By Merle Feld
SUNY, 264 pp.
Autobiography, like prayer, is a potent way of sanctifying personal experience. In "A Spiritual Life," her memoir of Jewish and feminist awakening, Merle Feld writes that "our lives are filled with moments of spirit, extraordinary moments ripe with meaning and nourishment....I increasingly saw the spiritual realm of my everyday existence as a vast uncharted territory which could be cultivated as I chose." On the page, as in life, Feld endows simple events--a holiday meal, an item in the newspaper, the coming of her period--with great emotional and religious portent.
"A Spiritual Life" is a scrapbook of moments from Feld's financially and spiritually deprived childhood in 1950's Brooklyn and much happier adulthood as a wife, mother, rabbi's wife, activist, and poet. The book adds to a rapidly expanding library of memoirs by Jewish feminists. But "A Spiritual Life" is a narrower, more solipsistic book than, say, Judith Plaskow's "Standing Again at Sinai," with its serious textual grappling, or Letty Cottin Pogrebin's "Deborah, Golda, and Me," which provides a pointed look at representations of Jewish women in pop culture. Perhaps out of modesty--at various points in the book, Feld confesses that she doesn't feel confident enough to discuss topics such as theology and public affairs--Feld has written a book about herself and only herself.
At her best, Feld delivers sensible insights on her twin passions, Judaism and womanhood. She stingingly describes how finances constrained her family's participation with the local Jewish community. "You don't join, you can't afford to join. No synagogue for us on the High Holidays--if you need your money for food you can't spend it on High Holiday tickets. ... Hadassah for Mom? No money for the little outfits, for the luncheons, for the raffle books."
Feld also displays an acute sensitivity to the pain of others and a stirring confidence in the power of Jewish ritual to alleviate it. In a preface to a poem dedicated to a grieving friend, she emphasizes the importance of visiting mourners regularly even after the initial seven-day bereavement period proscribed by Jewish law has passed. In her poem "Supermarket Prayer," seeing a down-at-her-heels neighbor crying quietly in a supermarket aisle prompts Feld to utter an impromptu benediction under her breath: "May you be restored to your full self soon, speedily, in our day. And let us say amen."
But Feld may find that her readers don't glean as much from these moments as she does. Her observations are frequently clouded by a vague writing style that substitutes passion for precision. "What a dangerous way to live, to live as a lover. So we learn to be wise, with out feelings, with our fingers, we learn to be careful. Women especially are taught to be careful, are urged to be careful," she muses fuzzily. Her poetry, which comprises over half of the volume, can be equally overwrought. Consider "Tisha B'Av," a poem about the mutual sorrow of Israeli and Palestinian women:
Come my friend
(for haven't we become friends after all
sharing our intimate
our primal pain)
come my friend
come sit with me on the ground
let us heap ashes on each other
A feeling person Feld certainly is. A great poet, to put it gently, she is not.
At least Feld is upfront about the extremely personal nature of her book. Early in the volume, she confesses that she has a constant need to share her feelings with others. "I have a bottomless capacity for making connection....Sometimes people find my appetite for intimacy irresistible, sometimes they find it a strain," she confides. Just as Feld predicts, the energy she lavishes on examining her daily existence is charming in places and wearying in others. But the same instincts that caused Feld to record her quotidian experiences in such passionate terms may be the same ones that make her such an enthusiastic Jew.