Women and Their Stories

Jane created these images (and their accompanying descriptions) for a project while she was attending the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she graduated from in 2005 with a Masters in Jewish Art and Material Culture. Each image depicts Jane’s interpretation of a particular story regarding Jewish women and their relationships to their husbands, their communities, and their faiths.

Dinah (Family by Devora Baron)

Dina’s identity, her single purpose, is to reproduce and continue Avner’s family line. Despite Dinah and Avner’s obvious love for an dedication to each other, the community pushes for a divorce after witnessing ten childless years. The community wants the divorce, but is relieved when the decree is invalidated by scribal error. The ink on one of his letters dripped. The error is both terrible and miraculous. The couple goes back home to continue their life. When her pregnancy is revealed, the community judges again: “She has had her full measure of suffering and now the Lord has had mercy on her.”

Language and imagery, sparse and evocative, give it a Biblical tone. Personal stories are subsumed in family stories; personal names repeat in a predictable generational rotation. Pulsating waters and rhythms of seasonal life permeate this story (water from the well, dark waves, overflow, steam curled up, life-giving rain, darkly-gleaming water, moist, ice, current, riverside, winter rains, bathe, pool, water drawers, showers, peals of thunder, swollen river, tears, drop by drop, dripping rainspout, raindrops, shedding tears, shipwrecked, etc.). Even Avner’s large family is related to water. They are Levites, the ancient water carriers in the Temple who washed the hands and feet of the cohanim (priests).

Along with the water images are dozens of details about textiles (silk, kerchiefs, cotton, linen, doilies, curtains, satin, summer patterns, embroideries, velvet, fine muslin, etc.). The rhythm of the page is notable–where there is an abundance of water, there is no mention of textile, and where textile imagery takes precedence, the waters retreat. The story ebbs and flows like nature’s seasonal rhythms.

The river is swollen and eventually Dinah can no longer hide her swelling secret.

I painted her in the last moments in the story. She is wrapped in a large shawl that no longer conceals her pregnancy. Is she standing triumphantly on the offending get? The inkwell is nearby. The river is bursting with life and is linked to the blue heavens above by striations of rain. Many, many patches of fabric frame the page and one covers Dinah’s head. She holds her head high, for her sadness is replaced by a secret smile of redemption.

Miriam (The Scribe’s Tale by S. Y. Agnon)

Miriam and her husband have no children. It is no wonder, since they are never able to be intimate with each other. A triangulated relationship–Raphael the Scribe, his wife Miriam, and God in the mirror–prevent the couple from functioning as man and wife in the most fundamental way. They both perceive in the mirror either real or imagined Biblical phrases and are prevented by piety from approaching each other. They have literally prevented their future by a piety gone awry. Raphael’s phrase is in his mind, but comes out of the mirror: “I have set the Lord before me.” Miriam reads the embroidery on the wall that she made as a girl in her father’s house: “I have set the Lord before me”, and “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” The last quote is the one I have placed in the embroidery which we see through a mirror, and therefore the words are reversed.

In the story the quote is framed by facing rampant lions with red tongues reaching for each other. They are vital and sensuous as nothing else in the couple’s life. The image returns as a “tongue aflame” at the empassioned end to the story. And so I have chosen to transcribe one of these red-tongued lions to decorate the Torah mantle that Miriam begins sewing for the scroll her husband denies her. Her request implies an understanding that she is doomed to be childless. Miriam’s name is embroidered on the mantle as Raphael discovers later in his delusional scene.

In a scene reminiscent of the prophet Elisha reviving the Shunnenite’s son from the dead. Raphael quote “placed his eyes upon [Miriam’s] eyes, his face upon her face, his mouth upon her mouth…” this is his reaction to her petition. He invokes God’s mercy instead of fulfilling her request for a Torah scroll. In the very next scene Miriam dies. Unlike Raphael, Moses takes action and prays for his sister Miriam when she is striken. “Heal her,” he cries. And, in a midrash I have written, God’s last merciful act with Moses was also an act of the mouth: ” He placed His mouth on Moses’ mouth and reversed the act of creation that began with Adam… He held His breath and Moshe expired.” Raphael’s action was the reverse of Elisha’s. He did not bring life, but rather unthinkingly and unmercifully he removed all life from Miriam, suffocating her wish and identity.

The other images in the painting that reflect in the story are the willow leaves she holds in her right hand. They are saved from Hoshana Rabbah and, although borrowed by the neighboring women to help in childbirth, Miriam has never used their power for her own benefit. When Raphael catches her looking at him, she blushes and quickly reaches for a candlestick to shine. All is pure and clean in the house. Many things are described as pure and white, like her kerchief which shows no hair and is knotted under chin, leaving ends “like dove’s wings” on her chest. Raphael’s association with mikvah is purity towards preparation to write the holy name. Miriam’s association with mikvah is preparation for sexual intercourse.

But unfortunately Raphael can’t seem to get past his own association, and Miriam can’t get past her yielding personality. The act of becoming pure makes them too pure to become sexual. The inkwell has “crowns” flying out of the opening because Raphael is “likened to a craftsman making crowns for a king.”

