When will we hear of Jacob’s daughters?

Painting by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Painting by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
FORTY YEARS ago, I visited my grandfather in his nursing home and found him studying the week’s Torah portion Vay’ hi . It struck me then that there is a terrible lack in this beautiful portion (as in much of the Torah): Jacob gathers his sons and grandsons to his deathbed to bless them and foretell their futures but says nothing of his daughters.
I wondered when the stories of Jacob’s daughters would be told – and whether some of the task would fall to me.
I was at that time translating the Song of Songs, the oldest poems in Jewish tradition to which women contributed their voices, and I intended to turn next to translating Hebrew prayers. But finding myself uncomfortable with the patriarchal imagery of the liturgy, I decided to go beyond translating and instead to revise and recreate the prayers from an inclusive perspective in both Hebrew and English. The results were “The Book of Blessings,” published in 1996, and, most recently, “The Days Between.”
When I finish writing a book, I never know what, if anything, will follow. I could not have predicted, in 1974, what I would be writing in the decades to come. But I knew then that my life’s calling had something to do with Jacob’s daughters. I knew that, as a descendant of Jacob, I shared my brothers’ history – and that it was upon me, as much as upon them, to in - scribe the future of my people.
Here is the poem I wrote some four decades ago, slightly revised.
The Visit: December 25, 1974 For my grandfather Sholem-Dovid ben Avrom-Abba, zikhrono livrakha I’ve come back to the Bronx of my infancy— the Bronx you never left, Grandpa— and become a daughter again.
It’s Christmas day, and here at the Home of the Daughters of Jacob, it’s any Wednesday, you’re sitting at your desk, expecting no one, studying the portion for Shabbes—
Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years so the whole age of Jacob was a hundred and forty-seven years “What are you reading, Grandpa?” “ Khumesh.
How’s by you, Mamele ?” You always called me that. Even now when I stand a head taller than you, I’m still your little mama, k’neyne-hore , I should grow up to be a mother.
And the time grew near for Jacob to die.
“I’m not old, just my head is old,” you pat the sores on your hairless skull beneath the huge black yarmelke .
and he called his son Joseph and said to him: If I have found favor in thy sight, place, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh and deal kindly and truly with me.
I put my hand on your wrist— “How are things, Grandpa?” Now what will we say? Should we speak the Yiddish of your youth, of that strange dead village I never knew? Or the Yiddish-English of the old Bronx I’ve almost forgotten? I would talk to you in street-corner Hebrew but you’ve never walked the streets of Jerusalem, and for you, it’s a holy tongue.
At the table in this tiny room (suddenly I’m overgrown) Jacob is beseeching Joseph:
Bury me not in Egypt, let me lie with my fathers, swear to me!
Grandpa, do you know where your fathers are buried? It’s the end of Genesis, Joseph will die too, and Jacob foretells the future of his sons: Of the first-born, Reuben, unstable as water, of Simeon and Levi, whose swords were bitter, and Judah, the lion’s cub— those white teeth and dark eyes— And of Zebulun, who will dwell at the sea, and Issachar, lover of the land, and Dan, the serpent, who will judge.
And of Gad, who defeats the raiders, and Asher, who will prosper, and wild Naftali, the hind, whose progeny are lovely.
And of Joseph, whose hands are supple at the bow, and Benjamin, the youngest, the wolf, who devours his prey in the morning and distributes the spoils at night.
It’s almost dusk, and churchbells from the street penetrate the quiet of the room.
Tell me a story, Grandpa.
When will we hear of Jacob’s daughters? Daughter today, I would mother and heal your sores, if I could, make supple your fingers, arched like tiny bows above the words of the khumesh .
Grandpa, what can I promise you? You look at your watch: It’s time.
You get up from your desk for the afternoon prayers and I leave for the car on Findlay Avenue, Jacob calling after me as I descend into the darkening Bronx.
Dr. Marcia Falk is a poet and translator of Hebrew and Yiddish. Her newest book is “The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Sea son”