The First Women

A new book about the women of the Bible reveals an impressive variety of heroines - both familiar and unknown - and their relevance for our times.

Girls and young women never had a good choice of role models. The standards were always impossibly high – in terms of beauty, grooming, svelteness and the overall ability to cook and clean while looking gorgeous. And usually, the role models we had weren’t in our favor. For generations, girls didn’t look up to women who taught them how to enjoy themselves and live a full and fulfilling life – they looked up to women who enabled men to do so. Those were the standard role models girls had. And when it comes to not-so-standard female role models – the artists, writers, rock’n’rollers, rebels and revolutionaries – it was always slim pickings.

I found my role models in the world of music, film, literature, and history. It never occurred to me that there were other places to look for female role models. The Bible, for instance. That’s where author and playwright Sarah Blau found (at least some of) hers.

Born in Bnei Brak to a religious nationalist family, Blau grew up with the women of the Bible. While I had Judy Blume, Punky Brewster, Molly Ringwald, Kate Bush, and later on Sylvia Plath, Christiane F., Chloë Sevigny, Kim Deal and Kim Gordon, Blau had her biblical heroines. And she too evolved from simpler and more clean-cut idols to more complicated, unconventional and even marginalized ones. They are the heart of her fifth book. Blau’s first non-fiction effort, after three novels and one novella, is called The First Ones – A Personal Journey to the Women of the Bible. And that’s exactly what it is.

In the book she writes about Zipporah – Moses’s wife who circumcised her own son with a sharp stone and thus saved her husband’s life; about poor Leah who had to live with the fact that her husband Jacob preferred her sister Rachel; about the daughters of Zelophehad – five sisters who succeeded in changing the Bible’s inheritance laws; about Merav, the eldest of King Saul’s two daughters, who was offered in marriage to David, and instead married Adriel (the reasons are unclear and there are many different interpretations, of which Blau sides with the one that says she did so of her own will, without consulting her father).

You needn’t read further than the book’s dedication to get a sense of how important the women of the Bible are to religious girls and women. They are their namesakes, and Blau dedicated this book to her mother Rachel, her aunt Esther, her deceased grandmother Leah, her sister Yael, her sister-in-law Dvorah and her niece Avigail. All women of the Bible. And, of course, so is she.

Coming from a religious nationalist background, and not a Haredi one, and being of the same generation as me, I imagine Blau must have had an affinity for at least some of my modern female role models (or other similar ones). But in addition, she also had the Bible – something I didn’t. For me, as for most secular or non-observant Israeli Jews, the Bible was something you studied at school and no more than that. But Sarah Blau found inspiration and solace in the stories of those women.

When you grow up you naturally find out more about your childhood idols, you understand more and you often see them in a different light than you originally did. If once their public image made an impression on you, at some stage you want to know more about them. You start reading biographies and autobiographies, you watch documentaries, and often you discover unpleasant things about your heroes. But at the same time, you also discover they are human, which is something often overshadowed by their public image.

Blau goes through a very similar process with the women of the Bible she grew up on. She now looks at their stories from the perspective of a grown woman, a modern woman, a post #metoo woman. Among other things, Blau considers the suffering of her biblical heroines, whose stories often included sexual objectification and emotional neglect. Blau is obviously not the first to attempt a feminist reading of biblical stories, but she does so from her own personal perspective. She picks up on things that resonate with her personally and reveals personal stories that are related to the women of the Bible.

This is not a conventional non-fiction book. The First Ones is written as bite-size fragments, which include Blau’s thoughts about a long list of biblical women, which she divides into four chapters: fighters, mothers, lovers, others. She chose to emphasize a different archetypal trait about each of these women – or maybe the biblical text did – although I’m sure many of them fit into more than one category, as we real women do.

Blau doesn’t usually recount the whole plot of the character – I think she assumes we know these stories (although often we don’t). She instead mentions whatever is relevant to her. The fragments she writes are sometimes lighthearted or humoristic, sometimes thought-provoking, and occasionally deeply personal. She doesn’t always say things clearly – sometimes you need to be familiar with Blau’s past writing and her public persona to understand a certain reference. But one thing is clear: she knows these women very well. She talks about them as you would about people you know or about characters in a soap opera you are emotionally invested in. And the way she tells their stories tells you more about her than about the Bible.  Each and every one of them means something to her. “As a child I heard the stories about Sarah, Eve, sad Leah and Miriam the prophetess, over and over again,” she writes on the back cover of The First Ones. “They were all kind and smart and generous and righteous and perfect. And then I grew older and discovered that there were other women too. There was Orpah, the rejected bride from The Book of Ruth, and the diplomatic Queen of Sheba, the ambitious Bathsheba and the mysterious Na’amah. And no, not all of them were role models.

