One of Miriam Goodman’s greatest pleasures was bringing people together. Often, she did so by inviting them for a meal. “My ritual is the dinner party;” she writes in her prose-poem “Dinner on the Mowing,” “... my church the chicken, my guests my minyan.”
Of course, Miriam’s minyans were not all male, nor even mostly male, but like her Talmudic forefathers, Miriam understood that a certain alchemy occurs when good minds mingle. A true intellectual with a quick, incisive intelligence and definitive opinions, Miriam liked to think about politics, feminism, history, culture, child-rearing, corporate-culture, software, birds, bogs ... and, above all, art. Thus her minyans were often comprised of artists. (And if they weren’t artists before they arrived, by the time her guests went looking for their coats, they were considering a career change.)
Not surprisingly, my first encounter with Miriam was in her kitchen, the one on Buena Vista in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Like the countless kitchens the wandering Miriam assembled and reigned over during the almost thirty years I knew her, this one was an appealing blend of old world and new. The mismatched furniture and fine china were salvaged from her childhood apartment in Queens as, I suspect, were her recipes for borscht and brisket, her hamishe nature, and her insistence on washing every dish before heading to bed. These, by the way, she washed by hand. To use an automatic dishwasher was to risk a flood. This mistrust of technology from a woman who wrote computer manuals in the mid-seventies, years before I even knew what the word “software” meant; who championed (and purchased!) the most outré work of her many artist friends and displayed it on every inch of wall space; who always finished the latest genre-bending novel before you’d heard of it; the woman who embraced digital art and graphic novels before there were names for such things! Yes, Miriam was a quirky amalgam of old world and new. She resisted cell phones and was certainly no fashion queen, but no new composer was too “out there” for Miriam; no movie too unconventional. Of course, she loved the classics too, but she liked her art to be challenging, to break new ground.
In her own life and art, Miriam never stopped breaking new ground. Born Miriam Anne Schaeffer (known in her youth as Pinky because of her rosy cheeks), she married her high school sweetheart, Robert Goodman, majored in English at Brandeis where she became serious about writing poetry, and gave birth to two daughters. When she and Bob divorced after about a decade, Miriam opted for what was then a very unconventional settlement: no alimony, but an equal partner on the parenting front. Miriam was passionate about mothering but also about writing. When her kids complained that she was leaving them for her weekly poetry group (whom she compared to “those landless Jews whose temple was destroyed, [and used] the text for fellowship...”) she told her daughters that someday they’d be glad they had a mother who had interests apart from themselves. These words were prophetic. Her daughters were indeed inspired by their mother’s creativity and spoke of fond memories of the gerbil-like sounds of their mother’s typewriter. And years later, when I was a young mother trying to carve out some time for myself, I took solace in this notion that along with love and attention, our children deserve models for how to live a rich life.
Miriam had a practical nature. Knowing that poetry didn’t pay the rent, she gamely broached the male-dominated computer corporations. At first, the work was simply an income, but she threw her whole self into it, became a respected and treasured colleague, and with the artist’s habit of mining every aspect of life for beauty and meaning, she found that corporate life was fertile ground for poetry.
In mid-life, Goodman took up photography. Within a few years she was showing in juried groups and solo shows. Always looking for ways “to make it new,” she shot in unusual locations (elevators, construction sites, supermarkets) and experimented with deliberate double exposures. In her last decades, she became fascinated by art that combined words and images. She co-taught image/text workshops that resulted in many wildly original and moving projects. She initiated a unique lecture series that paired a writer with a resonant visual artist. And, of course, she created her own projects combining her talents in word and image.
Though Miriam was an atheist and went to synagogue only on the high holidays, her hospitality, love of family and community, commitment to intellectual inquiry and social justice, interest in immigrant life, reverence for words both written and spoken—all connect to her Jewish heritage. As does her life as both artist and consummate champion of so many other artists.
According to the artist and theorist Menachem Alexenberg, unlike the Greeks with their emphasis on the products of artistic creation (mimesis), the ancient Hebrews emphasized the process—God/Creator as verb not noun. “The story of the Jewish people begins with movement, ‘lech lecha,’” Alexenberg writes, “a journey away from the safely familiar towards adventuresome freedom.” Always restless, impatient with the already-known, Miriam never allowed herself or anyone else to stay still for very long. Her first question to her artist friends was always, “How’s your work going?” She could be a tough critic but always stayed focused on her primary goal—to help us believe in ourselves and get back to work.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Miriam Goodman, 1938 - 2008." (Viewed on January 20, 2021) <https://jwa.org/weremember/goodman-miriam>.