The Arty Semite

Rivka Miriam: Silence as Midrash

By Jake Marmer

  • Print
  • Share Share

To an American reader, accustomed to individualistic poetry of Walt Whitman or the confessional writings of Silvia Plath, the recently published collection of Israeli poet Rivka Miriam, “These Mountains: Selected Poems of Rivka Miriam” (Toby Press) may seem like a deliberate insult.

Throughout the collection, there is a constant sense of removal — or, perhaps, veiling — of the author herself, as well as her circumstances. Providing almost no references to contemporary Israel or its politico-social concerns, the poet’s voice is reminiscent of the anonymous writers of Midrash. She, too, expansively re-imagines the stories of the Tanakh, and composes new myth-like tales, using classic biblical tropes — wells, depths, mountains, and revelations.

The Girl Who Drowned in the Well
The girl who drowned in the well
and they raised her from there, soft and dripping
and she left her face in the well
to go with it.
The girl whose dresses would rustle
left her face in the well. The whiteness of her face in the well.
Lord, she was thirsty.

There is nothing in this poem that refers to an identifiable sense of place or time: the scene could be taking place today or three thousand years ago. The language is sparse and, in biblical fashion, maximizes its resources through repetition. As the poem progresses, presence of the recurring words “face” and “well” intensifies, grows louder, as if in the stubborn attempt to communicate something that language isn’t equipped for.

We sense that a tragedy has occurred, yet the girl’s face is an image that grows increasingly abstract with every iteration. When we’re told that it was left in the well, it takes an elusive turn and, stripped of its identifiable features, becomes more universal.

The well, too, seems to stretch deeper and deeper, echoing its own name to an indefinite depth — all the way down to the underworld itself, where the whiteness of the girl’s face now resides. The bilingual edition provides Hebrew-speaking (or struggling) readers the option of the original Hebrew, where the poem’s concluding line is a single syllable: “eili” — my Lord. The writer withdraws from her audience, revealing that the whole poem was addressed to the divine listener, and the reader just happened to have overheard.

Rivka Miriam’s use of language is reminiscent of Primitivist paintings of Paul Gaugin, where technique — as perspective — is replaced with bluntness, frankness, flat nakedness of the message. As with “The Girl Who Drowned in the Well,” the simple, child-like intonations of the poet’s voice attain moments of mystery and charm, although also, on occasion, tedium.

A daughter of Holocaust survivors, Rivka Miriam avoids direct encounters with the subject, yet constantly engages the single image, common to all great writers of the Shoah (Appelfeld, Celan, Grossman): that of silence. Appearing in her work in many shades and guises, it is never entirely divorced from that context, as if the very idea of silence itself has now been altered, and could never again be the same for a Jewish reader. More so than any actual image, conjured by creative mind, silence provides a Midrashic commentary to the tradition’s suppositions.

And You Shall Teach
And you shall teach your son muteness
that very day.
And you won’t pass your caressing hand
over his features.
You’ll sit your son down that very day
on the threshold of the valley
to which no man should ever come.
And you’ll teach your son to sire another son.
And you’ll teach him to close his eyes, to clutch
with his fist
one more night passing
and one more day.
And you’ll take your son with your bare hands
that more than once embraced his mother
and with force squeeze from them your silence,
which he shall give to his son.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Midrash, Poetry, Rivka Miriam, Tanakh, Toby Press, Walt Whitman

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.