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The Other Ark

Imagining the lives of biblical women has become a popular literary pursuit, with books like Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent and Vanessa Ochs’ Sarah Laughed filling in the gaps in the male-centered narratives. Most recently, Deborah Bodin Cohen offers teenage Jewish girls a book of their own, Lilith’s Ark (Jewish Publication Society, $14.00). Each of Cohen’s ten chapters takes a different woman from Genesis and describes, in the first-person, the stories, hopes, fears, and dreams of her teenage years and beyond.

Cohen calls her book a midrash— “a story that grows from the text and the imagination”—and she encourages girls to create their own midrashim and to add their stories to the chain. The book gets its title from the symbolic representation of this chain: a holy ark, or box, created by Lilith, the first woman hinted at in the Bible. The ark is passed from woman to woman and each adds a precious object that symbolizes her story. Some, like Eve’s seeds and Rebekah’s water jug, come directly from the text. Others, like Sarah’s map and Tamar’s copper mirror arise from the author’s imagination. Cohen does a wonderful job of melding the biblical text, rabbinic interpretations, and her own experiences and ideas into a unified whole.

While the chapters stand on their own, they are all part of a continuum, as the ark must be passed from woman to woman. Thus, the author portrays Tamar’s mother as Dinah’s best friend and Joseph’s wife, Asenath, as Dinah’s daughter. There is a sense of maturing voices throughout the book: the first speaker, Lilith, speaks in childish poetry, and the last three—Dinah, Tamar, and Asenath—deal with more adult themes such as rape and identity crisis. The most interesting moments in the book arise when two women narrate the same story from different perspectives, offering commentary on one another’s commentary and casting the ark into deeper waters.

The women in the book are alternately messengers of God, survivors of tragedy, and normal teenage girls giggling about boys with their friends. As such, each reader will probably find her own character to identify with. Is it Leah, the smart but unattractive sister? Or Eve, whose adventurous and curious nature drives her to pursue knowledge at all cost? Or Asenath, who struggles with a dual identity as an Egyptian and a “daughter of Israel”? Cohen is clearly encouraging girls to keep their Jewish identity and add to the stories that have been passed “from generation to generation until today.” Lilith’s Ark does not try to hide its agenda, but the discussion section at the back of the book makes it clear that there is always room for questions. Cohen’s book is thus ideally suited for book clubs, religious classes, mother-daughter Rosh Hodesh groups, or any other discussion forum.

In the introduction, Cohen compares Lilith’s ark to a Torah ark. By referring to the wooden box that Lilith creates as an ark, Cohen is purposefully evoking the significant, ancient, and weight)’ connotations that the word “ark” suggests. As she instructs her readers: “Imagine now that you are opening the Torah ark in a synagogue. Feel its weight. Sense the beauty of its words, the eternal lessons it holds.” 

Tamar Weinstock is a student at Cornell University