Unorthodox; Embracing Kali on the Eve of Rosh Hashanah; ‘May you be be inscribed in the Book of Life’ by Joyce Zonana

Sri Swami Satchidananda

A few weeks ago, I received a phone call from one of my spiritual teachers, a senior disciple of Sri Swami Satchidananda, whom I had immediately recognized and accepted as my guru when I first encountered him in the Summer of 1965. I was initiated by him in 2001 and received a mantra that I repeated daily for all these years. Yet here was Sary telling me I needed to adopt a new mantra, a prayer or praise and veneration for the fierce Hindu Goddess Kali. Here is exactly who I need these days, brandishing her ten arms, beheading demons and absorbing their blood, in a sari made from the skin of a Bengal tiger. She wears a belt of skulls and manifests her fierceness with a red tongue hanging from her lips. Creator and Destroyer, she is impeccable she catches their blood so that they don’t proliferate. Precisely who I need know after my diagnosis, six months ago of glioblastoma.

Continue reading “Unorthodox; Embracing Kali on the Eve of Rosh Hashanah; ‘May you be be inscribed in the Book of Life’ by Joyce Zonana”

In Memoriam – Carol P. Christ by Joyce Zonana

“thea-logy begins in experience” –  Rebirth of the Goddess

It is hard to believe that Carol P. Christ – Karolina as she dubbed herself in her beloved Greece—has been gone for a year. She remains such a vivid presence in my life—in all of our lives. I think of her and draw strength from those thoughts daily, the way so many women say they think of and feel close to their deceased mothers. For Karolina was indeed a mother to me—a nurturing spiritual mother who initiated me into the ways of the Goddess she adored and, whom she so beautifully defined as “the power of intelligent love that is the ground of all being.”

I first met Karolina in June of 1995 on a bare hotel rooftop in Athens. I had just flown there from New Orleans to join the Ariadne Institute’s Goddess Pilgrimage Tour, a leap of faith inspired by my reading the previous year of Weaving the Visions: Patterns in Feminist Spirituality, a pioneering anthology edited by Carol and her long-time friend and collaborator, Judith Plaskow. That book, along with Carol’s Diving Deep and Surfacing and Judith’s Standing Again at Sinai had spoken to me more deeply than anything I had ever read before. I had grown up in a Middle Eastern Orthodox Jewish family. drawn to spirituality, I had never able to find a place for myself in the deeply patriarchal structures of synagogue or even family rituals … Carol and Judith offered me a way in, and I wanted immediately to embark on the paths they were clearing. I wanted to meet them, to know them,  to learn from them, to share with them. Boldly, I decided to join the Pilgrimage, signing up for my first trip overseas trip, the most costly vacation I had ever granted myself. How could I have known that it would transform my life and bless me with a miraculous, deep friendship?

Continue reading “In Memoriam – Carol P. Christ by Joyce Zonana”

From the Archives: Answering the Call by Joyce Zonana

This was originally posted on April 30, 2020

Very early in Henri Bosco’s 1948 novel Malicroix, a young man, Martial de Mégremut, living placidly amid fruitful orchards in a tame Provençal village, receives a letter informing him he has inherited “some marshland, a few livestock, a ramshackle house” from a reclusive great-uncle, Cornélius de Malicroix. Against his family’s strenuous objections–with alarm they speak of “marshes, mosquitoes, miasmas”–Mégremut resolves to travel alone to the remote Camargue to claim his “wild” Malicroix inheritance. The house is on an island, and to reach it Mégremut must cross a rough river, at night, in a frail wooden boat piloted by a taciturn old man who meets him at dusk in the middle of a vast plain.

So begins a deeply internal quest narrative, an initiatory journey that forces Mégremut to come to terms with himself and with the elements–earth, water, wind, and fire–that are ever-present, sometimes terrifyingly so, on the island. For once he arrives, he learns that he must remain there alone for a full three months if he wishes to obtain the inheritance. Torn about whether to stay or leave, he finds that the decision to stay is made of its “own accord,” unconsciously.

Continue reading “From the Archives: Answering the Call by Joyce Zonana”

BFF – Or, The Delicate Dance of Female Friendship by Joyce Zonana

Like so many others, I learned this jingle, actually the opening of a lovely poem by Joseph Parry, during a brief stint in the Girl Scouts when I was nine or ten. I’m not sure I understood it then—what was wine, after all? what did it mean for it to “mellow and refine”?—but the words stayed with me, echoing unbidden through the years and shaping many of my choices.

Joyce Zonana   

     Make new friends, but keep the old;

        Those are silver, these are gold.

     New-made friendships, like new wine,

        Age will mellow and refine.

 

Like so many others, I learned this little jingle, actually the opening of a lovely poem by Joseph Parry, during a brief stint in the Girl Scouts when I was nine or ten. I’m not sure I understood it then—what was wine, after all? what did it mean for it to “mellow and refine”?—but the words stayed with me, echoing unbidden through the years and shaping many of my choices.

I’m sure it was thanks to these words that, three years ago, I found myself dancing at the wedding of my childhood best friend. Deb lives in Southern California; I live in New York. Yet I never had the slightest hesitation about saying “yes,” I’d attend. This was to be her second marriage, after a painfully failed first. For years she’d sworn she would never remarry; the wonderful man she’d been living with for two decades finally persuaded her. Clearly, a moment to celebrate. And although we’d missed all the other milestones in each other’s lives, I knew I had to be there for this one.

