Footnoted song lyrics
“DNA O Sister”, annotated
a song in Rachel’s voice, by Alicia Jo Rabins/Girls in Trouble
DNA O sister I am half you half me1
in between the molecules I feel it when you breathe2
late at night when all the house goes silent in their sleep
I will give you everything I promised him I’d keep3
Older and younger and hunter and thief4
which one is you, and which one is me
silver and water and petal and leaf5
Some sisters stay home and some sisters leave6
some sisters get what the other ones need7
some sisters blossom and some sisters bleed8
Both of us are braided9 through with candles blood and bread10
both of us were born with all these visions in our head11
you would always promise me that one day we’d be free12
late at night I’m leaving and I’m taking you with me13
1 In the context of Rachel and Leah, this phrase is based on thinking about the genetic and emotional aspects of biological sisterhood and how extreme closeness is also tied to the need to differentiate. It is also the title of the album on which this song appears, because “Half You Half Me” encapsulates the process of midrash-making I enter when writing a Girls in Trouble song - and perhaps the process of midrash-making in general - where an ancient character’s life intersects with my own.
2 This line refers to the genetic closeness of biological sisters - the DNA molecules, their similarities, and their differences - as well as the possibility of extreme empathy towards one with such similar life experience.
3 In the midrashic interpretation, Rachel gives Leah everything she promised Jacob she’d keep - the passwords they had arranged to whisper under the veil, and by extension, their entire marriage.
4 “Hunter” refers to Jacob’s older brother Esau, in Genesis 25:27: “When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp.”
“Thief” is from Genesis 27:35: “Your brother [Jacob] came with guile and took away your blessing.”
This verse plays on the relationship between the two sisters and the relationship between Jacob and Esau, another pair of siblings where the younger has more power than the older, and deceit plays a major role in their relationship. I was inspired by a midrash which pointed out this parallel: “In the morning when he found out that he had been tricked by Leah, and he complained to her, she responded that she had learned from him to do this: when Isaac had asked him if he was his firstborn son Esau, he had answered in the affirmative. This is when Jacob began to hate Leah as we learn in Genesis 29:31: “And God saw that Leah was hated, and God opened her womb”.
--Daat Zkenim (Torah commentary from the 13th century)
5 “Silver and water” is (broadly) inspired by the elemental forces at play in this story, as well as the silver of a dowry, and the water from the well at the beginning of the story. “Petal and leaf” are biology metaphors, drawing again on the theme of DNA, family trees, reproduction, and genetic relationships.
6 I imagine Rachel as more of a go-getter, and Leah more of a homebody - perhaps because the Biblical story begins with Rachel appearing alone at the well. At this moment in the song, I imagine Rachel planning to escape her father by marrying Jacob, and at first telling herself that it is natural that Leah will be left behind with their rather unsavory father.
7 According to a literal reading of the Torah story, Rachel seems (rather unfairly) to get both the love and the beauty in the family. “Leah had weak eyes (lit., “soft eyes”); Rachel was shapely and beautiful” (Genesis 29:17)
8 This foreshadows the fact that Leah will have no trouble conceiving (“blossom”) but Rachel will struggle with infertility and bleed each month. The power dynamic flips in this line, as it does in the story.
9 The braid metaphor refers to the braided challah (see next note) as well as the image of a havdalah candle (not, strictly, part of the three simanim, but certainly related through both fire and Shabbat) - and finally, the structure of the DNA spiral that makes up our bodies and is a central metaphor in this song.
10 This refers to Midrash 3 above: “During the entire night Leah had pretended to be Rachel, using the three simanim (signs) that Rachel had given her: niddah [Jewish laws around menstruation], challah, and lighting of candles on Friday night, as Jacob had given them to Rachel.”--Daat Zkenim. See the Teacher’s notes above for more information on this midrash.
11 I imagine a version of the story in which despite their differences and tensions, both sisters grew up together in a difficult household - based on the actions of Laban in this story - and had rich inner lives, which they whispered about to each other, although these inner lives were likely invisible to everyone around them.
12 I imagine that Leah, as the older sister, felt the need to protect Rachel from their father who (based on later actions in this story) did not have their best interests at heart.
13 Here I dramatize Jacob, Rachel and Leah’s finally leaving the home of Lavan in Genesis 14:13-21. I imagine that (staying with the midrashic interpretation of the story) Rachel is aware that she has helped Leah escape with her. After all, if she hadn’t given Leah the passwords, Leah might still be at home, unmarried and alone with Lavan. Perhaps that was even in her mind earlier, as she decided to give Leah the passwords.
In general, I am fascinated by the shifting power dynamic between Rachel and Leah. Their relationship reflects a power flip that happens over and over in the Torah, where the older sibling is supposed to be more powerful, but the younger prevails. In this song, I imagine that when Rachel and Leah were young, Leah probably was more capable simply because she was older; and I imagine her feeling protective over her younger sister. But as young adults, Rachel turns out to be beautiful and beloved, while Leah is unloved, and therefore less powerful. However, the power flips again after the marriage, when Leah is able to birth male children one after the other, a source of power and pride in the world of the Torah, while Rachel struggles with infertility.
The end of the song gestures towards the loyalty and allegiance that can sometimes develop later in life between siblings who have a difficult relationship in youth. In the end of “Half You Half Me,” Rachel orchestrates their escape from their father’s house - and makes sure to bring Leah. I imagine a triumphant ending as the two sisters leave their father’s house together, still family, still imperfect, but choosing to build the next generation of their family together.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Footnoted song lyrics." (Viewed on November 30, 2020) <https://jwa.org/node/23204>.