Retelling the Bible: Jewish Women's Midrashic Poems on Abishag the Shunamite

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In Sustained Fictions, Lesleigh Cushing Stahlberg seeks to define a new language or code through which to interpret the “retelling” of the biblical texts. Adopting methods from midrash, intertextuality, and translation studies, she suggests that approach, stance, and filter must be addressed in relating to such “biblical afterlives.” In light of this new critical language, I examine the way in which various Jewish women poets from the beginning of the twentieth century until today have treated the theme of Abishag the Shunammite (1 Kgs 1:1-5, 14, 2:13-26). Judaism traditionally barring women from studying, they have been forced to find covert ways to read and interpret its sacred texts. Much of Jewish feminism has thus been devoted to gaining access to the Jewish canon as a whole and the biblical text in particular. Here, I shall focus on what may be called feminine “midrashic poems” dealing with Abishag—i.e., poems that rewrite the biblical story from a feminine perspective, giving a voice to a feminine protagonist who is silenced in the original text. I shall commence with two German-Jewish expressionists poets—Hilda Stieler (1918), who wrote about Abishag's love for king David, and Hedwig Caspari (1919), whose Abishag commits suicide when she discovers what her powerful youthfulness has created. I shall then turn to Karen Gershon (1979), a German-born poet who lived and wrote in the United Kingdom, who depicts Abishag's thoughts and feelings toward the old king. Finally, I shall consider some American poets, many Jewish American women poets having taken Abishag as their theme since Louise Glück's 1975 poem. From Glück's submissive Abishag, the little-known biblical figure develops into an independent woman in charge of her own destiny (B. Holender , 1991; E. A. Sussman-Socolow, 1999; D. Walders, 2005), working her way from a mere “warming device” into a sexy woman who uses her sexuality to tease the king (S. Kaufman, 1984) or dreams of different sexual relations (L. Barrett, 2007), her sexuality being bound up with her independence (S. Skolnik, 2011).
Original languageAmerican English
StatePublished - 2016
EventICLA XXIst Congress 2016: The many languages of comparative literature - International Comparative Literature Association, Vienna, Austria, Austria
Duration: 20 Jul 201626 Jul 2016


ConferenceICLA XXIst Congress 2016: The many languages of comparative literature
CityVienna, Austria


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