At Deb’s San Diego wedding, 2018

I’ve known Deb since we were seven; we’re now both in our seventies. For nearly forty years we had no contact—different cities, different lifestyles, different choices. But when Deb sought me out after Hurricane Katrina (I’d been living in New Orleans and somehow she knew that); when she came to see me in New York and we revisited our childhood haunts; when she took to phoning me regularly on Jewish holidays—I was irresistibly drawn back into this relationship that linked me not only with her but with my own self over time. (“For ’mid old friends, tried and true / Once more we our youth renew.”)

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God’s Womb by Joyce Zonana

The first time I came across the phrase, I thought I must be making a mistake. “Que Dieu l’enveloppe dans sa matrice,” the passage read in French, “May God’s womb enfold her.” or possibly, “May God enfold her in His womb.” His womb?

Joyce Zonana
The first time I came across the phrase, I thought I must be making a mistake. “Que Dieu l’enveloppe dans sa matrice,” the passage read in French, “May God’s womb enfold her,” or possibly, “May God enfold her in His womb.” His womb?

I’d just started translating Ce pays qui te ressemble [A Land Like You], Tobie Nathan’s remarkable novel of Egypt’s Jews in the first half of the twentieth-century, and I couldn’t be sure I was correct in thinking that “womb” was the proper rendering for “matrice.” But a quick search confirmed my hunch. Matrice (from the Latin matrix < mater) might be translated as “matrix” or “mould,” but that made no sense here. “Uterus or womb” was the anatomical meaning, and it was the first meaning listed in my French dictionary.

The phrase, or something very like it, kept turning up, always after a dead person was named:  

Que Dieu accueille son âme en sa matrice.

Que Dieu l’enveloppe dans sa matrice.

Que Dieu la berce dans sa matrice. 

May God’s womb welcome his soul.

May God’s womb enfold him.

May God’s womb cradle her.

In all, “God’s womb” is mentioned seven times in this novel set in Cairo’s ancient Jewish quarter, Haret al-Yahud. Each time, it’s part of a ritual prayer, a formulaic wish for the wellbeing of a departed soul. But what extraordinary wellbeing is wished for here, what a remarkable envisioning of God as the possessor of a welcoming, warm womb. Continue reading “God’s Womb by Joyce Zonana”

Homebound by Joyce Zonana

When my parents left Egypt, they left behind everything they’d grown up with, all the objects that carried their deepest associations and memories. They taught me to scorn such “things”—what others value as mementos or souvenirs—rightly reasoning they can be lost in a moment. But while we have them, it is lovely, I’m learning, to let the spirits embedded within them, the memories and feelings they evoke, surround and comfort us. As I move through this house, I feel bound to my own and others’ histories, embedded in a rich and complex life that nurtures and sustains me. And as I sit still and knit, I sense that I am knitting (knotting) up the by now long, loose threads of my own life, shaping them into a coherent and satisfying whole.

Joyce ZonanaWhen I was growing up, home was the last place I wanted to be. It’s not that ours was an abusive or angry household: both parents loved me and my mother labored to create a calm, clean space to contain us all. It’s just that I felt suffocated.

Part of the problem was that we were immigrants. My parents were struggling to find their way in an alien culture, and, with little else to hold onto, they clung to their customs and traditions. I wanted to be “American,” to mingle with classmates, to venture into the vastness (New York City!) just beyond our door. The Middle Eastern culture from which we hailed had strict rules for women and girls, and my mother expected me to follow them. She herself was an excellent cook, a creative seamstress and scrupulous housekeeper, a devoted and dutiful wife. I rejected all of it, refusing to cook, ripping out seams, balking at my weekly chores of dusting and vacuuming and ironing. Instead I dreamt of life as a writer, a renegade, an outlaw. My role models were hobos and witches and gypsies; more than anything, I yearned to be free, longing to “walk at all risks,” like Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh.

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Glimpsing La Vièio ié Danso – “The Untouchable Wild Goddess” – in Jóusè d’Arbaud’s Beast of Vacarés by Joyce Zonana

Nearly a century later, d’Arbaud’s words still have the power to startle and delight, vividly evoking Earth’s sacredness.

 

Early in Jóusè d’Arbaud’s 1926 Provençal novella, The Beast of Vacarés, the narrator, a 15th century gardian or bull herder, describes how in summer la Vièio ié danso—the Old Dancer— “can be glimpsed on the dazzling salt flats” that surround the Vacarés lagoon in the Camargue region of Southern France.

In a note, d’Arbaud explains that la Vièio is how locals refer to mirages in this liminal landscape where earth, sea, and sky merge. “Mirages are common in the Camargue,” he tells us:

They begin with a vibration in the air, a trembling that runs along the ground and seems to make the images dance; it spreads into the distance in great waves that reflect the dark thickets. How not to see in this mysterious Vièio, dancing in the desert sun, a folk memory of the untouchable wild goddess, ancient power, spirit of solitude, once considered divine, that remains the soul of this great wild land?

The untouchable wild goddess . . . once considered divine . . .”

Nearly a century later, d’Arbaud’s words still have the power to startle and move us, vividly evoking Earth’s sacredness. Here is a man, himself a bull herder in the region he so lovingly describes, who seems to have been a devotee of the Goddess, the “ancient power” he venerates and bring to life for his readers. Indeed, in an early poem, “Esperit de la Terro” — “Spirit of the Earth”— d’Arbaud explicitly dedicates himself to the old gods sleeping below the earth, vowing to “defend” and “aid” them. How extraordinary to discover this writer making such a commitment, well before the rise of our recent feminist spirituality and ecofeminist movements. D’Arbaud speaks directly to our current environmental, theological, social, and political concerns.

