Local poet humanizes women of Genesis
Ever wonder what Adam and Eve said to each other right after they ate the apple? Or what Noah’s wife had to say when her husband started banging nails into wood and collecting animals? Or how about Sarah’s laughter after she was told at her advanced age in life, she would give birth to a son?
Wonder no more, for poet Sherri Waas Shunfenthal of Burke, Va., has thought about these very human reactions of people in Genesis and written some delightful, imaginative poetry to fill out our understanding of the matriarchs – and of the patriarchs as well. Her book, Sacred Voices: Women of Genesis Speak, with illustrations by Judybeth Greene of Washington, D.C., was recently published by Pocol Press in Clifton, Va.
It all started, Shunfenthal, 44, said in an interview, because when attending monthly parsha (Bible study) group at Congregation Adat Reyim in Springfield, she noted that few details of women’s lives were mentioned in the text.
“I wanted to give them [women of Genesis] dimensionality, to view them as whole people,” she said. “After all, those women were experiencing some of the same things women do today – struggling with their family relationships, infertility, jealousy, sibling rivalry.”
After writing some of her poems, Shunfenthal did some research to make sure she “wasn’t off base” in her analyses. For example, she did some reading about the period in which Bilhah and Zilpah were “handmaidens” to Rachel and Leah respectively and bore Jacob’s children. She discovered that life was very communal then, validating them in her poems that these two women were involved in the rearing of their sons.
She certainly succeeds in making these biblical characters come alive. Take Lot’s wife, for example, who really has a tough time of it. (“And the angels warned Lot and his wife: Do not turn around. Do not look upon the destruction (Genesis 19:17). “First, we’re not told her name. Then, Lot is going ahead, not waiting for his nameless soulmate, simply shouting back for her not to look around. There is smoke all around, people are screaming, she is crying, Shunfenthal writes.
“Heat from the fire of dying cities
Drying the water of her eyes.
She cannot see where she is or
Where she is going. Screams fill her.
She does not mean to disobey.
Her body twists to look behind.
into a pillar of salt
frozen in time.
into a pillar of remembrance
nameless like the people
of Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Or Poor Leah, who loves Jacob and allows her father to fool him into marrying her instead of her sister Rachel. (“I think he will come to love me,” Shunfenthal has Leah say.)
But then Leah realized she has been duped by her father, who also promised Rachel to Jacob to keep him working.
“My father used me
so that Jacob will stay on the land
to create abundance in
my father’s fields and make the
Jacob is blessed
But my life is sorrow.
Jacob is blinded.
He does not see
I love him.”
Shunfenthal also sees Sarah’s agony in the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac.
One night, Abraham heard a voice in a dream telling him to prepare Isaac for a sacrifice. He was sure it was God’s voice.
“Sarah watched anxiously
as her husband and boy-man
wandered into the distant desert
becoming small against the horizon.
A cool breeze made her shiver.
Her body shuddered. She wanted to rush
out, urgently calling
her men back to her.
She could not let them go.
She must let them go.”
Shunfenthal’s favorite matriarch is Rebekah, for she showed such faith and strength in leaving her family to marry someone she hasn’t met.
Greene’s accompanying prints enhance the poetry.
The two began collaborating after Greene heard Shunfenthal read a poem at a Havdalah service in 1998 and asked permission to use her poem in her artwork. This led to a print and a greeting card, both containing the poem, “Torah Meditation,” and art.
The words and the art were a perfect fit, said Greene in an interview, “I wanted to incorporate words into my work,” she said. “Her poetry slowed you down and brought you to a place of meditation.”
The book was a “very collaborative effort,” says Greene. The two women met several times to discuss the poetry and the illustrations. “It’s interesting to work with someone with a picture in her head,” says Greene. For example, Shunfenthal asked her to add a tear to Lot’s wife’s face to remind readers of salt.
The author points with special pride to the depiction of Eve and the apple (though the Hebrew Bible does not specify the species of fruit) on the book's cover. To show it as a “positive” experience, Eve is shown with one hand reaching for the tree, while the other passes the apple on to future generations.
The book’s total effect is of a series of illustrated, somewhat offbeat and very human biblical commentaries.