did an etching (it still hangs on my wall today) of Jacob wrestling the angel. I identified with both Jacob AND the angel, actually, with the relationship: “I will not let thee go except thou bless me.” I still can’t say this line without crying. Jacob is tested to see if he’ll think of the right thing to say, which is to ask for a blessing. It’s how fathers are with sons, if you ever saw a father play tennis or chess, really hard, but wanting the son to win. God’s relationship with us is something like that. It’s what I do with the Bible itself; try to wrestle a blessing out of it.

Not having Hebrew, or any formal Jewish education, often made me feel unworthy of the task, but then again, I didn’t choose it. I will always feel like an outsider as a Jew, but I see this as both an advantage and a disadvantage—the former because I didn’t have to deal with 2000 years’ worth of pious commentary distorting what’s actually in the Bible.

Much of my excitement in writing this particular book had to do with getting feedback. For example, a graduate student of mine pointed out to me that the structure of Esther has to do with opposing men’s lot to the woman’s body, and the woman’s body wins. Whenever a new law is promulgated by the king, it is signed with the signature and sealed with the king’s seal and it can never be revoked—and then it’s revoked. Esther manages to revoke it.

Someone else pointed out to me that Mordechai and Esther were once Marduk and Ishtar. This reinforced my own sense in reading the Bible; how the male God swallows, absorbs the Goddesses who came before him. God the Father swallowed God the Mother like the wolf swallowing Grandmother, but God the Mother is still there inside, and sometimes you can see her kick.

One of the most important things to me about the Bible is the fact that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are all men of peace. I think this is probably unique in human culture— that our national founding fathers are not warriors, and not kings, but just family men. They’re bosses and they’re rich, but I love it that they don’t go to war. Odysseus goes to war; Achilles goes to war; the heroes in Indian epics go to war. Masculinity is supposed to be identified with the warrior character, but it doesn’t have to be for Jews.

Now that the book is finished, I get nice mail from men and women who say it speaks to them, and I like that, but the book’s not mine anymore. While doing the work I felt as if I had a reason to live (I’m your standard workaholic)—having done it is a problem. I’m in distress because I don’t know what comes next. It’s frightening. The reward is in the feeling that I’m doing something worth doing, but right now I’m not doing that anymore.

Why does a pianist love playing the piano? Writing is something I can do. I love both writing and teaching [at Rutgers]. When I’m not doing something creative—in my twenties I figured out that writing was the gratification—I get depressed, mean, nasty, rotten to live with.

Writing books is like life. You just put one foot in front of the other, and before you know it your babies are in college, and then you miss them horribly, and then, after you miss them horribly, you realize there is life after motherhood—and it’s called grand motherhood.

MOSKOWITZ: I like to tell people all the time about my professional late blooming— I got my B.A. when I was 40, and I’m now 64—because so many women feel so far behind. But I feel we’re far ahead, because of our life experience. I stored up my desire to write for so many years, waiting to actually do it, because I needed to live in order to have something to say. It’s as simple as that.

My mother died when I was 16, and I was then at a place in my life when I thought I didn’t need a mother. I didn’t grieve; I didn’t even let myself realize that it was a loss. I thought my significant relationship was with my father. Much later, for a couple of years, I went through a kind of emotional blood bath. A certain kind of emptiness came into my life, unexplained blues, an overarching sadness. It was a cumulative thing.

Interestingly, it was Beacon Press that came to me with the idea of a book about Jewish mothers and daughters, not the other way around. The two years that I spent putting this book together were incredibly moving. When I opened my mail, I never knew what manuscripts I’d find. I spent half the day with my head on my desk because I was so moved by the material that women sent in. The piece about washing a mother’s body—it took me days to recover from that. These two years were life-changing and therapeutic.

It doesn’t come easy to me to write. I know people who can’t wait to sit down at their desk, but I’d rather wash a floor any old day than actually sit myself down. What motivates me is that if I only sit long enough, think hard enough, I’ll produce something that gives me pleasure. I care very much about each word—that’s probably what makes it so hard, and ultimately so rewarding. I loved putting the different essays, poems and stories together in this book, to see patterns evolving, to see one piece echo another further down in the book.

I did not want to write about the Sophie Portnoys, the stereotyped Jewish mother, intrusive, all-consuming. “Oh you’re a regular Jewish mother” is not a compliment. A couple of people asked, “Where are the mothers who ate their children? Where are the mothers who destroyed the lives of their children?” The relationships described in this book aren’t easy ones, but the women who write about them have already come out on the other side, to rapprochement. As I selected manuscripts to include, the negative portraits of mothers seemed immature. This book represents many acts of healing.

I love being on my book tour now; for the most part, writers are very lonely people. The feedback is exhilarating. To have people say, “I feel this too,” or “I feel differently,” I delight in this, to have touched someone’s life. I feel deeply person-to-person links. When I teach, I try to build a community within each class. I loved corresponding with the other writers in putting this book together. On my bookshelf I have eight file boxes filled with letters from readers—these matter a lot to me.

Now that the book is finished, I have to let go of it, to stop hitting on myself, saying, ‘What have you done lately, what have you done lately?’ I’m on sabbatical this year from George Washington U., and I just took three months in Florida. Even God let Herself rest on the seventh day—this is your sabbatical! I have to relax and wait and see if the well fills up. If it doesn’t, maybe these four books are what was given to me, and fartig.