And then I grew up some more and discovered that even Sarah and Rachel, Eve and Miriam, had other sides. I discovered that they were completely different than the perfect characters I grew up on. Complexity is never easy. But it’s much more interesting.”

In the book, Blau shows new sides to the canonical women of the Bible; new in the sense that this is not what she or we were taught in school. And she also writes about the “other” women of the Bible, the dangerous and controversial ones, which her teacher at the Ulpana dared not mention at all.

As a grown woman, Blau interprets the biblical tales differently than she was taught and finds alternative reasons for the actions of some of its female characters. She also sees the outcome of some of those stories in a new light. For instance, in the original story the willful, rebellious and independent Vashti was banished (or perhaps executed) for her refusal to appear at the king’s banquet to show her beauty, and was replaced by the more submissive Esther. In other words: the submissive woman won. But Blau wonders: did she really? Is living in a palace with a stupid and quick-tempered king that might banish her too, as he did her predecessor, really winning?

It seems Blau sees the more submissive female characters as tragic, while she is excited by the rebellious, independent and violent ones – an outlook that obviously is in step with today’s times. In 2014 she published the novella Stake, which was written as part of her one-woman show, Thy Shall Write. In the play, a heart-broken novelist is working on a modern version of the story of Yael, the biblical heroine who killed the Canaanite army commander Sisera on behalf of the Israelites. The stake in the title is the tent peg which Yael hammered into Sisera’s head. While Blau had Yael, I had Buffy the Vampire Slayer – another gutsy girl with a stake.

Another biblical woman who kicked ass, and easily won Blau’s heart, was Judith. In the book, Blau tells the story of her first ever TV appearance, 25 years ago, on Hanukkah. They were looking for a nice religious girl to talk on the show. But instead, they got young Sarah Blau – a religious girl with a taste for the macabre and some Gothic leanings – overzealously recounting the story of the beautiful Judith from the Jewish apocrypha (HaSefarim haChitzonim). Beautiful, smart and brave Judith was famous for decapitating the Assyrian general Holofernes while he was drunk, and then paraded his head in front of her Jewish countrymen. Bloodthirsty Sarah (the red strawberry jam dripping from the Sufganiyot got to her) loved the gore and the fact that a woman not only killed the enemy but planned to do so – which in her eyes made Judith even more impressive than Yael, who just seized the moment. While Yael used an object she found in the tent to kill the enemy, Judith was proactive: she planned ahead and even got herself a sword – a man’s weapon.

Since Blau was named after a great biblical matriarch, I was especially curious to read what she had to say about Sarah. “Only in the past few years did I start liking her,” she writes. “I used to hate her, like all of you. I thought she was a monster. Most of the Sarahs I knew were also mean. Especially me.”

But Blau came around and started loving Sarah. Many see Sarah as evil for banishing Hagar to the desert, but Blau empathizes with her. She feels the pain of the woman who went after her man on a crazy adventure not knowing what the outcome would be; the woman who pretended to be her husband’s sister – at his request – and went with Pharaoh so that her husband would be spared; the disappointed woman whose husband didn’t really see her or care about her feelings; the woman who waited 90 years for a child and went through hell to get there.

Like the biblical matriarch, Sarah Blau’s first name also received an extra ה. The original matriarch turned from Sarai to Sarah (when Abram too is renamed as Abraham) as she was renamed by God at the annunciation of the birth of Isaac. Blau, on the other hand, changed her own name in Hebrew. More than 20 years ago she added an extra ה to her name in Hebrew, thus she turned from שרה to שהרה. In the book she explains that she changed her name to escape depression.

The connection between this and the biblical story remains vague, but many of the fragments in the book are not the end of the story. It seems that throughout Blau’s point is that these biblical stories, like any other narrative, are open for interpretation. And Blau isn’t even giving you all of hers. Sometimes she highlights a certain point or just hints at something – the reader is invited to fill in the blanks, and blanks there are plenty. The very short explanation Blau offers for why she changed her own name also leaves you guessing. And like Blau did with the women of the Bible, you can take the author and interpret her in a way that resonates and means something to you.

*Sarah Blau, The First Ones – A Personal Journey to the Women of the Bible [Hebrew], Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir, 2022, pp. 208.

 

 

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