Continue reading “Glimpsing La Vièio ié Danso – “The Untouchable Wild Goddess” – in Jóusè d’Arbaud’s Beast of Vacarés by Joyce Zonana”

ANNA’S DANCE: A BALKAN ODYSSEY by Michele Levy – Book Review by Joyce Zonana

Toward the end of her complex odyssey, Anna finds herself alone in an ancient Istanbul synagogue, where at long last she unreservedly “name[s] herself” a Jew and experiences connection with a God that “fuse[s] both male and female” and “from that wholeness birth[s] mercy and love.” Vowing to work to “help repair [the] world”–tikkun olam–she moves forward to face her life with a “sense of wholeness” that had eluded her for so long.

202002_Zonana_JoyceHow to come to terms with the most maligned or vulnerable aspect of ourselves—whether it be race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, physical ability, or any other trait—remains among the most pressing questions of our time. Should we try to “pass,” identifying with the oppressor and denying or rejecting who we are? Should we assume a militant, defiant stance, wreaking vengeance on those who have harmed us? Or can we find a way to embrace and affirm ourselves, neither denying nor reifying the pain of our individual and collective pasts? Can we love those who have harmed us?

These are among the questions faced by 23-year-old Anna Rossi, the central character in Michele Levy’s complex, lyrical new novel Anna’s Dance: A Balkan Odyssey (Black Rose Writing, $20.95), set in the turbulent summer of 1968. 

Raised in the U.S. as a non-observant Jew, Anna has nevertheless been seared by anti-Semitism—both the indignities experienced by her parents, and those she has encountered herself. Her mother, a brilliant mathematician, had been denied admission to Purdue’s engineering school— “You’re a woman and a Jew”—and rejected by her Irish-American mother-in-law as a “filthy immigrant Jew.” Growing up in a Northern Virginia suburb, Anna was branded “Miss Israel” in the ninth grade and given low marks by a teacher who insisted she was “not like us.” Later, in college, a professor called her a “Jewish bitch.”

Continue reading “ANNA’S DANCE: A BALKAN ODYSSEY by Michele Levy – Book Review by Joyce Zonana”

Recognizing Our Mentors by Joyce Zonana

Ever since I first read it when I was sixteen, I have loved Homer’s Odyssey. For many years I was lucky enough to teach it almost every semester, and so I came to know it intimately. Despite the valid feminist critique of the ancient Greek epic—that it glorifies patriarchy, justifying and perpetuating men’s control over women—I still find it to be an inspiring evocation of female autonomy and power, both human and divine. Especially divine.


At the close of the introduction to her exquisite new translation of Homer’s Odyssey, classical scholar Emily Wilson directly addresses the reader. “There is a stranger outside the house,” she tells us:

He is old, ragged, and dirty. He is tired. He has been wandering, homeless, for a long time, perhaps many years. Invite him inside. You do not know his name. He may be a thief. He may be a murderer. He may be a god. He may remind you of your husband, your father, or yourself. Do not ask questions. Wait.

There is much to explore in this passage and the lines that follow. But what strikes me today is Wilson’s simple sentence: “He may be a god.” 

The stranger may be a god. Or a goddess.

Ever since I first read it when I was sixteen, I have loved Homer’s Odyssey. For many years I was lucky enough to teach it almost every semester, and so I came to know it intimately. Despite the valid feminist critique of the ancient Greek epic—that it glorifies patriarchy, justifying and perpetuating men’s control over women—I still see it as  an inspiring evocation of female autonomy and power, both human and divine. Especially divine. Continue reading “Recognizing Our Mentors by Joyce Zonana”

Answering the Call by Joyce Zonana

All along, I’ve believed that Malicroix had something important to offer English-speaking readers: an embrace of solitude, a profound connection with nature, a bold exploration of dream-states. And right now it seems to resonate with our current moment of introspection and reassessment of priorities.

202002_Zonana_JoyceVery early in Henri Bosco’s 1948 novel Malicroix, a young man, Martial de Mégremut, living placidly amid fruitful orchards in a tame Provençal village, receives a letter informing him he has inherited “some marshland, a few livestock, a ramshackle house” from a reclusive great-uncle, Cornélius de Malicroix. Against his family’s strenuous objections–with alarm they speak of “marshes, mosquitoes, miasmas”–Mégremut resolves to travel alone to the remote Camargue to claim his “wild” Malicroix inheritance. The house is on an island, and to reach it Mégremut must cross a rough river, at night, in a frail wooden boat piloted by a taciturn old man who meets him at dusk in the middle of a vast plain.

So begins a deeply internal quest narrative, an initiatory journey that forces Mégremut to come to terms with himself and with the elements–earth, water, wind, and fire–that are ever-present, sometimes terrifyingly so, on the island. For once he arrives, he learns that he must remain there alone for a full three months if he wishes to obtain the inheritance. Torn about whether to stay or leave, he finds that the decision to stay is made of its “own accord,” unconsciously.

