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Jewish Women Search for the Soul

All the Women Followed Her: A Collection of Writings on Miriam the Prophet & the Women of Exodus, edited by Rebecca Schwartz, Rikudei Miriam Press (1676 Montalto Drive Mountain View, CA 94040), $17.00

WHEN WOMEN OF OUR GENERATION share Passover memories with our grandchildren and great grandchildren, among those memories will be dancing at women’s s’darim, tambourines in hand, to the music of Debbie Friedman. Women of a certain age, who still remember haggadot which direct the youngest male child to recite the Four Questions, have witnessed a sea change—or perhaps, a Song of the Sea change.

A newly published collection of writings on Miriam the Prophet and the women of the Exodus takes its name and theme from the same verse in the Torah (Exodus 15:20) as Debbie Friedman’s song: “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.” The slim volume, hailed as a team effort by editor Rebecca Schwartz, offers a stimulating variety of interpretations.

Despite her popularity among feminists, Miriam’s story occupies only a few verses in the Torah. Yet because each of these citations seems to call out “darsheini,” interpret me, the role of Miriam lends itself to exploration and embellishment of the elliptical Torah text. The volume presents the work of well-known poets like Alicia Ostriker, Davi Walders, Marjorie Agosin, and Merle Feld, and published feminist scholars like Naomi Graetz and Chava Weissler, along with those of less well-known women writers. In their talented hands this text becomes pretext, a Rohrschach for the concerns of Jewish women. They grapple with a range of difficult issues, including the lesser role of women in Jewish leadership, the marginalization of the old, the repeated calumny that women talk too much, and the place of the unmarried woman in a culture that values the nuclear family.

In this book, classical interpretations of midrash share space with fanciful legends and divrei Torah, Torah interpretations. Poems and stories reflect aspects of the life of Miriam: as the young guardian of her brother Moses, as musician and prophetess, as rejected leader, as embittered victim, as a menopausal woman, as crone.

Imagine, suggests Carol Anshein in her poem “Miriam’s Blues,” what it would feel like to be Miriam in her prime: “I am Miriam/ (in menopause)/ filled with memories/ some magnificent/ some mournful…”

This book would make a fine text for a women’s study group, or perhaps for a study of varieties of midrash. It certainly furnished me with ideas for an upcoming d’var Torah, sending me scurrying to consult more traditional commentaries for comparison. These writers beckon us not just to dance with Miriam, but to study her and to try to understand her—and ourselves.

Rabbi Avis Dimond Miller is Rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation, Washington, DC.