Women’s Song

Drorit Gur Arie

I remember the first time I came across a band of female-wailers. In a funeral in which I took part as a soldier, the coffin was lowered from the command-car, and was immediately surrounded by a crowd of women, whose bitter cries and vociferous song broke the tense silence in the military cemetery. It was an unforgettable, jolting experience. Female-sung eulogy, customary in Jewish congregations hailing from Islamic countries, is at the core of Itzik Badash’s new work, Zala. “Zala” is an ancient Arab-Libyan designation for a keen wailer,1 the female medium who intertwines life and death in the female generational chain. The Prophet’s call upon women to sadden the hearts is only one of the manifestations of lamentation in the Bible: “Yet hear the word of the Lord, O ye women, and let your ear receive the word of his mouth, and teach your daughters wailing, and every one her neighbour lamentation” (Jeremiah 9: 20). Badash’s family has set up a tribe of wailers, headed by Badash’s great grandmother, “Liza Zala.” Her family perished in Tripoli in World War II, and she has made her grief into a dirge, bequeathing this age-old tradition to the women in her family. Zala’s tormented lament, which the artist managed to secure with great effort from the handful of wailers still left among the women of the Libyan community, tears our heart with grief in the dance of death choreographed by Badash, elaborating his engagement with the cycles of life. Jewish lamentation as a disappearing female practice is rooted in the Arab language; it is replete with descriptions of grief and woe associated with the deceased, his merits, and the sorrow of his passing, while also addressing the mundane difficulties underlying the women’s lives (the woman’s longing for her parents’ home, a yearning for love, her fear of the Muslim, etc.).2 The sound of lament emanates from the depths of the house, far from the outside.3
The drama in Zala is charged by the wailer’s inner power. Badash sprinkles scanty clues: a robed man walks into the sea, marching to his death; a golden ring remains orphaned on the beach; a thoroughbred horse observes the life-sucking seascapes. Badash nullifies the narrative. Its splinters collapse among the song of sorrow’s flimsy fibers. The story remains obscure, concealing more than it reveals. On the beach of Netanya, Badash’s hometown, the presence of death is crushing, and the heartrending words of lamentation engulf the beach with anguish and woe. “I grieve over the great blindness of my soul; I bemoan the heavy blows that befell me; the destruction of my home […] Life struck me, beat me with its stick.”4
Badash delves into rites and rituals. In a 2007 series of color photographs he presented a ritual of purification of the flesh and salvation through the gutters. In these works he is seen lying in a bowl of purification water, while his mother and grandmother scrub his lean naked body. Cradled in the arms of his two mothers, his posture and his ascetic face call to mind the iconography of the Pietà* or of resurrection. The act of baptism, accompanied by the song of the artist’s grandmother in Hebrew and Arabic, oscillates between sin and punishment, between contamination, disease, and absolution (Diwani, 2007; curator: Tal Ben Zvi). In another series of photographs (Bread, 2009; curator: Ktzia Alon) a similar relationship is explored in the depths of a dark cave. The mother offers her breast, nursing her semi-naked son, feeding him from her palm with a fistful of clods. These images of purity and impurity have accumulated associations from the beginning of Creation to the body’s return to dust. The relations of dependency between mother and son allude to images of grace and mercy associated with the Christian iconography of Maria lactans**, the nursing mother.
In Zala, the images of motherhood find a home in the figure of the wailer, the Great Mother of life and death, situated on the beach like a solid rock. Anonymous under her robe, she is withdrawn in a sweeping inner trance, her song vacillating between the folds of existence and desistence. Her dirge rises and continues until her power drops off: “My home is empty, emptied, nothing is left in it. What is the house? But a ceiling and a floor and darkness.” The movement of her delicate body is virtually imperceptible, not revealing what is going on in her soul. This restrained movement is not characteristic of such female lament, which is usually accompanied by howls, self-flagellation, and scratching of one’s tormented body. Badash brings contents that have been repressed in Israeli culture to the fore, reinstating a popular traditional practice that has not been granted profound attention in contemporary art to the center of cultural discussion. The dirge is often regarded unfavorably, a hidden voice that may be met with negative responses.5 Bereavement in Israeli society focuses on the heroism of the country’s fallen soldiers, with preference for a collective identity, founded on the Zionist Israeli ethos, while repressing ancient traditions with their ethnic flavors. Badash conjures up the lyrical genre passed on from one generation to the next, based on “other” cultural values which are not at the heart of the national discourse, and are also excluded from canonical male mourning rites.
Badash shifts the wailer to the public sphere, presenting her at the very heart of Israeliness, on a bare beach. Firmly rooted in the sand, wrapped in an oriental robe, the wailer accompanies the content of the grief-stricken melody with the movements of her cane. Through her voice, Zala is outlined as a prototype of suffering, as a formal metaphor for the spiritual event. Hidden within her robe, her posture and body recall Ernst Barlach’s sculptures of peasants created following a journey through Russia (1905): hard-working women withdrawn under their robes, embodying corporeality and worldliness balanced by spiritual expressions inherent in their Hester Panim (hidden aspects) and the crouching of a heavy body.
The dramatic presentation of the lament as an aesthetic of grief is intended to create a community of mourning as part of a social and spiritual process which channels emotion towards cathartic release. Thomas J. Scheff formulated the principle underlying the emotional experience embodied in death rituals. He maintains that the dramatic ritual leads the audience to a catharsis of tears, which is made possible through the audience’s position as a participating observer, a space which balances thought and emotion, what Scheff calls the “aesthetic distance” required between the repression of emotion and emotional inundation and loss of control.6 The wailing rite elicits an inner, personal emotion, while generating a type of arousal which leads the audience to a consolidating social experience. This rite establishes mutual relations between the wailer and the mourners. The former does not operate in a void. Her presentation requires an audience. In Zala, Badash pits the single wailer as a leading voice opposite a group of women gathering around her, intermittently responding to her gestures and voice. This choreography of weeping, between a female solo and the show of the chorus, produces an orchestrated musical-theatrical array which heightens the power of the spiritual outpouring.
The obscure act of suicide is the major drama in Zala. The man, dressed in an oriental gown (galabia), marches decisively to his death. Life’s defeat is experienced from a rear perspective, with the back (to the scene of action and the spectator), a point of view which is echoed by a ring flipped over by the waves, and a fish lying like a crucifix on its belly. Badash fuses together symbols of affluence and death, Jewish and Christian myths, with a range of meanings pertaining to transformation and change. In Zala, however, the baptism, remembered from his previous works, transforms into cessation. In Dahlia Ravikovitch’s poem “Many Waters,” a small ship stands for the poet’s desperate metaphorical figure. The ship “Dahlia Maria” goes astray, calamity follows disaster, until finally giving in, willingly sinking to her death.
The captain despairs.
Jumps into the waters.
He’d rather drown.
Meanwhile he floats
She’s gone astray.
This ship
is the Dahlia Maria.
She will sink today,
she is sinking today.7
The drama concludes the enigmatic story with a glance to the horizon. A young woman, one of the wailers, looks onto the same distant, wounded “there”; a yellow Star of David, possibly a yellow patch, on her back. Moshe Gershuni—one of the first artists to reinstate Israeli art with an entire world swept far away from the visible mainstream—painted a yellow Star of David on cutlery in the 1980s, thus addressing Israeli art’s intricate relation to the Jewish world. His diasporal table was hastily left behind, left as a forgotten food stain. Zoya Cherkassky transformed the yellow emblem of disgrace into a ravishing golden brooch proudly carried on one’s lapel (Collectio Judaica, 2004). Raffi Lavie inserted a Star of David onto bare plywood, likewise charging the wounded, conflicted Israeli landscape with a diasporal Jewish symbol (Arab—Violet Moustache, 2005). Badash appropriates the charged symbol, infusing it with his own idiom, shifting it to the Holocaust of North African Jewry, which is far from a major voice in Israeli culture. His Star of David, on a North African galabia, is accompanied by the lament, a gradually waning form in Israeli society which calls for an essential and pressing discussion.
* The Pietà (Italian for pity) is an image of the anguished Virgin Mary holding the dead Christ in her lap.
** Maria lactans is the image of the Virgin Mary nursing the infant Jesus.

