Becoming an award-winning writer of Jewish feminist poetry was not something Alicia Suskin Ostriker might have imagined growing up, a third-generation socialist raised in an atheist home in the 1940s and ’50s.
“I was drawn to spiritual poetry, but I had no traditional Jewish training,” Ostriker, 75, said in an interview. “When I did read the Bible in my 20s, it was a revelation. I felt bonded to it. I felt, ‘These men and women are my mothers and fathers, and this God is my God.’ ”
Today, she is a respected Jewish scholar — a poet, teacher, critic and activist whose work explores rich and potent themes: family, Jewish identity, personal growth and social justice.
Her poems — many with Jewish themes — have appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, American Poetry Review and other publications and journals, and her volumes of poetry have received numerous awards. “The Book of Seventy” won the National Jewish Book Award’s top poetry prize for 2009, and twice Ostriker was a finalist for a National Book Award. Her 1980 antiwar book of poems “The Mother/Child Papers” is considered a feminist classic.
Ostriker will read from “The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems, 1979-2011” at the JCC of San Francisco on Wednesday, Dec. 5.
As a young woman, she was inspired by Walt Whitman, John Keats and W.H. Auden. After graduating from Brandeis University in 1959, she went on to write her dissertation on the poet William Blake, which became the basis for her first book in 1965 (“Vision and Verse in William Blake”).
Ostriker’s “The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions” reimagined Torah from a feminist perspective, putting her in the vanguard of what was becoming a burgeoning field in the 1990s. “For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book” and “Feminist Revision and the Bible” also tackled biblical themes.
Early on, while writing from the point of view of Job’s wife, Ostriker had a revelation. “We know what Job wants: He wants his health and wealth restored. But for his wife, I imagined, that was not enough. When she got up the chutzpah, I thought, she would demand of God more divine justice,” she said.
“The piece wrote itself. Once I stepped back, I realized that I was on a train that I couldn’t get off. So began my Jewish education.” Ostriker learned Hebrew and began to study the Torah in earnest.
The story of Jacob wrestling with the angel moved her to the core. “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me,” she said, quoting Jacob. That seemed to define her own response to her studies and her life. “I’m going to wrestle a blessing from Torah, just as Jacob wrestled his blessing,” she said. “We can’t know what our blessing will become. We can only trust in the spirit.”
After that, she began consciously writing as a “feminist Jew as opposed to a Jewish feminist.”
Ostriker, who lives in New York and is a professor emerita at Rutgers University, has long been interested in searching out the feminine divine in Jewish teachings. She posits a scenario whereby God the father has swallowed God the mother, very much like the wolf swallowing the grandmother in “Little Red Riding Hood.” “The feminine divine is in God’s belly. God wants to be delivered of his feminine entity,” Ostriker said.
She believes that American poetry is in an extremely healthy state with communities of poets all over the country. When teaching, Ostriker advises her students to write what scares them first. Then, make it art. “The places that scare us is where the power is,” she said.
Alicia Suskin Ostriker, 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 5, JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F. $10-$15. www.jccsf.org/arts