Continue reading “Answering the Call by Joyce Zonana”

My Feline Familiars by Joyce Zonana

When I made my breakfast, Ginger watched and waited for his own; when I worked at my desk, he slept beside me or walked across my keyboard; when I relaxed in front of the TV in the evening, he immediately jumped onto the couch and curled up in my lap. I prided myself on living alone, on my solitude—but in fact I was never alone. The cat was a constant presence in my life, a silent witness to all my actions, my deeply intimate, silent companion.

jz-headshotSixteen years ago, I was living alone in New Orleans in a lovely Craftsman’s Cottage I’d purchased the year before. In late December—just around now—a friend called to tell me about a kitten she’d seen at her Uptown veterinary office: “It’s time you got a familiar,” she declared. “I think this one’s perfect for you.” Grudgingly, I agreed to visit the vet’s office and take a look at the little black-and-white female tabby she’d seen. I wasn’t at all sure I was ready, but Mary was my priestess, the leader of our small coven, and I trusted her implicitly.

I’d lost two beloved cats—Charlie and Lisa—a few years earlier, cats who’d made the journey with me from Philadelphia—where I earned my Ph.D.— to Oklahoma—where I had my first teaching job— to New Orleans—where I’d been teaching since 1990. Charlie and Lisa had been a sort of ballast, accompanying me through huge changes of circumstance and locale, loving me and letting me love them no matter what. I’d nursed Charlie through several years of diabetes, giving him daily insulin injections, and my partner had regularly administered subcutaneous fluids to Lisa after she’d been diagnosed with kidney disease. Charlie died in our arms, and we buried him in the backyard behind my little cottage near Bayou St. John; Lisa died less gently, but she too was buried with great ceremony behind the house we later shared. Continue reading “My Feline Familiars by Joyce Zonana”

“Para limpiar el corazon”: To Cleanse the Heart by Joyce Zonana

It should have been a wonderful journey, organized by three dear friends who run a yoga center in Costa Rica. I would be traveling with my husband, these friends, and thirteen other like-minded folk to the Sacred Valley of the Incas in the Andes highlands of southern Peru. We’d be staying at a lovely retreat center just outside Pisac, an ancient market town encircled by imposing mountains. And our itinerary would take us to some of the most important Inca sites, including the iconic, hauntingly beautiful and remote Machu Picchu.

jz-headshotIt should have been a wonderful journey, organized by three dear friends who run a yoga center in Costa Rica. I would be traveling with my husband, these friends, and thirteen other like-minded folk to the Sacred Valley of the Incas in the Andes highlands of southern Peru. We’d be staying at a lovely retreat center just outside Pisac, an ancient market town encircled by imposing mountains. And our itinerary would take us to some of the most important Inca sites, including the iconic, hauntingly beautiful and remote Machu Picchu.

We’d made the plans almost a year ago, and I’d been looking forward to the trip. But I fell sick several weeks beforehand and was hesitant to leave my Brooklyn home. Everyone assured me the journey would be magical, and so, feeling better but still uncharacteristically fearful, I reluctantly decided to go. Continue reading ““Para limpiar el corazon”: To Cleanse the Heart by Joyce Zonana”

“This Golgotha of Modern Times” by Joyce Zonana

Our visit to Poland coincides with the Feast of the Assumption, a time when tens of thousands of pilgrims arrive on foot to pay homage to Our Lady of Częstochowa, Poland’s Black Madonna. I too am a pilgrim, visiting the sites, not of miracles but of martyrdom. As I make my way through what Pope John Paul II called “this Golgotha of modern times,” I am overcome; like him, I “am here kneeling down” to implore Our Lady to help us heal the vast, still open wound that is our life on this earth.

4BC9846D-628B-4F1D-89BF-BB212E5D94BCI had never imagined visiting Eastern Europe, a place toward which I felt no attraction, or, if anything, a deep aversion. To my mind, these were the killing fields, where six million Jews, Roma, political prisoners, homosexuals, and others were massacred by the Nazis during World War II. As a bisexual Jew, a dark-skinned Middle Easterner sometimes taken for a gypsy, why would I want to go there?

But my husband, who was raised Catholic in Chicago, is of Polish and Lithuanian descent. He and his two sisters have talked for years about visiting the villages from which their grandparents, escaping economic hardship and military conscription, had emigrated early in the twentieth century. It remained wistful talk until Mike and I made plans to attend a yoga retreat in rural Denmark. We’d be so close, we reasoned, why not cross the Baltic to explore his ancestral homes? His two sisters readily agreed to join us. Continue reading ““This Golgotha of Modern Times” by Joyce Zonana”

Embracing Elderhood by Joyce Zonana

jz-headshotIn Europe and Mexico, younger women and men of all ages regularly offer me their seats on buses and metros. I usually refuse, although at home in New York City, I’m always a little miffed when no one bothers to make a place for me. Yet cashiers never balk when I ask for a senior ticket at the movies or in museums. At first I was surprised: how do they know, I wondered. But of course it’s the gray hair, along with the wrinkles and  sagging skin that now mark me.

