Finding Meaning in Midrash Through Song
And I don’t care
If I never do wake up
If I can’t be
With the one I love
These lyrics are from the song “River So Wide” by Alicia Jo Rabins’ project, Girls in Trouble. “River So Wide” is a lyrical “midrash of a midrash” (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 31), or an interpretation of Jewish text. It tells the story of Isaac’s sacrifice from Sarah’s perspective. Like most music in Girls in Trouble, the song is dark, powerful, and my ideal vision of the Jewish feminist future: one where we find personal meaning in the stories of our foremothers.
Alicia Jo Rabins, a Torah scholar and writer, gives new life to ancient stories of women through musical midrash. When I heard her performance of “River So Wide,” it brought the world of the Torah close to me in a way it had never been before. I closed my eyes and could visualize Sarah’s tragedy vividly—and even feel her grief—like any modern narrative. Growing up in a non-religious household, I didn’t study Jewish texts or even hear Jewish stories like those of Sarah outside of the stories surrounding Pesach or Hanukkah. In Jewish spaces, it has felt isolating (and usually somewhat embarrassing) to not recognize even the basics, especially when studying texts from a feminist perspective. I have opinions based on feminist thought, but the idea of sharing them is daunting, like I’ll be wrong and will once again feel that I’m “not Jewish enough” to have a voice.
That feeling is definitely not unique to me. Regardless of upbringing, many Jews struggle with a kind of imposter syndrome when it comes to identity. As a community, we debate the complexities of Jewish identity so intensely that we have a popular adage that responds “a Jew is a Jew is a Jew.” Despite the deep insecurity that comes with questioning identity, there is an odd comfort that comes with the vast array of answers given when we ask, “Who is a Jew?” If we can all have an opinion on what makes someone Jewish, then to me, that means that Judaism is what we chose to make it. The Jewish canon is then adaptable, made of “living” documents which expand when we debate their meanings.
This is where works like those from the Girls in Trouble collection come in. The songs give a voice to ancient Jewish women in ways that feel deeply personal and realistic. Their stories are complicated but the themes of the songs are universal. Listening to “River So Wide,” it’s impossible to understand the feeling of having a son be sacrificed, but nearly all of us know the feeling expressed by Sarah as she narrates:
So take me home
And put me to bed
Cause the sun is in the sky
But it’s dark inside my head
They reflect the loneliness of being disconnected from the world, the isolation that comes with feeling deep pain when everything else seems normal. Sarah’s story is brought to life using simple language that makes her feel like anyone in our lives who has known suffering, including ourselves. Every storytelling tradition has used songs because songs are able to convey meaning and facilitate deep expression, and the works in Girls in Trouble add a new level of accessibility to the complex stories of the Jewish canon. Even before I read the text behind this story, I could feel Sarah’s pain and anger, and it brought me closer to an understanding of what it meant to be an ancient Jewish woman. That kind of familiarity with our past helps us reflect on what we want to build for our future selves. When I reflect on Jewish feminism, I see a future where we are all encouraged to contribute our own takes on Jewish stories, to debate the meaning of Jewish texts until we find personal meaning, and to do it all in a way that brings people into community and understanding.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.