Which Lilith? Feminist Writers Re-Create the World’s First Woman

Which Lilith? Feminist Writers Re-Create the World’s First Woman
edited by Enid Dame, Lilly Rivlin and Henny Wenkart
Jason Aronson Inc., $40

“Which Lilith?” A feisty pun right from the get-go. And Witch Lilith appears in various guises throughout this rich collection prepared, as the tiny type up front explains, under the auspices of the Jewish Women’s Resource Center, a project of National Council of Jewish Women New York Section.

The story of Lilith has been inspiring and obsessing Jewish feminists since the 1970s, if not before: in the Beginning, God created the first woman equal with first man; then, Jewish men called her Lilith and interpreted her independence as a menace to Jews of both sexes; come the final quarter of the 20th Century, Jewish women revisited the ancient sources to set the record straight and give Lilith a good press (witness LILITH magazine). The recreation remains a work in progress. The fresh offering of Jewish feminist poetry and prose in Which Lilith? is yet another step, inspired by some very smart, witty Jewish women.

Which Lilith? embraces the many aspects of the wind spirit/screech owl/goddess-demon and her long history before she ever became a Jewish male warning to uppity Jewish women. On the book’s cover appears a Mesopotamian bas relief of Lilith—a divine female with rounded breasts and hips, hands holding symbols of power, wings at rest. And below, the shock of shapely legs ending in huge talons. Inside, we get a crude Jewish amulet to protect women in childbirth from the torments of Lilith—the demon of Jewish male fears. Here Lilith stands bound in chains, legs ending not in talons but imprisoned in stone socks.

The book’s 27 years of feminist re-visions of Lilith represent barely a blip in Lilith’s several-thousand-year history, but even over this short time span changes have occurred. Lilly Rivlin’s opening essay, which appeared in Ms. magazine in 1972, proclaims her first awareness of the “cosmic sexist conspiracy.” Ah, those early heady days of feminism. Twenty-six years later, we get Rivlin’s seemingly autobiographical, Erica Jongian “Lilith Healing and Aging,” the tale of a 60-year-old highly sexed female filmmaker drawn to the Red Sea. Following in Lilith’s footsteps, she’s energized by the seductions of a young Arab. Lilith lives.

From the early days of Jewish feminism comes the freshness of Judith Plaskow’s “The Coming of Lilith,” with God and Adam afraid as Eve and Lilith return to the Garden of Eden “bursting with possibilities.” Two decades later, some of the most brilliant Lilith stories come in poetry—Susan Gold’s stunningly erotic Lilith and Eve “In the Garden” and Helen Papell’s “Achsah in the Spring.” Throughout the collection, there’s a sisterly exchange of references to other contributors’ interpretations of Lilith, which include the writing of Aviva Cantor—a founding mother of LILITH magazine—whose historical-political-economic-feminist analysis of Lilith appeared in the magazine’s first issue in 1976, with an updated version in this collection.

The collection moves from “Overview,” with various retellings of the Lilith story and history, to “Lilith and Men” and “Lilith as Transgressive Woman” to “Lilith and Other Women,” “Lilith and the Family,” “Lilith as Archetype, Female Principle” to, finally, “Lilith in Exile.” In fact, most of the entries could fit several places. Lilith is not easily contained. The editors have no desire to have the last word on Lilith. In fact, they call on women to keep revising our traditions. Which Lilith? is not an enigma but a challenge.