I first decided to let my hair be gray fourteen years ago, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I was on the road, blindly driving north with my laptop, my passport, two cats, and a friend beside me when I knew it was time to let nature run its course. For some ten years before that, I’d been religiously dying my hair dark brown or black, visiting a hair salon every four to six weeks for long hours of “treatments,” compulsively keeping my hair in a meticulously trimmed pixie cut. But the storm emphatically taught me how life can definitively change us: we are transformed, sometimes in an instant, both internally and externally, by our experiences–and I no longer wanted (or needed) to hide that change. I enjoyed letting my hair return to its natural colors, and took pleasure in the new measure of respect some people gave me. Continue reading “Embracing Elderhood by Joyce Zonana”

Where the Dance Is . . . On Cultivating a Daily Practice by Joyce Zonana

Although Goddess traditions invite us to embrace a world of immanence and change, rather than to seek to escape into transcendence—which some yoga teachings seem to point toward—I have come to believe that the “still point,” is, as Eliot writes, where “the dance is.” In other words, daily practice might grant us the capacity to always move through the world with grace and joy. The mind will be steady as it encounters and embraces the turning world. We will be whole.

jz-headshotWhen I was growing up, I was fascinated to see my father each day recite the morning blessings mandated for Jewish men. While the rest of the household bustled sleepily—my mother in the kitchen, my brother and I taking turns in the bathroom, my grandmother slowly getting dressed—my father, still in his pajamas, would stand in the center of our small living room, yarmulke on his head, tefillin wrapped around his arm and forehead, tallit draped over his shoulders. Using a tattered old siddur he had brought with him from Cairo, he would face the east and begin the ancient Hebrew prayers: “Blessed art thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe . . .”

I never knew then the content of what my father intoned, but I knew how committed he was to his practice: he prayed every morning without fail, from the day of his bar mitvah at the age of eleven (the rabbi in Cairo had decided to initiate him early because he had lost his father as a young child) until he a few years before his death at 84, when he became debilitated by Parkinson’s Disease. Ours was not a traditionally Orthodox Jewish family—we did not observe the Sabbath or keep kosher—but my father’s faithful performance grounded him and all the rest of us, bringing us us to what T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world.”

Continue reading “Where the Dance Is . . . On Cultivating a Daily Practice by Joyce Zonana”

Making it Mine: An Un-Orthodox Passover by Joyce Zonana

Passover is a holiday of remembrance, of ritual re-enactment: this, we say, is what our ancestors experienced. This is what they felt and knew, what they tasted in their blood. The movement from slavery to liberation, from the soul’s winter to spring. We must never forget, we say, we must always remember, be thankful for our freedom, never take it for granted. “In each generation,” the Haggadah enjoins, “we should feel as if we personally had come out of Egypt.”

jz-headshotThis year, I celebrated the Jewish feast of Passover on March 31st–almost three weeks before the holiday’s official start on the evening of April 19th, the 15th of Nissan. It turned out to be my best Passover yet.

Because I’d been accepted for a residency at an artists’ colony beginning on April 17th, I had known since last Fall that I would not be home for the holiday. Given Passover’s importance for me–a Jew who left Egypt in her own lifetime, part of what some have called the “Second Exodus”–I had thought I might postpone the residency and even considered turning it down. But the colony could not change the dates, and, after much deliberation, I decided that my work as a fledgling translator was worth missing my usual gathering of family and friends. I told myself I could mark the arrival of Passover internally.

Continue reading “Making it Mine: An Un-Orthodox Passover by Joyce Zonana”

Re-reading Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN by Joyce Zonana

And so is born the “monster” most people associate with the name Frankenstein–a lone and lonely terrorist who lashes out against a world that has no place for him. One by one, he strangles all the people his “maker” holds dear: his brother William, his best friend Clerval, and his cousin/bride Elizabeth. Yet the novel invites us to have compassion for the creature, even while it condemns the society that makes him as he is. Victor, raised by a devoted mother and tenderly loved by a doting cousin, should have known better. As should we.

jz-headshotA few weeks ago, a former colleague invited me to visit one of his classes, to discuss Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and the essay I’d published about it almost thirty years ago, “‘They Will Prove the Truth of My Tale: Safie’s Letters as the Feminist Core of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”  To prepare for that visit, I’ve spent the past few days re-reading the book, and I’m overwhelmed anew by the beauty of Shelley’s language, the brilliance of her plot, and the profoundness of her themes. The book moves me even more today than when I first read it.

Continue reading “Re-reading Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN by Joyce Zonana”

Shedding Shame by Joyce Zonana

As I follow my program, I grow clearer and stronger. I know exactly what I want and I take it. When I sit down to eat, I feel my appetite, healthy and strong. I feed that appetite, choosing just what I need and what will truly nurture me. When I get up from the table, I am complete and whole within myself. Whether I reach my “goal weight” or not, I’ve already succeeded. And so, this New Year, I won’t be making any new resolutions. I’m already on my path, shedding shame.

jz-headshotAt the lovely small Chanukah party I attended earlier this month, I did not taste the latkes, those delicious potato pancakes fried in oil and typically served with sour cream and applesauce. My hostess offered them to me repeatedly, proudly noting that she’d used her Polish grandmother’s recipe. But I politely said “no thank you,” I’d just started a diet. “Who starts a diet in December?” someone asked. Someone else pointedly wondered “How can you not eat latkes at Chanukah?” but I quietly insisted that I needed to refrain. I promised, though, that I’d have some next year, once I’d shed the extra pounds that were making me uneasy in my own body.

In my Middle Eastern Jewish home it was the height of rudeness not to partake of what someone offered you to eat. So my refusal was difficult on many levels. But in fact, we never ate latkes at Chanukah. Instead we had deep-fried beignets, little balls of dough, sticky-sweet and drenched in rosewater-scented sugar syrup. I wouldn’t be having any of those this year either. And though another friend at the party assured me I didn’t need to lose weight— “You’re zaftig and beautiful just as you are,” she said—I’d decided a few weeks earlier that, Chanukah or no Chanukah, Christmas or no Christmas, this December was exactly when I wanted to begin my journey to what I believe is, for me, a healthier body weight.

