In Deena Metzger’s new novel What Dinah Thought, here excerpted, the biblical story of Dinah is retold. In the original, Dinah’s brothers murder her groom on the wedding night because he is not Jewish. In What Dinah Thought, the story is told from the point of view of the homonymic Dina Z., an American Jewish filmmaker who goes to Israel to make a documentary about the people who live on ancient holy ground, to discover how religious history affects them. In falling in love with a Palestinian activist, she reawakens her biblical ancestress. The original Dinah cries out, after centuries of silence, against her fate, against crimes committed in the name of faith, even as her modern sister re-enacts her story.
I parked the car. I was somewhat wary of leaving the camera equipment exposed when all the shops were closed. Sybil had said there was relatively little theft in Israel, but I didn’t like to count on the presence of soldiers. I especially didn’t want to empower them with my hopes. When my father maintained that Jews didn’t steal or commit crimes, I listed the Jews in the Mafia and recited them to him, endlessly, like a litany: Meyer Lansky, Louis Lepke Buchwalter, Moe Dalitz, Lewis Rosenstiel, Mickey Cohen, Allen Dorfman, Sam Blum, Bugsy Siegel, Arnold Rothstein….
I was standing still, trying to get my bearings, when a tall man appeared wearing a blue and white striped djellaba, his head covered by a checkered cloth under a twisted rope. He could have been you; you could be anyone. I felt myself drawn to him, would have followed had he crooked a finger. I was willing to believe on the basis of my own longing that he, if he had noticed me, felt the same pull. Then he disappeared and the streets were deserted again except for the young soldiers on patrol.
And Hamor said unto Jacob, “The soul of my son Shechem longeth for your daughter: I pray you give her to him to wife. And make ye marriages with us, and give your daughters unto us and take our daughters unto you. And ye shall dwell with us: and the land shall be before you; dwell and trade ye therein and get you possessions therein.”
And Hamor and Shechem, his son, came unto the gate of their own city and communed with the men of their city, saying, “These Israelites are peaceable with us; therefore let them dwell in the land and trade therein; for the land, behold, it is large enough for them; let us take their daughters to us for wives and let us give them our daughters.”
What does it do to the mind when history converges, when what one has associated with the lost and irreversible past appears most naturally upon the pavement, shopping bag in hand? The longer I stayed, the less certain I would be of what was extinct, what had survived, what would return.
Suddenly the breeze was carrying the smell of all those who had died since sundown and who, by law, religious and secular, could not be buried. Suddenly it seemed that under the scent of rosemary and thyme, under the spices readied in the synagogues to be inhaled at sunset, under the clove and myrrh, under the frankincense, as under the skirts Of a bride, there hovered that other scent, lethal and animal, gamy as the flesh of the skinned and spitted deer, the demanding, even seductive odor of death.
Sometimes, Shechem, when one is in a certain frame of mind, when the window within has been thrown open and the lace curtains torn from the cornices, it is possible to see what has been rendered invisible through the years. I’d never thought that dybbuks could be so subtle, that their presence might be only an odor. Now it seemed to me that I was walking in air as divers walk through water, through the luminous gliding bodies of all the soldiers of the Yom Kippur War, of the Six Day War, of the War of Independence, of the wars and skirmishes of the Turks, Romans, Babylonians, Israelites.
Dinah was advancing; I was certain of it. She knew about corpses. When you died, she prepared your body though that task was usually reserved to women past menopause. But she was a widow, just having been a bride. She had lived her entire lifetime in twenty-four hours. It had aged her.
Shechem and his father went home thereafter, satisfied with the result achieved, and when they had gone, the sons of Jacob asked him to seek counsel and pretext in order to kill all the inhabitants of the city, who had deserved this punishment on account of their wickedness. Then Simeon said to them: “I have good counsel to give you. Bid them be circumcised. If they consent not, we shall take our daughter from them, and go away. And if they consent to do this, then, when they are in pain, we shall attack them and slay them.”
