©Robert M. (Bob) Leahy Approximate Word Count: 2,345

2110 E. Crosby Road

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From The Book of Women

Part One

 

Ruth Hegel smiled at her granddaughter, Miriam. She studied the child in the darkening light of the dining room. The girl was so like her when she was twelve. The same large eyes and short stature, making her appear younger than she was. But the hints of womanhood were there. It would only be a matter of time before the adolescentís straight trunk held the curves of a mature woman.

"I still donít see why the women arenít named," Miriam said, shaking her black curls. The girlís dark eyes studied her grandmotherís face. "When I asked Rabbi Goldfarb," she sighed, "he said the ancient rabbis named all the women. ĎSo why arenít they mentioned in the torah along with all the menís names?í He acted like he didnít even hear my question. So I asked him, ĎAt least tell me the name of someoneówho was Noahís wife?í"

"Did he give you an answer to that one?"

"He called her Naamah1 and said it meant that she beat drums on her way to worship idols. Why would she beat a drum? Why would she worship idols?"

"You have so many questions, my little one," Nana said.

"But no one answers them?"

"You are so impatient to know these things?" Nana asked.

Miriam nodded.

"Then you shall know," Nana replied. "What I tell you is womenís lore. Rabbi Goldfarb will not have heard it. And you must never talk of this with little girls. I tell you now because you are ready, because you mother is dead, and I may not live to see you reach the rightful age to learn this lore."

"What are you talking about, Nana?" Miriam asked. "Youíre not making any sense."

"I just wish your mother were here," Nana said. She rose from the table and crossed to the dark hutch opposite the windows. She knelt down and pulled out the bottom drawer. She set tatted doilies and cross-stitched dishtowels to one side, reaching for the very back of the large drawer.

"When Iím gone, I want you to remember where this book is," Nana said, returning to the table. She showed Miriam a very old, leather-bound book, about as big as the Monthly Digest but three times as thick.

"But what is it?"

"Itís called, The Book of Women," Nana replied. She caressed the cover. "It answers all your questions about the women."

"You mean, like whoís Noahís wife really was?" Miriam asked.

"Yes."

Miriam came around the table to stand by her grandmotherís side. "Thereís nothing written on the cover?"

"It doesnít matter. I know its name. And, now, so do you."

"But it should be on the cover," Miriam said.

"Someday, youíll understand," Nana replied.

"So, what are their names?" Miriam asked, pulling a chair close to better see the book.

"There are as many women as there are men," Nana said. "Letís just pick one for now. Youíll have plenty of time to meet the others later."

"But who should I look at first, Nana?"

"You asked about Noahís wife. She was first, so letís start with her."

"Okay," Miriam replied. "What does the book say about her."

"Oh, child," Nana laughed. "It doesnít say anything about her. She tells her own story, and she has a nameó"

"What is it?" the child interrupted.

Another laugh. "Her name is Magda."

"But Rabbi Goldfarb said it was Naamah?"

"Thatís the made up name of the rabbis," Nana Ruth said, opening the book and turning the delicate, yellowed pages. "Magda tells the story of the ark and the flood, of her three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, of her daughters-in-lawó"

"And who are they?"

"Weíll get there, dear. All in good time. Now, sit and listen. Nana Ruth started part way through Magdaís story.

ÖBack in the days before the flood, when the boys were grown, Noah and I stayed apart from most of the others. And our boys did, too. We had to to keep what little we had. We used to hire help. But the men would work a day and steal sheep that night and never be seen again. The women would wash clothes and bake bread. Then they would take some of both when they left. Itís a wonder we ever found suitable mates for our children. But The God did provide.

"Thatís not the way the story goes, Nana," Miriam said, shaking her finger at the older woman. "The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness. When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth, God said to Noahó"2

"Yes, child," Nana said, waving her had. "I know that story, too. Itís Mosesí story. And Moses didnít much like women. Never married. Hardly spoke of them at all in his telling of our history. Thatís why The Book of Women exists.

"But it doesnít sound like the same story," Miriam complained.

"But it is. Or mostly is. And it isnít."

Miriam stared at her grandmother for a moment. Then she started to laugh. "Thatís silly, Nana."

The older woman laughed, too. "Itís the same story. Itís just told by a different personóa woman, this time."

"But she sounds soÖsoÖordinary," Miriam said.

"Sheís a woman. Sheís practical; thatís all. I admit that Moses had a better flair for the dramatic, at times. But he doesnít always tell the whole truth about what was going on."

"Nana," Miriam gasped.

"Itís true," Nana replied. "And you can tell Rabbi Goldfarb I said so. He knows Moses left a lot out. But he probably wonít admit it to you." Nana sighed. "One thing you have to remember," she said, reaching out and grabbing Miriamís arms. "Men stick together. So women have to do the same." After a moment, she went on with Magdaís story.

MiriamÖ

The young girl touched her grandmotherís arm at the sound of her name. Nana Ruth smiled in return and continued reading.

Ö was found just wandering among the sheep one day. She was dressed like the pack women that trail the caravans, but she didnít have any memory of who she was or where sheíd been. Even so, or maybe because she had no memories, she was the sweetest girl I ever met. So gentle. And she knew tricks to seasoning meats that made them melt on your tongue. She loved to cook, something I had long wearied of, and spent hours combing the hills for plants to use. She didnít always know the name of the plants she gathered, but she knew how to mix them.

All the boys loved her cooking, but Ham put on the most weight after she joined our family. I donít know when he decided to take her as his wife. Miriam said she knew the moment she saw him he would be the one. But it was Shem who allowed them to become one in the eyes of The God. As the oldest son, if he had wanted her, she would have been his.

