Thursday, March 28, 2013

Poetry As Flash Fiction; A Midrash for Passover

Elizabeth Zelvin

I was amazed when I first heard of flash fiction: super-short stories that do the job in 1000 or even 500 words. When I began to read some flash mysteries, I was impressed at how some writers manage to condense a story arc, breathe life into their characters, even surprise us with an unexpected twist within that very short framework. Since then, I’ve learned that an even shorter form is the drabble, a story of exactly 100 words. My favorite author, character-driven science fiction genre bender Lois McMaster Bujold, ended a recent book with five drabbles from five different points of view, brilliantly capturing the distinctive perspective of characters the reader knows well from earlier books in the series. Finally, I myself contributed a story to an anthology of 25-word mysteries.

But why am I surprised? Before becoming a mystery author, I was a poet for thirty years. Poets routinely tell stories in far less than 500 words. One of my poems, which was read at our family Seder early this week, is both a flash story of 167 words and a midrash.

A midrash is an interpretation or exegesis of a Bible verse or, by extension, any myth or archetype. Not being a Biblical scholar, I first heard the word in connection with feminist retellings of traditional stories. For a while there, among Jewish women poets, everybody had an Eve poem, a Sarah poem, a Lilith poem. Feminist poets reimagined Persephone, Mary Magdalene, Grendel’s mother. James Finn Garner’s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories (1994) applied the concept to fairy tales, albeit with tongue in cheek. It could be argued that movies from Enchanted to The Huntsman and TV series like Grimm and Once Upon A Time do the same.

The Jewish Seder is a feast that celebrates the Exodus, the great story of how the Jews escaped from slavery in Egypt. Moses pointed his staff at the Red Sea, the waters parted so the Jews could cross and then came together again so that Pharaoh and his troops, pursuing, drowned. The heroine of the occasion was Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron. According to the Old Testament, “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.” (Exodus 15:20) We know that Miriam led the women in singing and dancing, but we don’t know any of the details.

At this time of year, Jews all over the world celebrate Passover. At the Seder, we read the Haggadah, which is not exactly a telling of the story, more like bits of the story and the notes of a lot of rabbis arguing over the exact interpretation of every word and phrase. In my family, the children used to be bored to death before we got to eat. Nowadays, many less traditional families create their own Seder rituals, their own versions of the Haggadah. It’s a lot shorter than the Seders I remember from childhood, and it focuses less on the interpretations and more on the actual story. The year my older granddaughter was four, with the attention span of a flea, I got it down to under 500 words.

One feature of the traditional Seder is Elijah’s Cup. We fill a glass of wine for the prophet Elijah and open the door to our home, not only so that Elijah can come in and bless those gathered to feast but as a sign that we welcome the stranger in our midst. Many feminist households have added Miriam’s Cup, which we fill with water. There’s a tradition that Miriam was a water diviner who was always able to tap the earth and find a spring—an invaluable skill during the Jews’ forty years of wandering in the desert.

Because I’m a storyteller, I wondered about Miriam’s story. Here they are, at the edge of the desert. After four hundred years of slavery, they’ve just fled their homes in such a hurry they didn’t even have time to bake bread that needed time to rise (hence matzoh). They’ve miraculously crossed a great sea without getting their feet wet. They’ve had an army pursuing them. Now their enemies are dead. That’s great news. But dancing? Singing and dancing? Under what circumstances could that possibly have happened?

Here’s the way I imagine it:


the men sit perched on rocks
their faces grimed
furrowed with runnels of sweat
their sandals crusted in Red Sea salt
stunned by their change of fortune
the power in Moses’ staff
the thunder of the sea overrunning Pharoah
the scream of terrified horses
the crack of chariots breaking up
the wall of water at their heels
they stare outward into the desert
will not meet one another’s eyes

Miriam moves among the women
offering one the water skin
another a cloth to wipe her dusty feet
a quiet word here
there a hand pressed gently on a shoulder
crouched where they dropped when Moses called a halt
they have instinctively formed a circle

Miriam completes her round
pours the last few drops of water
on a corner of her shawl
passes it across her face
shaking off weariness like a scratchy cloak
she gathers them with her eyes
her slow smile blossoms
“Ladies,” she says, “we’re free!”
“Who wants to dance?”

Note: A version of this post appeared in 2008. The poem first appeared in the journal Poetica.


Kath said...

Thank you. I'm fascinated by Miriam's story!

Unknown said...

Years ago, at St. John's Episcopal Church in Stamford, CT, we'd celebrate the Jewish Seder with a local Rabbi. All our children receiving religious instructions each Sunday would come. At a question and answer period the children participated and stunned us with their knowledge regarding the Bible and Passover.
It was wonderful because it taught through experience and reminded us just how much we had in common religiously.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Dot, if I'm not mistaken, the Last Supper was a Seder. :)