Beyond Noah, Beyond Laughter

Enid Dame’s Stone Shekhina
(Three Mile Harbor, 2002; 69 pp., $9.95)

by Alyssa A. Lappen
Big City Lit | May 2003

It is not easy to place words in the mouth of a Biblical figure and refashion her story, creating new dimensions. Enid Dame attempts this feat in Stone Shekhina, her seventh book, sometimes more successfully than others.

A longtime teacher of creative writing and bible as literature, Dame clearly knows her Tenach—the Hebrew Old Testament. She gleans heavily from biblical stories and Midrashim, commentaries on Biblical tales, retold to teach new lessons in the telling. At the dawn of the Christian era, as the Jewish people were forced into exile in Babylonia and beyond, almost always at the point of a sword, Jewish sages began constructing Midrashim to render their faith’s greatest lessons real and as accessible as Jerusalem and the Holy Temple had once been.

Like most modern Jews, Dame tends to neglect the elegant, native Israeli Midrashic traditions of Jerusalem’s early 8th century revenant Karaites, who became the ancient Jewish capital’s majority before its Muslim conquest and considered life outside Israel a violation of Torah. [1] Great Karaite sages like Ya’aqov al-Qirqisani, Yefet Ben-‘Eli HaLewi and Sahl Ben Masli’ah created a large body of work, including Qirqisani’s masterful code of law, Kitabu ‘l-Anwar wa-‘l-Maraqib (Book of Lights and Watchtowers) and commentary on Torah’s non-legal portions, Kitabu ‘r Riyad wa-‘l-Hada’iq (Book of Gardens and Parks). [2]

This oversight has apparently contributed to the mistaken presumptions that surface in several poems—that Israel’s Jewish presence is not rooted and the Jewish people are still at sea.

Dame opens “Noah’s Daughter,” for example, with an epitaph from Robert Graves’s collaboration with the late Hungarian Israeli scholar Raphael Patai, Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (an out-of-print book which I coincidentally have in my library): Medieval rabbis still created “expansions of the Genesis stories,” asking such questions as ‘How was the Ark lighted? How were the animals fed? Was there a Phoenix on board?’

Good questions.
I can answer them
(although you didn’t ask me)
most of the mythical beasts—
the griffin the phoenix the dragon the centaur—
sailed behind us in a smaller boat
(Father’s idea of course).
The unicorn was tied in the back, by its horn.
The sea serpent, naturally, floated underneath.

The poem features a violin, kitchen, cocoa and cookies, and animal dialects that Noah’s wife alone speaks and understands. Dame’s anachronisms here at least stand up well against the weight of the original biblical text. The poem ends with the warm embrace of mother and daughter. In the original, of course, Noah has no daughter, only sons.

Her heart beat along with the ocean’s.
At these times,
the dark Ark felt safe.
At these times
I wanted the forty days to go on forever.

In succeeding pieces, the 40 days do go on forever. And none is quite as successful as the first of Dame’s latter-day Noah sequence, notwithstanding the fanciful two-page Elizabeth Anne Sussman Socolow etching that separates the next two.

In “Free-Lance World Saver,” Noah becomes a suburban Baltimore grumbler, who at his life’s end “carries a cancer in his belly,/ a new, relentless passenger.” His wife “drowned herself years ago” and sons scattered “over the planet/building bridges selling stocks mending bones.” Noah’s memory mocks his daughter “from every/ souvenir shop art museum holy building toy store.” Now a muse, she wants “to tell his story . . . when they’re rewriting all the texts/ slapping paint over murals changing the icons’ faces.” This somewhat jarring image runs counter to Judaism’s central proscription against icons.

In “Excerpts from Naamah’s Journal,” Dame paints Noah as an angry, scowling, stiff-backed man and relates the first 191 days of their journey over the flooded earth. In her hands, Noah becomes a drunk, while still on the ark. His wife shuns his amorous attentions, along with “those people behind me/ those stinking animals that hungry, angry life.” Naamah, unnamed in Genesis, doesn’t celebrate the earth’s legendary rebirth. And she prays “not to the God/ he keeps locked in his trunk . . . the God he won’t let me speak to,” but to the Ocean. After planting Noah, his children, the animals and “the myths and the ghosts . . . like saplings in raw mud,” she plans to return to the water.

Falling oddly between these and four more poems in the voices of Noah’s daughter and three sons, the title poem in Dame’s own voice thunks like a heavy stone into deep water. Set in 1995 San Antonio, Texas, it casts Judaism as a

hard religion,
especially for women.
All Grandmother’s stories
Were turned to stone.
Something was trapped in translation.

This harshness does not match my own experience. But Dame recovers and casts a certain glow as she reaches out to God’s female portion in the final four stanzas. As “music swells” over the river, she thinks “of an added syllable,/ a whisper at the end of a word.” The soft light reveals “new colors:/ silvery pinks veiny blues eggshell greens.”