Zareh and Rebeka were rescued from an abusive master as part of a trade Noah worked out when he thinned out the goatsótoo many nannies unable to bear young and give milk. Noah said their master was whipping the girls like camels because they strained under the weight of the giant water jars they carried, spilling some of the precious liquid. Noah gave the man an old ass and rigging to carry the water.

They were sisters. Zareh was older by three years. Rebeka was just becoming a woman. Shem treated both of them like sisters. Japheth fell under Zarehís spell. I like to think I attracted Noah that way once. But it was so long ago, I donít remember.

Shem would eventually claim Rebeka as his wife. But that happened after The God spoke to Noah and me. What we heard The God say we never completely agreed on, except that we were to build a huge ark. Noah said The God wanted two of every animal, male and female, clean and unclean. But I still say The God wanted seven pairs of clean and two pairs of unclean animals, of those that walk or crawl or fly. We argued about the number of stories in the boat, the placement of any windows.

It seems odd, now. But I donít ever remember us questioning The God about building the ark. We accepted The Godís word that the rains would come and the world would be cleansed. The boys took longer to come to believe. But eventually they did. If they hadnít, Noah could have never built the ark.

Only Miriam, of my daughters-in-law voiced any opinion among the girls. She took my hands and held them, looked into my eyes and asked me to repeat what The God said. And I did. She said, "So be it." And that was all there was.

Ark building is chaos. Especially when you have Noah out there in charge of measuring, never stepping the same pace twice. And boys at an age when they knew more than their father. Three of them fighting among themselves about how to do everything from lashing spars to laying pitch, always disagreeing with poor Noah.

Miriam was in charge of the animals. How she kept the rams from butting heads, the snakes from eating the birds and mice, I just donít know. Zareh, Rebeka and I had to do all the daily chores, tending the garden, making bread, cooking meals, sewing clothes, and milking goats. All the men had time to do was build.

Zareh became our negotiator as we traded off our flocks for wood and rope and straw. We knew we only needed seven pairs. Noah tried to get rid of all but two.

Hardly anyone knew of the ark until the lower sections were completely pitched. Noah had decided to build it down in a steep wash just beyond the second rise behind our hut. Only our sheep saw much of the construction.

As the upper deck and roof went on the ark, people would come by and stare. They would look at the sky, kick the dust with their feet and wonder how mad we had all become. Some were afraid to trade for our animals. But we gave fair dealsóZareh made sure no one was cheatedóand that brought us what we needed.

Rebeka suggested packing hard bread in watertight skins for our food. We would have milk to drink, but little else to eat while we were inside the ark. She was always the most practical of the three girls.

We only had eleven goats left by the time we loaded the ark up. Two females and a male were stolen just before the rains started. I think we had the right number of all the rest. Only two camels, I can assure you. And, if The God had allowed, none would have suited me.

I donít remember the size of the ark. It was big. It had to be. It was cramped when we all got inside. And it stank from day one. But we got used to it. I remember Noah stepping it off one last time a day or two before we loaded up. He marched off six hundred and one paces and scratched that number on the side by the door. I know it was wider than it was tall, but he didnít have a good way of measuring across at its widest point. The top story and roof rose out of the wash.

Most of the time on the ark was spent herding the larger animals into and out of the pens. Miriam was in charge of the overall schedule, but all of us took turns opening and closing pens and coaxing animals into the somewhat larger open area where they could stretch their legs. By the end of rains, when less than half the straw was gone, there was more room for moving around. And there was the constant clean up. That little window on the top deck was a long hike with full baskets of dung. But we managed.

By the third week of the rains, I think all of us would have gone mad if The God hadnít sent us Rebeka. She played a small flute in the evenings after Noah told stories of his ancestors. No one asked about mine. It was the third or forth time Noah recited down from Enos to Cainan through to his father, Lamech, that I worked up the courage to ask him his motherís motherís name. He couldnít tell me.

"Why just the men, Noah?"

He couldnít answer me.

"You canít have a son or daughter without a wife. Sheís important, too."

"Oh, woman," he says. "You donít understand."

"Do you even know my name?" I asked him.

"Of course I do," he said. But he didnít say it. And thatís when I decided I had to have my own story. And as I have told it here, it has been told to my three sonís wives. And they will add their stories to mine. And we women will know how we came to be."

Nana closed the book. The tick-tick of the antique mantle clock in the living room could be heard in the silence that followed.

"Does Miriam tell her story next?" the young girl asked a moment later.

"Yes, child," Nana Ruth answered. "But thereís more to Magdaís tale."

"Can I hear it now?"

"No, dear one. Not now. Thereís much to learn. Youíll have plenty of time."

"But, Nana," Miriam started to whine.

"None of that. I said not now. Maybe I shouldnít have even started with this book."

"Iím sorry, Nana," the child said. "Tomorrow?"

"Weíll see." The old woman rose stiffly from her chair and returned the book to the back of the drawer. "Weíll see."

 

End of Part One

Notes:

    1. The name Naamah found on page 1 is taken from The Five Books of Miriam: A Womanís Commentary on the Torah, by Ellen Frankel (New York: Grosset/Putnam, 1996, p.12). In addition to the meaning used here, the name may also mean "pleasing deeds."
    2. The version of the Noah narrative begun by Mariam (p. 4) is taken from The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis (Traditional Hebrew Text and new JPS translation) with commentary provided by Nahum M. Sarna (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 5749 {1989}, pp. 50-51).



Revised text placed on
The Leprechaun News WebPages
4 March 1999

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