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The Undefinable Beauty of a Jewish Woman

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She was on her way to the Holy Temple. It seemed as if an entire market place were traveling together with her. People, goats, food, vessels and musical instruments jostled with each other for space. I could stare at this vision for hours, these people from a different time. Some trudged along dragging animals with children riding them. Some marched briskly carrying toddlers on their shoulders. Some children played the flute while others cavorted around their mothers, who in turn balanced baskets gracefully on their heads. But she fascinated me. She was a prominent figure, exuberant joy emanating from her. And yet there was a shy elegance in the way she held her head. She strode along daintily, fairly bouncing with happiness and laughter. I wondered why. Maybe the toddler running along in front of her was hers and she was laughing at his frolics and trying to catch up.

Exuberant joy emanates from her Her head covering reached past her shoulders and flowed with her movements. She chattered incessantly to her companion. Dangling from the crook of her elbow was a wicker basket filled to the brim with grapes. Her arms matched her brisk stride but the grapes somehow managed to remain in their basket. Her pose suggested an accessible character, yet at the same time she was larger than life.

She was beautiful. Later, when my first grade teacher introduced us to Sarah, wife of Abraham, the first of the Biblical Matriarchs, she mentioned beauty. She said that Sarah was so beautiful that since Chavah, there had never been anybody as beautiful and there never would be in the future. Beauty should have meant flouncy dresses and diamond crowns, but it didn't. Beauty brought to mind an image of a nameless female figure, a simple rust colored silhouette of a woman with a basket, garnered from a sukkah decoration my mother made. For me, she represented the beauty of Sarah, the first Matriarch of Israel.

A few months later I learned of the second of the Matriarchs: Rebecca, wife of Isaac, a righteous person in her own right. I saw her standing in the corner of a room praying for a child, the hem of her head-covering floating around her. She looked aristocratic, graceful but determined and ambitious.

When it came to the third and fourth Matriarchs I knew what to expect. Two great women, one whose eyes were red from tears at the thought of marrying a wicked man and one who already had the love of a righteous man but was willing to give it up to protect her sister. I tried to invent faces for them. I tried to remember a sukkah decoration as just that, an adornment, cut out piece of colored card, in various shades of brown, but the Leah of my imagination laughed at the antics of her toddler, the eldest of the twelve tribes. Her sister Rachel sat tall and straight on a camel's saddle.

My silhouette had become an icon. She was etched on a plaque in my mind. Anything I encountered that was good or right was represented by her. At the same time, her character was being drawn and defined, embellished by my interpretation of great people like the Biblical Matriarchs.

My questions changed As a child my definitions of right and wrong were very clear. Evil and good were clearly delineated. As I became older the lines started smudging. Evil wasn't necessarily what I thought it was. It wasn't always apparent. Sometimes "good" wasn't fun and "not right" was tempting. I wanted different things to what my silhouette represented. She started to fade into my subconscious. I didn't forget her. Every Sukkot she would occupy her place in the sukkah and exert her influence over the picture. Every Sukkot my eyes would be drawn back to her determined stride. My questions, however, had changed. Why was she marching? How come she was so determined? How was she so sure about the accuracy of her destination?

Sukkot passed. The decorations were taken down and put away. I shoved her into the back of my mind under piles of old nursery school rhymes and dusty childhood memories to be retrieved at a later date.

I became preoccupied with the little interests that made up my everyday life. My group of friends became very important and their opinion featured in every decision I made. Being up to date with the latest entertainment, the latest fashion, the newest teenage fad required a tremendous amount of effort and that was what interested me. My head was so cluttered there was no space for anything else.

We moved house. The sukkah decorations got lost in transit. That first Sukkot in the new house my entire family bemoaned the loss of the 'Three Festivals' picture. The same year a new teacher came to our school. She was very young and enthusiastic. It was clear that what she had to say was important. I listened to her. One of her classes focused on reclaiming our own sense of what is attractive and what is not. She told us to think of someone who we thought dressed well and modestly, someone we admired and respected. Someone we could imitate. Each of us would make our own personal choice. We could use that as a starting point.

Beauty isn't contained in magazines I thought about glossy magazines and fashion dictates, about the character traits of the beauty advisors of the world. I had acquired a significant amount of knowledge on that particular group of people. Then I reached into my head, pulled out a memory and dusted it off. I marveled at a part of my mind that had been rejected. I regretted that. I had always known that beauty could be walking in a billowing dress beside a goat in the Middle Eastern heat. But what I hadn't understood was that beauty's essential qualities aren't contained within the pages of magazines. It can't be measured by Grecian noses or designer highlights. Beauty can live in the unfinished lines of a silhouette. It can exist in the amalgamation of alleged opposites: modesty and attractiveness, elegance and exuberance, refinement and confidence. These qualities could all inhabit the same person.

I put her back on the pedestal where she belonged.

Faye Baruchson is a writer living in Israel with her husband and children.

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Sarah Z Israel October 9, 2009

beautiful I love this piece - would love to see more. Thank you. Reply

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