Shekhina,
I reached for a stone
And touched your breasts.

Back on Noah’s boat, Shem also harshly rewrites Torah and history. He admits he couldn’t stand their neighbors’ “casual brutalities.” But he has still less regard for his family, whom he sees sneering at people “on their roofs in the rain waving, ‘Bye-Bye’.” Through Shem, Dame falsely accuses the Jewish people of believing “we contain the world/ as the Ark contained us.” Racing forward through millennia, Shem swoops through Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Somalia and “the West Bank,” a trip that neatly dissects the Jewish people from Judea, the land that gave their name.

Shem pronounces himself “a negotiator/ (yes, you may have seen me on TV),/ trying to get all those people . . . to sit down and talk.” Alluding to Arab refugees, Shem imagines floating beside them “people hanging out the windows/ rowing frantically.” He claims, “We were the family on the boat/ but so were they,” neglecting, of course, the declaration of war and self-imposed antagonism by which they brought homelessness on themselves.

Shem’s brother Ham notes, “wives of visionary men/ don’t have it easy,” and attributes Noah’s animal collection to his mother, who later killed herself.

She was clever that way.
She fed him information
which he incorporated into the story—
God’s plan revising itself.
She would have made a great teacher
Or secret agent.

Ham flies to visit his sister on her upstate New York “sort of zoo.” He tells himself “the plane is an ark/ and I’m making a second voyage.”

Noah’s third son Japeth rejects his daughter’s pleas for an oral history. “I don’t remember anything,” he claims, terming his family dysfunctional and his parents, classic co-dependents.

Does the world really need
Another sad story?
The past is dead, I tell her.

Yet in “Sarah: The Place Beyond Laughter,” Dame makes a sad story sadder, albeit elegantly. In Genesis, Hagar bore Abraham a son named Ishmael. Finding Hagar’s taunts unbearable, the barren Sarah turned her and Ishmael out. Sarah named her son “Laughter/ because he was a joke/ on the planet’s timetable.” Humor was her radar. But here, Abraham has “brought us to a place/ where words turn to stones,/ and laughter turns to poison.” Sarah relives the moment when Ishmael’s father becomes a stranger: “A knife deflects light from a different angle./ It does not melt or change color.” And Sarah has “come to the place beyond laughter.”

Dame’s Gershom is perhaps her most admirable creation, proclaiming himself like his Aunt Miriam, a singer. He makes songs without music, poems released “into the stratosphere” as prayers, fragments that sometimes gleam in the sun, sometimes dance—that if unbroken (like Moses’s second tablets) could form a seamless vessel, an undamaged plate. He does not accuse; he only asks questions.

(Alyssa A. Lappen is a freelance journalist and poet, whose work frequently focuses on Jewish themes. Her chapbook, The People Bear Witness, was awarded Ruah’s prize in 2000. Her poems have appeared widely in print and online journals, including Big City Lit, ForPoetry.com, Kota Press, Midstream, International Poetry Review and Sow’s Ear Poetry Journal.)

Notes:
[1] The Karaite Jews of America, The Karaite Primer: An Introductory Guide to Karaite Observance, Theology and History (2001) pp. 28-9.

[2] Karaite Primer, ibid.


All Articles, Poems & Commentaries Copyright © 1971-2017 Alyssa A. Lappen
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Alyssa A. Lappen is a U.S.-based investigative journalist. She is currently Managing Editor at the Leeb Group. A former Senior Fellow of the American Center for Democracy (2005-2008); she is also a former Senior Editor of Institutional Investor (1993-1999), Working Woman (1991-1993) and Corporate Finance (1991).

She served six of her 12 years at Forbes (1978-1990) as an Associate Editor. Ms. Lappen was also a staff reporter at The New Haven Register (1975-1977).

During a decade as a freelance, her work appeared in Big Peace, Pajamas Media, Front Page Magazine, American Thinker, Right Side News, Family Security Matters, the Washington Times and many other Internet and print journals. Ms. Lappen also contributed to the Terror Finance Blog, among others.

She supports the right of journalists worldwide to write without fear or restriction on politics, governments, international affairs, terrorism, terror financing and religious support for terrorism, among other subjects.

Ms. Lappen is also an accomplished poet. Her first full-length collection, The Minstrel’s Song, was published by Cross-Cultural Communications in April 2015. Her poems have been published in the 2nd 2007 edition of Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust and both 2007 issues of Wales‘ award-winning Seventh Quarry: Swansea Poetry Magazine.

Dozens of her poems have appeared in print and online literary journals and books. She won the 2000 annual Ruah: A Journal of Spiritual Poetry chapbook award and has received a Harvard Summer Poetry Prize and several honorable mentions.

Alyssa A. Lappen can be reached at alyssaalappen@alyssaalappen.org

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