by Susan Reimer-Torn
A watercolor entitled Father and Daughter, painted in Poland in 1876, fills me with bittersweet longing. It was painted by a 21-year-old Maurycy Gottlieb just two years before the promising young man’s untimely death. (I wonder if that accounts for its intimation of inevitable parting.) A bearded patriarch is embracing a pre-adolescent daughter, who trustingly leans on his shoulder. The painting’s sentiment is dignified by its restraint. This father-daughter portrait evokes all that I missed in my relationship with my own Orthodox Jewish father. I chose the painting for the cover of my new memoir, Maybe Not Such a Good Girl, as a point of departure for all that goes awry in my own story.
Daughters are a tantalizing and disturbing mystery. In the Talmud, a rabbinic father says to his daughter, “Return to dust so that men will not be disturbed by your beauty.” Daughters are a man’s own seed transfigured into a living body that before long must be banished to balconies. Daughters are the Other, yet they are the vessels of a tribal future that must be assured. The relationship between father and daughter is tender yet explosive, a nuanced power-struggle laced with taboos.
Passover focuses on the intergenerational, but the holiday does not bring us any closer to the ideal of father-daughter intimacy that was so missing from my life. The patriarchal haggadah speaks of four different sons, as typecast by their fathers, but says nothing about the relationship between a daughter and her dad.
On the other hand, a feminist seder always restores to Miriam her diminished prominence as prophet, dance captain (she organized the first flash mob after the crossing of the Red Sea!) and tribal leader. But even a haggadah reconceived from a feminist perspective is not likely to tell us the ways in which Miriam’s is a courageous, yet failed, father-daughter story.
As a slave girl in Egypt, Miriam alone refuses to surrender to hopelessness. She persuades her father Amram, a tribal chieftain, to remarry her mother and make children in spite of Pharaoh’s decree that all newborn boys be drowned. Her brother Moses is born of this marital reunion, and in emulation of her parents’ leadership, all of the Hebrew husbands and wives resume conjugal relations. By challenging her father, Miriam assures national survival.
Some midrashic commentators identify the indomitable Miriam as Pu’ah, one of the two midwives who dare to defy Pharoah’s infanticide decree. The Ma’yan feminist haggadah, The Journey Continues, elaborates: “In the hut where the Israelite midwives work, Shifra turns to Pu’ah and sees a spark of something she did not see the day before. Together they dare to defy Pharaoh.”
Miriam, we learn in the Torah, has an uneasy rapport with male authority, and if we look carefully, it can all be traced back to the imbalance in her relationship with her father. God himself evokes the unresolved tension when he punishes Miriam with leprosy after the Exodus from Egypt. In my memoir, I describe my encounter with that biblical passage one Sabbath morning:
We are reading the story of Miriam in the Book of Numbers, chapter 12. Miriam, Moses’ older sister, speaks out of turn, expressing resentment of his exclusive leadership. God’s anger flares up against her and he smites her with skin-corroding leprosy.
Moses asks that his sister be healed without further ado . . . and God responds — “If her father had spit in her face, eem yarok, yarak, would she not be shamed for seven days?
Miriam has misspoken and her Heavenly father has metaphorically spit in her face.
Nausea arises in my gut. In the world I fled, God and fathers who saw themselves as ambassadors for God were known to flip out and explode, sometimes predictably, sometimes without warning. It was primarily my father’s rage that made me turn my back on a whole tradition.
This kind of censure distances daughters from our patriarchal tradition. However, Avivah Zornberg, in her book The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, helps me reframe this troublesome passage with her understanding of the gezera (the “harsh decree”). Whether as a spunky girl-child, a defiant midwife, or a slighted sister, Miriam is staunch in her refusal of the gezera. In Zornberg’s words, the gezera is “a static way of looking at the world.” To be a victim of it is “to say no to all possibility and to cling to the way things are . . . It is to expire before redemption comes.”
Upon reading Zornberg, I wrote in my memoir:
The struggle between statis and renewal that exist throughout the narrative of our people is a tension that inevitably weaves its way into our personal stories. With Zornberg’s teaching, something in my self-perception shifts. Might adolescent rebellion be redefined as anti-gezera> activism for change? In my own way, I was trying to tell my father that his cherished outcome — the continued survival of the Jewish people — was best served by allowing for fluidity, by making room for each person’s uniqueness. I was not able to convince my father that diversity could more vividly knit, rather than threaten, the fabric of the fold. How my life might have been different had I been able to persuade my father that my outer shell of defiance contained not only youthful rebellion but also a vital spark of anti-gezera renewal.
Passover, which is all about renewal and redemption, is the ultimate anti-gezera, consciousness-raising time of the Jewish year. The anti-gezera brigade is unabashedly a women’s brigade, with Miriam in its fore. Its devotees are daughters grown into women, daughters restoring depth and dignity to their relationships with their fathers, daughters shattering precedents for their own daughters who keep the anti-gezera brigade marching on — at Passover and throughout the year.
Susan Reimer-Torn is a regular writer for our website and author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return, published by Blue Thread, an imprint of Jewish Currents.