While Jewish feminists seeking role models can find their hearts' desire in the world of literature, they have a much tougher search when it comes to music.
New Yorker Elizabeth Swados, who has composed more than 20 musicals on and off Broadway, apparently aimed to fill this dearth by releasing her CD "Bible Women."
But this compilation of 31 short songs about seven women from the Hebrew Bible and Jewish legend somehow misses the mark. The feminism seems shallow. And though a good chunk of the lyrics are adapted from the Bible, the text is sometimes taken so far out of context that it's confusing, if not downright misleading.
The CD's powerful and often splendid music itself cannot be faulted. Every track resounds with strong professional voices belting out catchy tunes that meld Broadway with gospel and with something that can only be described as religious pop music.
According to the liner notes, Swados chose Lilith, Eve, Sara, Miriam, Esther, Ruth and Deborah as the primary focus of the CD because they "had a universality in their battles, sorrow, victories and contemplation." A few of the songs reach this goal.
Swados describes Ruth's life story as a "small folk opera," and tells it in a 12-song series that is among the CD's most comprehensive pieces, relating the tale of Ruth's legendary devotion to her mother-in-law, Naomi. Swados also beautifully incorporates verses from the Psalms because Ruth is the great-grandmother of King David, who is traditionally said to have written those verses.
Sara, the wife of Abraham, is painted as a complex woman who, having waited patiently 90 years for a child, now doubts God's promise of offspring.
In "Sara," the heroine sings adamantly and angrily: "The angel said to me: `Why are you laughing?' Laughing! Not me! Who was laughing? I did not laugh. It was a cough. I was coughing. Only hyenas laugh. I was not laughing."
Esther is the picture of devotion and loyalty in "Esther Invincible." The Jewish queen sings: "Maybe I will never be a mother; I may have given up my love. But I do it for my people and God alone."
In another Esther song, "You Who Know Everything," she cries out: "Two faces I wear, the mask of the Queen and the Jew filled with fear. Your slave has had no joy from the day I was brought here."
While these songs have their moments, others on the CD are just plain confusing.
In "Rose of Sharon," Esther and her cousin Mordechai sing love lyrics to one another from the erotic Song of Songs. And another Esther number, "Be Not Afraid," uses lyrics Swados says are adapted from the Book of Exodus — a text in which Esther never appears.
In the liner notes, Swados explains that she retells these stories because listeners "probably have forgotten the narrative behind the name[s]." But is blending unrelated Bible stories any way to reintroduce people to the sacred texts?
In addition to these textual problems, the Jewish feminism allegedly fueling the album is suspect.
The CD's cover art is a rendition of Eve, but unfortunately she's the typical bleached-blonde Eve with whom we're all too familiar.
Swados' inclusion of "Woman of Valor" on the CD sends further mixed messages. Many feminists see this passage from Proverbs, which men traditionally sing to their wives each Shabbat, as deeply patriarchal because its verses paint the ideal woman as one whose realm entails only home and family.
And Swados' description of Esther as a "Jewish Wonder Woman" certainly is odd. Most of us remember Wonder Woman as TV's shapely Linda Carter, whose superhero outfit consisted of a star-spangled bustier suitable for a Barbie doll.
Worse than all these faults, however, are the liner notes. They are so chock-full of typos and errors — literally dozens — that Swados ought to be embarrassed. In a song about Miriam we find the line: "my father's Sod, and I will exalt Him." In a song about Ruth's mother-in-law Naomi we find, "May the Lord deal unkindly with you as ye have dealt with ma."
Even the title of the last song is listed as "Let the Enemies of Joy be Scattered" in the liner notes, but as "Sing Unto the Lord a New Song" on the back of the CD.
Swados deserves credit for trying to create an album dedicated to biblical heroines, but couldn't such an accomplished composer have produced a deeper, somewhat more scholarly work?