I sat on the stone floor so that I might be as cold as Shechem and waited until the city was totally silent, until all the men were dead and the women extracted from their rooms, until the goats and sheep clustered soundlessly in the corners of the walls, herding against the smell of blood. Then I slashed the belt from about his hips and opened his robes to examine his body. I had never washed a corpse, nor seen it done. I was only fourteen. I cut the hem from my wedding dress, wet it and ran it over his skin. It was not different from washing Reuben’s child. When he was an infant and lay in my arms, I had cooled him with wet linen, singing a little song so that the two of us fell asleep in the reverie of the warm afternoon, bees and water. I washed Shechem’s throat, removed the snakes of congealed blood from his shoulder. I laid him out carefully, then sat astride him, staring at his closed eyes. Lifting his stiffening hands, I passed them across my breasts. Then I slid down onto his thighs, took his phallus in my surprisingly steady hand, saw where he had cut the skin with a dagger: It had been my bride price. I picked at the red scabrous line beneath the glans, then licked it clean where he had been sore, as I had watched animals lick their genitals. Then dropped it hopelessly.
That was the time for someone to shout, “Never again.” But instead that was the moment when a story was born. And a story wants to be repeated; that is its nature.
And Dinah refused to bury you although she knew the slanders that were coming.
How can it be, Shechem, that you don’t know anything about my life, that I have to tell you everything? When I was in Chile in 1973, I was viewing an exhibit of photographs in the National Museum. There were only two of us in the room; I did not know the man. The museum was exceptionally cold, we both wore gloves. The photographs were mounted with thumb tacks and Scotch tape. The Chilean stood behind me as I turned to see a life-size photograph of an American soldier standing over the body of a Vietnamese child. The child lay in the dirt where it had fallen, its hand was severed from its wrist. I reached back to the stranger to steady myself. He whispered to me so very quietly, “How do you account for the behavior of your brother?”
I hear Dinah grieving as I write this, Shechem. She says, “The story repeats itself.”
The antechamber where Dinah slept with Shechem became their tomb. She wanted to wrap him in living linen, the strips of one warm body upon the other cold body. When she washed his body, she washed her own body, and then she folded herself upon him as if she were a cloth.
When her brothers entered for the second time, they were looking for booty and did not expect to encounter Dinah. They had forgotten about her altogether. As she was simply a girl, they assumed she had been herded back with the other women or that Levi had killed her as was customary under the circumstances. Or that Reuben, who was sentimental, had spared her and taken her back to the tents though she was gravely dishonored. But when they entered, they found her in Shechem’s embrace, his yellowing hand upon her shoulder. Her head was upon his scarred chest, the wounds in his neck unhealed. Her right leg was thrown across his thigh and her hair covering her face was like a shovelful of earth.
She rose slowly from the dead man and retreated to a dark corner, pressing her body against the stone. Their breath offended her. Her body closed against them, but her eyes were open, they were pits of grief extending to the other world. Her brothers felt they would die if they looked into her eyes. The flesh had fallen from her body but the bones were shining so that in her darkness there was a light. And Shechem was shining too. The two of them were the light in the room. Then she became a great bird of prey, so when they tried to remove the body, she came toward them with great webs of darkness hanging from her arms. She was the fire falling from a burning tree. She was a blight. She was a spray of ashes.
She stood over them, and she cursed them. She cursed them as the vulture curses, as the burning tree curses, as the slaughtered lion curses, as poisoned water curses. She gathered to herself all the curses of the felled, poisoned and slaughtered, all those which had already occurred and those which were coming and she heaped the curses upon her brothers and her brothers’ generations. Until that moment, she had not had such power, but Shechem had taken her into his life and then into his death. In the time since he had died, she had become an old woman, and her breasts were withered grapes. These brothers who had never seen her naked, saw only bones.
“I will bury him” she said. They did not challenge her. But she didn’t bury him. She placed him in the hollow trunk of a dead tree and she burned him. When she went to Egypt she took his bones and ashes and left the curses behind. When she first appeared to them she was like a tree burning in the night until there is as much light as there is darkness. Then she was a hag, was only smoke.
For days the air was filled with smoke and the ashes fell on everything even as Jacob and his sons and their wives and the newly acquired sheep, oxen and cattle, and the eighty-five captive virgins, prepared to leave. After the first days of the fire, Jacob came to her, asking that she sacrifice a lamb on the altar to appease God for him.
“If you offer a sacrifice of peace offerings unto the Lord you shall offer it at your own will” She turned to him with her dark face smeared with charcoal, her eyes a black fire in the fire, a darkness within the darkness and she laughed as only Lilith might have laughed when she confronted Adam. It was laughter that could set fires. It was the light in her.
“I am your father.”
She was feeding sticks to the fire and when she turned to him again her face was a scorched branch. “I don’t kill living things except to eat.”