Continue reading “Shedding Shame by Joyce Zonana”

Lifting the Veil – #WontBeErased by Joyce Zonana

Samhain is upon us. Halloween. The Day of the Dead. All Saints’ Day. All Souls’ Day. That liminal time of year when the doorways to what the Celts called the Otherworld, Annwn in Welsh, are open. In New York City, we have the 45th annual Village Halloween Parade, a queer extravaganza of puppetry, masquerade, and cross-dressing that draws some 60,000 participants and over 2 million onlookers. Elsewhere, we have children in costume and lawns covered with plastic skeletons and illuminated ghouls. Everywhere, if we’re lucky, we might catch a glimpse of  “the piper at the gates of dawn,” the vision granted Rat and Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows: “something very surprising and splendid and beautiful”—Pan the goat-god, boundary-crosser, Friend and Helper, trans-being.

jz-headshotJust last week—a few days after the New York Times reported on the Trump administration’s efforts to define transgender out of existence—I read for the first time Welsh writer Arthur Machen’s 1894 novella, The Great God Pan, today considered a classic of horror fiction. Condemned as “morbid” and “abominable” by most critics when it was first published, the tale was hailed as “un succès fou” by Oscar Wilde, recuperated in the 1920s by H. P. Lovecraft, and particularly praised more recently by Stephen King, who called it “maybe the best” horror story “in the English language.”

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Original edition with cover illustration by Aubrey Beardsley

The “queer” tale (the word “queer” recurs frequently throughout) is told by a series of straight-laced Victorian men, each of whom is horrified by the unspecified behavior and bearing of a mysterious woman, Helen Vaughan. Readers are led to suspect that Helen is guilty of some sort of sexual excess or transgression, but nothing is specified until after her suicide, when the medical examiner reports that he was “privileged or accursed” to see the “skin, and the flesh, and the muscles, and the bones, and the firm structure of the human body that I had thought to be unchangeable, and permanent as adamant, beg[i]n to melt and dissolve”: Continue reading “Lifting the Veil – #WontBeErased by Joyce Zonana”

On Not Eating Gefilte Fish by Joyce Zonana

What does it mean to be an Arab-Jew in the twenty-first century? For me, it means recognizing and honoring Arab culture: the music, food, language, and customs my parents brought with them when they emigrated from Cairo in 1952; it means feeling a strong bond with other Egyptians, North Africans, and Middle Easterners, refusing efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere to demonize and “other” any of us. It means respecting the claims of displaced Palestinians and protesting Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. It also means not seeking to equate our displacement with Palestinian displacement, as some Jews from Arab countries have sought to do, in a transparent effort to discredit Palestinian suffering.

jz-headshotWhen I was growing up in 1950s Bensonhurst, in Brooklyn, NY, my identity as a Jew was often called into question. “You mean you’re Jewish? And you don’t know about gefilte fish?” my best friend’s Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jewish mother asked, shocked to discover that our family ate stuffed grape leaves rather than stuffed cabbage. “What kind of a Jew are you?” schoolmates challenged. When I answered “Sephardic . . . from Egypt,” they would reply. “But all the Jews left Egypt a long time ago, isn’t that what Passover is about?”  “No,” I would say, having been taught the words by my father. “Some Jews returned to Egypt when they were expelled from Spain.” [Later I would learn that some Jews actually lived in Egypt for millennia, never having left.] “There are no Jews in Egypt,” my little friends would retort. “We never heard of any Jews in Egypt. You can’t be Jewish.”

It was puzzling, I knew, but I could find nothing further to say. Aside from a handful of relatives, I did not know any other Jews from Egypt either. An Egyptian Jew. To my neighbors, it seemed a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. To myself as well. What was the Egyptian part, what the Jewish? How did they fit together? Maybe I wasn’t really Jewish. Later, when acquaintances continued to wonder about my identity, I was similarly stymied. “You mean you don’t speak Yiddish?” they would ask after I had painstakingly explained that my grandparents spoke Arabic and French.

Continue reading “On Not Eating Gefilte Fish by Joyce Zonana”

Priestess at the Crossroads by Joyce Zonana

In order to transform what is happening at the Mexico/U.S. “border” (and elsewhere) we must first break down the borders within our heads—all the borders in all our heads. Mr. Trump tells us “If you don’t have Borders, you don’t have a Country”; my response today is: “Who needs countries? Who needs genders? Who needs races or competing religions? What we need is Coatlicue.”

jz-headshotAs so many of us recoil in horror at the Trump administration’s cruel attempts  to enforce an impenetrable border between the U.S. and Mexico, I find myself struggling to understand what he and his supporters mean by “borders,” and why they are so invested in maintaining them. The administration’s vicious immigration policy, recently epitomized in a brief tweet on June 19th, 2018—Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when slaves were finally freed throughout the U.S. at the end of the Civil War—“If you don’t have Borders, you don’t have a Country” has sent me back to Gloria Anzaldúa’s visionary 1987 book, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza.

