The Arty Semite

Jewish Lesbian Poetry for a New Generation

By Hila Ratzabi

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When I received my copy of “Milk and Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry” (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2011), edited by poet Julie R. Enszer, I was surprised at how small the book was. Measuring only about six by four inches, it seems designed to fit easily into a purse, or perhaps not to draw too much attention to itself. However, the volume’s diminutive physical size does not betray its emotional power. This collection packs a punch, and it couldn’t have been published at a more timely moment. With same-sex marriage now legal in New York, this volume is truly a celebration, as its subtitle suggests. And I can’t help but note that it would make a great wedding present or wedding favor for guests.

Some time has passed since the literary world has seen a Jewish lesbian poetry anthology. The previous two — “Nice Jewish Girls” (Persephone Press, 1982) and “The Tribe of Dina” (Beacon Press, 1989) — included both poetry and essays, and covered more generational ground than “Milk and Honey,” which features only poetry, and a majority of the poets are on the younger side. This is not to say that “Milk and Honey” lacks age diversity, but that it set out specifically to publish contemporary poets (no Adrienne Rich or Gertrude Stein) who represent a particular range of experience unique to Jewish lesbians of this generation.

Enszer’s insightful introduction sets the stage for the panoply of poets to follow, emphasizing their political and religious diversity: “The land flowing with milk and honey is an ample space with room for our full selves — lesbian, queer, Jewish, political, religious, spiritual, secular.” Some poets struggle with God, like Joanna Hoffman in her in-your-face poem “Sh’ma,” where she takes on the traditional, patriarchal Jewish God with full force: “On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement / I would sit in the synagogue and think about food / or girls I had crushes on with Biblical names / praying to my own gods— / the goddess tori amos, the god of chicken soft tacos, the god of sexual confusion / because the wrathful Jewish god Yahweh we were taught to cower under / seemed like a jerk / seemed a lot like my own father.”

Other poets are more subtle in their personifications of God, like Ellen Bass in her beautiful poem “Loving a Woman,” which begins with the speaker hearing the voice of God at age 19 while taking LSD. Bass’s god, unlike Hoffman’s, is characterized by a more maternal and inclusive presence, pantheistically morphing into the creek and the air, telling the speaker: “Nothing you could do / would ever be wrong.” This gentle, nonjudgmental god seems to bless the speaker’s love for another woman, while Hoffman’s stern, father-like god is full of anger and reproach. These two poets represent a gamut of religious experience and the possibilities of imagining and re-imagining a deity whose characterization can stretch over such a wide spectrum of qualities as to appear trans- or multi-gendered.

While some poets in this anthology exhibit a sense of empowerment in exploring their ideas about God, others exemplify a feeling of outsider status in Jewish social and religious contexts. Ellen Orleans investigates the tensions associated with “counting” in the Jewish community, specifically as part of a minyan, in her poem of the same name: “In the Minyan, you will not count / even though that is where you want to / count most…” The speaker lists religious rituals she feels excluded from, such as donning tefillin and tallis, and finally concludes that she is a minyan “of one,” emphasizing her inability to fit into the Jewish community.

Outsider status also extends into the realm of politics, where the generational divide becomes especially clear. Elana Dykewomon, in “An Eastern/Western Country Song,” skirts the edges of the debates surrounding contemporary Zionism, when she relates a mother-daughter conversation in which not much is said, but much is implied, as the speaker repeats the refrain: “let’s not talk about zionism anymore.” When the daughter says “I saw the separation wall in Bilin / the farmers soldiers were teargasing,” the mother tells her that she doesn’t “know [her] history.”

Similarly, in Leslea Newman’s “13 Ways of Looking at 9/11” the speaker reflects on her ambiguous feelings following the tragedy of 9/11. On the one hand, she immediately says that “this is not good / for the Jews,” noting that Jerry Falwell is quick to blame “the feminists and the Jews.” But at the end, the speaker attends a synagogue discussion group about 9/11, and when the leader asks “Is there anyone here / who isn’t furious?” the speaker raises her hand, presumably the only one in the group to do so. The assumption in both of these poems is that representing a left-leaning political viewpoint in a Jewish setting can often feel uncomfortable and alienating, when the status quo is, in certain cases, expected to be slightly conservative. This discomfort is magnified by the feeling of being an outsider in Jewish contexts where heterosexuality is presumed to be the norm.

This anthology is endlessly valuable as a collective voice of celebration and even protest. The only potential drawback is that most of the poems are personal in tone and confessional in style, which felt limiting to me as both a poetry reader and a poet. I would have loved to see a larger range of styles, including more experimental forms of poetry; the only exception here is Bonnie Morris’s powerful poem “Ruth: separated from Naomi,” which employs an unusual and emotionally affective layout of lines that almost zigzag backward down the page.

I would have also liked to see more poets included, like Joan Larkin, for example. But I understand the challenge of putting together an anthology with such a narrow focus — you can’t fit everything in. Within these constraints, this anthology succeeds in presenting an eclectic group of women’s voices that not only articulates aspects of Jewish lesbian experience, but also has the power to inspire people of all religions, genders, and sexualities to sing their own song of themselves.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Milk and Honey, Leslea Newman, Julie R. Enszer, Hila Ratzabi, Joanna Hoffman, Ellen Bass, Elana Dykewomon, Bonnie Morris, Poetry

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