1. The prevalent name for a wailer in the Libyan congregation is “nidva”. The Hebrew root n.d.v. implies the act of volunteering (hitnadvut) performed by the wailer with the mourning families.
2. Artist Ravit Cohen Gat also incorporates manifestations of lament in her works. In a table installation comprising a woven textile imitating Persian rug decorations, she embroidered poetry verses and lines on a tablecloth covering the sides of a table and on knitted plates placed thereon. Popular maxims interspersed with folk wisdom sketched a cultural world in which harsh childhood memories blended with pungent hints relating to food, love, and the way to a man’s heart (Gola Sangam, “Time Depot,” 2004, Petach Tikva Museum of Art; curator: Drorit Gur Arie). In another installation Cohen Gat played a Persian dirge which emanated from a bare, industrialized amplification system, thereby ostensibly violating the traditional act of human mourning (Joony Joony, “The Space Between,” 2007, Petach Tikva Museum of Art; curator: Drorit Gur Arie).
3. In this the lament, with its gender bias, is distinguished as a chapter in the death rituals conducted by men. The lament, according to Tova Gamliel in her study of wailing culture, is associated with women’s experiences in the cycle of life. The keen is a type of “informal institute” for expressing women’s lament, as an enclave indicating women’s relations to the social and political order, offering proof for women’s superiority in emotional articulation. See: Tova Gamliel, The Aesthetics of Sorrow: The Wailing Culture of Yemenite-Jewish Women (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi Institute, 2010), p. 5 [Hebrew].
4. Translated from Arabic to Hebrew by Julia Badash; poetic adaptation: Haviva Pedaya.
5. See Gamliel, op. cit. n. 3, pp. 6-10.
6. Ibid., pp. 24-25; Thomas J. Scheff, “The Distancing of Emotion in Ritual,” Current Anthropology, 18, 3 (1977): 483-505.
7. Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch, trans. Chana Bloch & Chana Kronfeld (New York: W.W. Norton, 2009).