Andi Rosenthal is the author of three poems in Volume 9 of The Westchester Review – Jephthah’s Daughter, Lilith, and Orpah.
The Westchester Review: What motivated you to write about this trilogy of biblical stories from a woman’s point of view?
Andi Rosenthal: I’ve always been fascinated with women in literature, especially when they don’t have a say in what happens to them, as when their story is told from another point of view, which is most of the time male, or third person omniscient. I’m very curious to hear their side of the story. When we don’t have that available to us – whether it is literature, or the Bible, or other accepted works – we think what we read is the final story. Sometimes we have to write their say, their point of view, into being. That was ultimately my motivation.
TWR: How did you select these three women? Why was the Bible your source?
AR: It’s really a combination: partly familiarity with their stories because I actively study Torah at my synagogue, and because in doing so I struggled with their stories. The more I got to know these women, the more I felt connected to them and felt a sense of unfairness in the way they’re portrayed in the Bible. Of course, in Lilith’s case, she’s not even in the Bible – she doesn’t even make it in to the final draft. She’s strictly an apocryphal character: the alleged first wife of Adam, who is banished to roam the spirit world in darkness because she speaks for herself. She’s not interested in being talked down to or commanded. So that’s what we know – or think we know – about her. I’m sure she would argue that portrayal of her identity if she could.
Orpah was the sister-in-law of Ruth. In the Book of Ruth, it was Ruth who speaks that very beautiful passage to their mother-in-law, Naomi: “Where thou goest I shall also go. Thy people shall be my people and thy God shall be my God.” This scene takes place after both Ruth and Orpah are widowed, after Naomi’s husband and two sons perish in a famine. Ruth chooses to stay with her mother-in-law, and Orpah, in turn, remains silent and goes home to her own mother, to her own people. For that alleged sin she is condemned in biblical literature for having turned her back on the Israelites. The name Orpah means “the back of her neck.” Ruth is the ancestor of King David, and Orpah is considered to be the ancestor of Goliath, the mother of monsters. I’d like to think she had a very good reason to go home, and it is a shame to see her condemned throughout history for her choices. What could be more human than just wanting to go home, especially after losing the love of her life?
My third story, Jephthah’s Daughter, is one I have struggled with for more than 20 years, probably because there’s such a close resemblance to the story of the binding of Isaac – in both stories two fathers are sacrificing their children. But in Jephthah’s daughter’s case, no angel comes to save her. When Abraham is about to raise the knife to kill Isaac, an angel yells, “Abraham! Abraham!” as if to bring him back to his senses. In Hebrew, Jephthah means “the one who releases,” yet there is no release for his daughter. We don’t even know her name or any details, like whether there was even the possibility of an angel that she could have called on to save her. This idea of having no name and not knowing the name of one’s God, or one’s rescuer, is one I have struggled with for so long. I just don’t know, nor can I imagine, what the author was thinking and why this is included in our holiest book.
TWR: You’ve taken a very assertive, feminist approach to these stories. Do you think you were taking a risk in writing what some people may think is blasphemous?
AR: Maybe. You’re always taking a risk when you start questioning the Bible, or any status quo for that matter. I was raised Catholic and converted to Judaism in my 30s. I chose to convert because Judaism is my heritage on my father’s side. I was always curious about what had taken his family off the path that so many take such care in following. And of course, one of the great joys of converting to Judaism was learning to question. I always want my writing to pose more questions than it answers and give readers the opportunity to take a deeper look and decide for themselves what is going on in the story and whether they themselves have a different interpretation based in their own life experiences. In Judaism there is also a literary tradition called midrash, which is very often a rewriting from a different point of view, or taking another angle into a story.
TWR: What inspires you to write?
AR: Two things: I’ve belonged to an informal writing group in Westchester for 26 years (and still I’m considered one of the new kids). We meet once a month. My fellow writers always inspire me to write – mainly because I know I have to show up with something to read. As a very famous paperweight says: The deadline is always an inspiration. So is knowing that I work with a group of writers that I trust. We say to each other, “If you take the criticism, you have to take the praise.” They are amazing writers and they inspire me to be better. My other inspiration was an English teacher in high school who really believed in me and gave me the confidence to be a writer. I would not have been able to do this if it were not for him.
TWR: Do you have any writing rituals?
AR: There is almost always coffee involved. I like to write at Panera Bread in Mt. Kisco, at a quiet table in the back. They are very friendly to writers. To be in a noisy environment helps me put up what I call “the invisible wall,” and for whatever reason, I work more efficiently when I am surrounded by activity. I wrote my entire novel, The Bookseller’s Sonnets, which was published in 2010, sitting at the back table in Borders in Scarsdale. But since that’s gone, and I haven’t found a place near me that I am comfortable writing in, I often drive from New Rochelle to Mt. Kisco to be in my happy place.