“It’s for God.”
“Is God still hungry? Let him kill whatever he wishes to eat. I am not his handmaiden.”
“And didn’ t your Shechem’s gods demand sacrifices?” Jacob sneered. “Did Shechem refuse to make offerings to his gods? Is that why he died?”
“We don’t speak about this. But I dance for his gods. Do you want to watch me dance?” She made him watch as she danced a twisted dance, leering and awkward. As she bent down, she took charcoal from the fire and rubbed it on her body, on her face, feet, hands, even sucked the charcoal stick so her lips, mouth and tongue were blackened. Then she tore her clothes and inserted the stick beneath the rags and darkened herself there. And everything turned black before Jacob’s eyes. When she tore off her dress altogether, Jacob saw that her still-white breasts were covered with bloody streaks. He turned away, vomiting, and then he left her. Even from a distance, he could hear her deranged singing.
The ashes fell for days and later when the tents were opened, ashes were found in the creases and folds. The cheeses were darkened and the milk was gray. The wool of the animals was smudged so that everything woven had a dark pallor, and the water, even the wine, had ash in it. And no matter how far away they traveled, and they traveled far, they could not get clean and for a year they lived with Shechem in their mouths.
When they opened the camps of Sabra and Shattilah after the Falangists had entered, the Palestinians were spread upon the dirt like Hivites in the last days of Shechem. Like all the bodies of my beloved.
I will bring evil from the north and a great destruction. The lion is come up from his thicket; the destroyer of the Gentiles is on his way; He is gone forth from his place to make thy land desolate; And thy cities shall be laid waste, without an inhabitant. … Therefore behold … the valley of slaughter: And the carcasses of this people shall be meat for the fowls of the heaven and for the beasts of the earth. Then will I cause to cease from the cities of Judah, the streets of Jerusalem, the voice of mirth, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride: for the land shall be desolate.
Jacob’s God was stronger than your gods, Shechem. And the little teraphim that Rachel stole and hid between her legs from her father, Laban, who wouldn’t dare be soiled by menstrual juices, they didn’t save Dinah. And afterwards God blessed Jacob.
And Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “Ye have troubled me to make me to stink about among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and Perizzites: and I being few in number, they shall gather themselves together against me, and slay me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house”
And they said, “Should he deal with our sister as with a harlot?”
And God said unto Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there; and make there an altar unto God” And God appeared unto Jacob again, when he came out of Padan-aram and blessed him. And God said unto him, “Thy name is Jacob: thy name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name.”
I was fourteen at the time we left Shechem, came out of Padan-aram on the way to Ephrath where we settled. On the way, our daughter, Asenath, was born, but the place and time was not recorded. When we were at Bethlehem, Benjamin was born and Rachel died.
Two years after that, Joseph was sold into slavery and I followed him. I was always with him. When he went to tend the sheep, I was behind him, and when they put him in the pit, I kept a vigil near him, and when they sold him, I followed him, and when he was in Egypt, so was I, and when he told the dreams, I told them with him. When he was in prison, I was the pile of rags outside the prison, and when he was a Viceroy, I was a priestess. However they speak of Joseph in Egypt, they do not mention me; after Shechem, they do not speak of me. And when Joseph died, I died. And when his sons, who were my sons, brought his bones back to Shechem, they brought back my bones as well.
Joseph forgave his brothers before he died. I did not.
What Deena thinks
by Linda Elovitz Marshall
On the well-known poster which appears in The New Our Bodies, Our Selves (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985), Deena Metzger stands on a beach naked, proudly displaying a tattooed tree where one breast used to be. A cancer survivor, she’s revealing the healed wounds of her private battle.
In What Dinah Thought, Metzger’s tenth book, she enters a more conventionally political war zone. In both book and life, what Metzger attempts is healing: whether that be the image of her own body, or the transformation of a story from one of violence to one of love.
In recasting the rape of the biblical Dinah by Shechem as a love story, Metzger explains that she “protests the seed of aggression and violence in the world, trying to bring back a female understanding”
“It’s not embarrassing, belittling or narrow to think that love makes a difference, that love can make peace. If we say that our sexuality and our love are irrelevant, then we despise life, fertility, connection, intimacy, creativity. In one sweep, we throw out everything that matters, everything that keeps us alive.”
Women, Metzger feels, make peace in ways vastly different from men.