On a recent trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan I discovered a story I had never heard before about a woman named Lilith. I was taking a tour called “Badass Bitches at the Met” with Museum Hack, a company dedicated to offering a unique experience at museums across the country. As a born and bred New Yorker, I was skeptical. But what I got was a portal into the art world and to the stories that went along with each art piece. Which brings me to “Lilith”, my own womanhood and my interfaith family.
Halfway through this feminist tour, my guide, a professional dancer and lover of art, brings the group to a staircase near the modern and contemporary collection at the museum. On our way up the stairs, a hollow statue of a woman made of bronze hangs upside down and we are told to look into her eyes on our way up. She looks like clay but her eyes are alive, or at least seem to be. “This,” our tour guide says, “is Lilith by Kiki Smith.”
Smith’s own sister died of AIDS in 1988, and her work often reflects different aspects of the human body. She questions mortality and very often uses the idea of all aspects of the human body to explore both life and death. Her “Lilith” sculpture is no exception. Modeled after a dancer’s body to portray a strong physique, Smith’s “Lilith” is a strong Jewish woman the way we’ve never seen her portrayed before.
As a child, I attended an Orthodox Yeshiva and studied Torah for five days a week. Yet I had never, ever heard of Lilith. But, when my daughter was first born I tied a red string around her crib and this superstition, I am told by my Museum Hack guide, came about because if Lilith. But, why had I never heard of her? At Yeshiva I had countless female teachers. I knew how to read and write in Hebrew. Why had I never even scribbled her name?
In Jewish legend, Lilith was Adam’s first wife. The same dust he was made from made her. But, when Adam commands her, “woman lie beneath me,” she refuses and so begins the Story of Lilith the night demon, wife of Satan or as we know her today: the powerful woman, the strong woman, the woman shunned because of her refusal to be submissive.
As the mother of a little girl and one little girl on the way, it is important for me to live my life leading by example. As I looked into the eyes of Kiki Smith’s sculpture, I saw every woman in her. Not just Jewish women — every woman.
But Lilith isn’t the only strong women in my family’s life.
My daughter is American Jewish on her mother’s side and Mexican Catholic on her father’s side, and so, there is another story that accompanies Lilith from a not-so-Talmudic standpoint — and that is the story of “La Muerte.”
“La Muerte” in Mexico is a personification of death. She is feared but also revered. In Mexican folklore, La Muerte can appear to men who are unfaithful to their wives. She sometimes appears as an attractive voluptuous woman, and when the unfaithful man approaches, she turns to him and her face is a skull. Sometimes the man dies or other times he may wake up in a hospital. La Muerte is an influential woman much like Lilith. I imagine they’ve played a game of cards with each other more than once.
My guide asks why Lilith is looked at as a demon woman. Why, after Adam argues with her, is she forced to leave the Garden of Eden? After all, Adam tells G-d of Lilith’s refusal to submit and G-d gives Lilith a choice. She can come back to the Garden and procreate with Adam (kind of what G-d needs her to do) or she can live among the wasteland that is the rest of the world, which G-d has not created yet. Lilith picks door number 2. Forever and all time, she is thought of as a “bad” woman.
La Muerte is a little different. In Mexico (a predominantly Catholic country), she is revered. She is made a Saint. She is called “Saint Death” or “Santa Muerte.” She is dangerous, a woman you don’t want to cross. If a promise is made to Santa Muerte and it is not kept, she will do harm. Yet Lilith is said to hover around newborn cribs. Some believe she is the reason we sing lullabies to babies. She is the reason for the red string. We need protection against her. But do we?
In my house, we have a Hebrew prayer of blessing over the home hanging by the front door. We also have a Virgin of Guadalupe — she stands by my daughter’s crib in the bedroom. My daughter is both American Jewish and Mexican Catholic, a perfect whole. I hear from many in my community that this will never work. How can these two religions coincide? Some rabbis won’t accept my family, let alone my daughter. Yet she has a history inside of her of women who have broken the rules for ages. Lilith, La Muerte and countless others have shown that there is not only one way, one path, one woman archetype. Saint or sinner, I’d like my daughter to take her lessons from the women who are fearless, the ones who have shrines made for them, the ones who hang in museums upside down asking us to question G-d.