The mirror is the mysterious and ominous part of the painting. The couple’s potential passion via the mirror, a refraction of reality… but, it fails them. We see: the mirror itself, on the west wall, the embroidery on the east wall with its lions and reversed letters reflected from behind the viewer, the husband is also reflected, and on its surface I have left the vague imprint of the Yod-Hey-Vuv-Hey, because there is where God’s presence interrupts them. Holiness is always just over their shoulders, in the east, and reflected in the mirror. What a sad reflection on the mirror’s iconographic value. Rashi explained that when Moses refused the gift of mirrors from the women (Exodus 38:8) to build the mishkan, God said to accept them because with the mirrors, the women had brought many children into being. Pharaoh had separated the sexes to prevent the birth of children, so the women went to find their exhausted husbands in the fields, preened before mirrors to entice them sexually. The gift of mirrors was accepted and used to make the wash basin for the priests, and later, its purpose was to bring peace between husband and wife. In The Tale of the Scribe, the mirror’s job of uniting couples is foiled.

Lastly, the text of the story begins on the back of a curled scroll that is the frame for the entire image. Miriam is surrounded by “a prison” of articles that occupy, distract her from her unfulfilled life. She does not live her own life: she lives in a distortion of reality and “otherness”–prescribed by her husband and by her community, and therefore she may not perceive herself as suffering. She is the “other.” Miriam’s scroll does get written – by Agnon, not by Raphael the scribe.

Sarah (Genesis Rabbah 53:9)

Sarah is Abraham’s wife and partner in a lifetime of wanderings and adventures. What loyalty she had for this strange, lonely man. To have followed him and supported him on . Her reward is God’s respect and deference to her: “Listen to Sarah,” (Genesis 21:12) God says to Abraham. So when Sarah finally gives birth in her old age, years after the “way of women” had ceased for her, Abraham is happy and grateful. But when he sees her breastfeeding, he’s impressed, elated, proud, overjoyed.

I imagine Sarah suckling her newborn son and modestly covering her smooth, swollen breasts. Enter Abraham, and with much bravado declaims: “this is not a time for modesty, but uncover your breasts so that all may know the Holy One, Blessed be He, has begun to perform miracles.” The Midrash continues: “she uncovered her breasts, and the milk gushed forth as if from two mountains, and noble ladies came and had their children suckled by her, saying ‘We do not merit that our children should be suckled with the milk of that righteous woman.'”

The image was vivid… Sarah’s breasts as fountains. I immediately envisioned a Bernini fountain in a Roman Piazza, so that is where I placed her. Abraham is right behind her, protective, powerful, and vindicated in his steadfast in his God. Sarah is exuberant and dutiful all in one. Her bountiful milk splashes into the clear water surrounding the couple. They are an island unto themselves; Isaac is not in sight. God has “begun to perform miracles” and Sarah is the living, concrete proof.

This painting worked particularly well with my vision because I found a photograph of an actual fountain that had two streams of water pouring from two jugs held by a male statue. Another naked man stood behind him. Keeping the streams and their effects as they hit the water, I replaced the crouching man with a seated Sarah. I clothed the standing man, added a beard and gave him a staff to create Abraham. The pigeon was not part of my original flash vision but it was in the photograph and remains Midrash. There is no inkwell or quill in the Midrash, but without these tools, there would not have been a Midrash.

Tehilah (Tehilah by S. Y. Agnon)

Tehilah’s longevity is slightly magical, but she has the “vigor of youth”. She represents a world that has passed and has overstayed her time, but she has resolved to remedy the situation. Her father has arranged a marriage for her when she was very young, and broke the vow when he discovered that the husband’s father was a follower of Hasidism. The father never apologized for this insult. As a result, Tehilah believes, she suffered the death of her two sons and a daughter turned to apostasy. Her father’s line has ended abruptly. Her husband dies while trying to fulfill her father’s obligation.

Tehilah is left alone; she becomes independent and eventually very wealthy, but not by choice. Her remedy, 93 years later, is to write to ask forgiveness of the jilted groom. The narrator is enlisted to help. Tehilah asks him to write a formal letter using quill and ink. Observing that the recipient may not be alive to receive the letter, Tehilah responds simply that she will deliver the letter personally very soon. The letter is sealed in a clay jar, and the next day she dies. The letter asking for forgiveness is what stood in the way of her passing on. The only evidence of her presence on Earth, are rivulets of water on her floor where her body was ritually washed before burial… and the story… and my painting.

In the meantime, between her life of loss in Eastern Europe, and her death in Jerusalem, she has extended charity to everyone. To the children in the streets of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, she distributes candies; to the sick and needy she provides food, company, and kindesses; to the stranger in the street, she offers wisdom and becomes a guide–literally and figuratively. When our narrator is surprised that she recognizes him she retorts that “the eyes of Jerusalem look out upon all Israel, each man who comes to us is engraved on our heart; thus we never forget him.” My painting has the “eyes of Jerusalem” looking out from above the building. Like an egg-and-dart architectural molding motif, the repeating pattern allows us to lose sight of the detail and its literal meaning.

In the story, we often read about Tehilah “coming to Jerusalem,” but no mention is made of a city or country of origin. Thus, I have placed Tehilah in her beloved Old City of Jerusalem, but the windows behind her are views back toward what is clearly Eastern Europe. She is a “walker in The city”–Jerusalem. Every day, Tehilah reads from Tehillim, (She is the “doer” and the “deed.”) so I have framed her against a book of Tehillim (Psalms) as if she carries it on her back like a turtle’s shell. In her hand is a bag of candies she gives out to the children. I have painted her as compact and agile, old and wrinkled–but as the narrator tells us: “every wrinkle in her face told of blessing and peace.” Her hair is covered in a green fabric that is twisted around her head in a style that hearkens back in time, and her dress is a faded purple, the color of poor royalty, for that is what Tehilah is. She has given away her fortune and what remains is a saint. The quill, inkwell, clay jar, and letter paper are clustered together as one anecdote, and the rivulets of water drift off the page, as she drifts out of the story.