Grounded in her experience as a queer mestiza raised in the Texas/Mexico borderlands, Anzaldúa’s bilingual, cross-genre manifesto argues for the transformative role of the mestiza, no longer “sacrificial goat” but “officiating priestess at the crossroads”:

Continue reading “Priestess at the Crossroads by Joyce Zonana”

Bless This House: Creating Sacred Space Where You Live, Work & Travel by Mama Donna Henes – A Book Review by Joyce Zonana

“There is no such thing as a bad blessing,” Mama Donna tell us, “no rules . . . no recipes, no prescriptions, no instruction manuals,” no “one-size-fits-all” House Blessing. Yet it’s not so much “anything goes” as “everything matters”: “The only thing you can do wrong in a ritual is to not pay attention to your true intentions.”

jz-headshotDonna Henes, familiarly known as “Mama Donna,” is a national treasure. From her “House of Many Altars” in what she mischievously calls “Exotic Brooklyn,” she serves as an exuberant, irrepressible urban shaman: holding outdoor public rituals at each solstice and equinox for over forty years; blessing and leading New York City’s annual Halloween Parade; creating meaningful, personalized ceremonies for funerals, weddings, new babies, new homes, and new businesses. In 2009, the governor of New York State called on her to bless the fleet during the quadricentennial celebration of Henry Hudson’s voyage to the New World. She is the author of five books, including The Queen of Myself  and Celestially Auspicious Occasionsand publishes a monthly e-newsletter, The Queen’s Chronicles, that offers “meaning, moxie, and magic for midlife women.”

In her most recent book, Bless This House: Creating Sacred Space Where You Live, Work & Travel (Ixia Press, 2018), Mama Donna generously shares her house-blessing “secrets”—revealing that they are not secrets after all. Demystifying the blessing process, the book details everything you need to know to “claim and consecrate” your own house with “authority and aplomb.” Continue reading “Bless This House: Creating Sacred Space Where You Live, Work & Travel by Mama Donna Henes – A Book Review by Joyce Zonana”

“The Burning Lava of a Song” by Joyce Zonana

Aurora’s autobiographical narrative is a passionate paean to poets as the “only truth-tellers, now left to God”; she celebrates them as agents for personal and social transformation. As we come to the end of this National Poetry Month in the U.S., where truth is under siege, it’s worth recalling Aurora Leigh and its daring exploration of poetry, gender, divinity, and social justice.

jz-headshotI was in graduate school when I first read Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s fiery 1856 epic about a young woman claiming her vocation as a poet despite Victorian society’s patriarchal strictures. The poem was not on any assigned reading-list; I’d simply stumbled across it while doing research for my dissertation. The opening lines brazenly assert the speaker’s authority and ambition:

OF writing many books there is no end;
And I who have written much in prose and verse
For others’ uses, will write now for mine,–
Will write my story for my better self . . .

Encountering those words, I was immediately possessed by Aurora’s voice and vision, a welcome change from all the male poets and critics I’d been reading. I devoured the verse novel’s nine books in one night. The poem became the centerpiece of my dissertation, and I studied and enthusiastically taught it for years.

Continue reading ““The Burning Lava of a Song” by Joyce Zonana”

A Dream Home by Joyce Zonana

Forty years ago, I abandoned my own inner quest to establish myself as a writer/translator, discouraged by the voices of publishers who told me the book was unmarketable, worried about making a living and reassuring my family (whom I had broken from when I was seventeen) that I was “okay.” I chose the relatively safer path of becoming an English professor, and I worked for more than thirty years helping others to find their voices. I do not regret taking that path. It has led me here.

jz-headshotI wake up each morning in a simple bedroom lit by the rising sun: a wardrobe, a bookshelf, a small wooden table, and a chair, arranged on painted plank floors. Just outside the window behind my head are the tallest trees I have ever seen, their grey-brown trunks growing straight up into a sky I cannot quite make out from my warm bed, with its white cotton sheets, white coverlet, and cozy down comforter. The room’s soft yellow walls reflect and amplify the winter light. Part of me wants to luxuriate, to lie here for hours, feeling the sun on my face as I gaze up at the trees and allow my consciousness slowly to return from dreams.

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Yet I am here not simply to luxuriate but to work . . . in the next room is a desk, two desks actually, piled with books, folders, dictionaries, my HP Laser Jet printer, and my tiny laptop. From this room too, I can look out on woods and fields on three sides. Best of all, from the desk where I work, I can watch the sun set in the late afternoon.

Sunrise and sunset. And in between, a day entirely to myself, a day when I can work and dream at leisure, but during which I also feel impelled to stay on task, to complete the project that brought me here. Continue reading “A Dream Home by Joyce Zonana”

Esther’s Choice — And Ours by Joyce Zonana

The Book of Esther tells a story in which women’s power is not so much repressed as asserted. The king who banishes one queen finds himself submitting to the will of another. Numerous women writers of various ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries have found inspiration in the stories of both Esther and Vashti’s disobedience to an autocratic king.

jz-headshotThis year, February 28th, the 14th of Adar on the Jewish calendar, is the first night of Purim, a holiday the orthodox Chabad organization blithely calls the “most fun-filled, action-packed day of the Jewish year.” Purim is celebrated with two full readings of the Megillah–the Book of Esther–in synagogues; whenever the tale’s villain Haman is mentioned, congregants drown out his name with noisemakers and foot-stomping. Children and adults masquerade and often cross-dress. Plays are performed; Haman is burned in effigy. After a daylong fast, everyone shares a festive meal, where drinking is encouraged, even mandated:

A person should drink on Purim until the point where he can’t tell the difference between “Blessed is Mordechai” and “Cursed is Haman. (Talmud – Megillah 7b; Code of Jewish Law 695:2)

It all sounds like great fun. But what exactly are we celebrating when we celebrate Purim?

