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What does it mean to be a Jewish writer? To write about the Jewish Lesbian experience? How do we passionately engage with thinking about identity while considering the intersection of both lesbian and Jewish politics and the inherent aversion to labels? This collection of poetry offers several insights into the hermeneutics of identity in literature and religion.
Milk and Honey examines lesbian spirituality through poems that rework portions of the Torah while addressing one’s experience with faith and looking at the complicated relationship lesbians have had with religion for many years. The work in these pages addresses what Jewish theorist Eduardo Glissant calls root identity; how do LGBTIQ poets see themselves both inside and outside of Judaism? The poetry here connects both intimacy and vulnerability with a woman’s need to be heard, on personal and socio-political levels.
While reading these poems, it’s difficult not to think about the need writers/poets have to define themselves in a literary landscape. For instance, author Rachel Blau DuPlessis does not identify her Jewishness with ethnicity or religion but rather through social action or behaviors. Jess Novak’s poem, “Mischling,” laments the degree of her Jewishness based on her appearance.
I wanted her narrow/ long nose/ her years on the kibbutz/ in the army/her goldsmith aunt in Haifa/ the dread that comes with being Israeli/ I am only Jewish by the relaxed standards of Reform or Nuremberg/ a mix of Easter baskets and mezuzahs.
Julie Enszer has selected poems that speak directly to the issue of sexuality of religious and secular Jews alike. What Enszer has done with the structure and positioning of these poems is to create an active discourse with each piece without offering resolution, explanation or consolation. The narrative thread connecting these works lies in the dialogic texts that communicate a poetic understanding of feminist-lesbian culture and community, while finding one’s voice in the ongoing political issues in Israel and Palestine. What makes Milk and Honey different from other collections of Jewish Lesbian poetry (think: Nice Jewish Girls–aside from the drastic change in our political climate) is opportunity to speak openly; out of necessity about the questions both religious and secular Jews have about political relationships in the world.
Elana Dykewomon’s poem, “An Eastern/Western Country Song,” breaks down the dialogue between mother and daughter who are at odds about Zionism.
and you say
the Arabs would push us from the shore
into deep water
and I say, mother
it’s the Israelis who are shoving
I say why not count
The nonviolent protests
And you say they’re deceiving you
And I say
Let’s not talk about Zionism any more
The introduction to Milk and Honey declares the landscape in these pages, “an imagined place of plenitude; it is not a geographic location, not an actual state fraught with political complexity; it is a place for our imagination.” To be sure, these writings uncover and marvel at the cultural practices and sexual experiences that help to define one’s lesbian and Jewish identity. The work juxtaposes familial and religious acceptance of one’s sexuality while keeping an even, diasporic view of Judaism in its active conversation with the reader.
Marilyn Hacker’s “For Despina” talks of the narrator’s Jewish history, what makes her Jewish and the answers lacking in all things hypothetical.
How am I a Jew? Through my mother’s birthright,
turned into a death-warrant once; excuse to
seize the farms and villages of a people
“exiled by exiles.”
The struggle each author has with identity, metaphorically and otherwise are documented throughout Milk and Honey. Lisa Dordal’s “The Lies That Save Us” exposes the difficult reality of two lovers traveling throughGeorgia who are confronted by outsiders who need to label that “kissing energy” permeating their reality. The “something” that exists between two women, witnessed by others in public view, begs the question, “Are you sisters?” while other poems want to discuss the intersection of their physical and sexual experiences. Both Jenny Factor and Bonnilee Kaufmann’s poems want to recognize the physical and emotional pull age has on our bodies but poems like “Ruth: Separated from Naomi” and “If Everything That Burns” opt to use form and style to address love and desire.
How Jewish history alters or influences one’s identity is re-negotiated throughout the work in these 86 pages. Poets are in conversation with themselves, the work is in conversation with itself, enticing the seventeen pieces in the first half of the book labeled “Milk” to share in its dialogue with the other seventeen in “Honey.” Enszer has employed some of the most talented and important Lesbian Jewish poets to pull up their identities from the root and take a good look at our habits and the impact they have on our experiences in the world. No matter how inconsistent or varied our opinions when spirituality and sexuality collide, it would seem we all remain inextricably linked through our apprehension and reluctance to singular identities, whether sexual or religious.
Milk and Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry
Edited by Julie R. Enszer
Midsummer Night’s Press
Paperback, 9780979420887, 86pp