Continue reading “Esther’s Choice — And Ours by Joyce Zonana”

Sheep, Goats, and a Donkey Named Balthazar by Joyce Zonana

JZ HEADSHOTA few days ago, at the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival in Rhinebeck, NY, I purchased a six-ounce skein of fine, reddish-pink mohair bouclé, directly from the woman who’d dyed it using the natural pigments cochineal and logwood. My plan is to make a soft, long winter scarf with it.

I recently started knitting again, lured by some thick, heathered purple wool yarn I’d glimpsed in a farm store in upstate New York. “Is this wool from your sheep?” I asked the farmer. “No, but it’s from a farm down the road,” she assured me. “Her sheep and mine are related, and I know those sheep well.”

I was delighted to be knitting an afghan with wool carded and spun from the fleece of Continue reading “Sheep, Goats, and a Donkey Named Balthazar by Joyce Zonana”

A Healing Home of Dreams by Joyce Zonana

I had few expectations before my visit in the winter of 1999 to Cairo’s Rav Moshe Synagogue, also called the “Rambam.” I only knew it to be an obscure synagogue and yeshiva associated with the renowned twelfth-century theologian, sage, and physician, Moses Maimonides.

I left Egypt as an infant with my parents in 1951. Now I was finally back, hoping to experience the place that had shaped my family. Accompanied by a Muslim Egyptian friend, I walked the streets my parents had walked, attended services in the elegant downtown synagogue where they’d been married, tasted the familiar foods of my childhood, listened with delight to the melodious sounds of Egyptian Arabic. But seeking the Rambam was little more than a whim, sparked by a few lines in a Guide to Jewish Travel in Egypt. “Not on any tourist itinerary,” the brief blurb stated about the derelict synagogue in ‘Haret al Yahud, the city’s medieval Jewish quarter, far from where my parents had lived. Still, I had to go.

Continue reading “A Healing Home of Dreams by Joyce Zonana”

Writing Through the Body: Betty Smith’s A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Joyce Zonana

 TreeGrowsInBrooklynIn her 1975 manifesto, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” French feminist Hélène Cixous urges women to write: “Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it. . . . Women must write through their bodies, they must invent the impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes, and rhetorics, regulations and codes . . .”

“The Laugh of the Medusa” remains a thrilling essay, challenging and inspiring women to “return to the body” and to language.  “Woman must write woman,” Cixous insists, “for, with a few rare exceptions there has not yet been any writing that inscribes femininity.”

Although Cixous may not have been aware of it, Betty Smith’s beloved, perennially popular 1943 novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of those “rare exceptions” that “inscribes femininity” in precisely the way she advocates. This autobiographical novel, so often dismissed as sentimental or as a children’s book, is actually written through the female body—which may explain its lasting popularity and power. Continue reading “Writing Through the Body: Betty Smith’s A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Joyce Zonana”

We the People by Joyce Zonana

jz-headshotDuring the January 21st Women’s March in New York City, I was inspired and delighted by so many of the signs women and men had crafted to express their opposition to the current disastrous regime in the United States: “Grab America Back,” “Support Your Mom,” “Sad!,” “Miss Uterus Strikes Back.”  But one image stood out, mesmerizing me:  that of a woman proudly wearing an American flag as hijab, with a message below—“We The People Are Greater Than Fear.”  For several blocks as we made our way up Fifth Avenue, I walked beside a woman carrying that sign, and it became, for me, the most powerful symbol of the resistance we must all wage during the dark time ahead.

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Poster by Shepard Fairey

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Munira Ahmed photo by Ridwan Adhami

The image, based on a photograph of Munira Ahmed by Ridwan Adhami, was created for the Women’s March by graphic artist Shepard Fairey (who also designed the iconic image of Barack Obama, “Hope”).  It offers a striking visual challenge to a long-held orthodoxy, now brought to the fore by Donald Trump and his gang:  that Western-style liberal democracy (epitomized by the United States) is incompatible with Islam.  And, perhaps even more specifically, that Islam is incompatible with feminism.

Many Western women—including feminists—are still bound by the Orientalist worldview that encumbered our liberal feminist foremothers.   Continue reading “We the People by Joyce Zonana”

This Time by Joyce Zonana

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And the new sun rose bringing the new year.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “The Passing of Arthur,” Idylls of the King

It’s arbitrary, of course, this designation of January 1st as New Year’s Day on the Gregorian Calendar, but it’s also unavoidable.  Everywhere around us, people are gathering, celebrating, making resolutions, ringing out the old, ringing in the new.

The Jewish calendar’s Rosh Hashanah, near the Autumnal Equinox, always feels like the real New Year to me, with its time-honored rituals of renewal and return.  The ancient Persian New Year, observed at the Vernal Equinox and recalled in in the Jewish and Christian celebrations of Purim and Mardi Gras, also moves me.  And, like so many of my brother and sister pagans, I experience the Winter Solstice as a truly numinous moment, a time to release the past and welcome the future as the sun dies and is reborn.

This year, it’s especially meaningful to find Chanukah so close to the solstice, filling the week between Christmas and New Year’s.  I’ve been lighting my candles each night with particular pleasure.  Yet I’m happy, too, to join the rituals associated with the secular, popular New Year.  In my view, there can never be too many moments of renewal and return.

Continue reading “This Time by Joyce Zonana”

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