“Miriam the prophetess” by Anselm Feuerbach. Public Domain image.
“Miriam the prophetess… took the tambourine in her hand; and all the women followed her with tambourines and dances. And Miriam called to them: Sing…” (Exodus 15:20-21)
Editor’s Note: The most important thing that has happened to Passover this year is the Notorious RBG’s decree that when we remember the Exodus, we need to remember the women. First and foremost among them, for me, is Miriam. The unsung hero of what is usually thought of as “Moses’ story,” Miriam is responsible for everything from Moses’ birth to his survival to providing water for the Israelites throughout their forty-year-sovereign in the desert. The first person in the Bible to be called a prophet, Miriam was beloved by her people but less-loved by her creator, who struck her down with leprosy to teach her the consequences of a woman voicing her opinion.
Song is one of the oldest forms of poetry, and the poetry of the Bible is one of the oldest written records of poetry we have. Sadly, all that remains of Miriam’s song in the Bible is a call to action: “And Miriam called to them: Sing…”
We are lucky, therefore, that Debbie Friedman (1951-2011) picked up this mantle. In “Miriam’s Song” she joins her voice with a new generation of women to remember and celebrate the heroine of the Passover story, responding to the prophetess’ call to action: “Sing.” Beloved by women and men alike all the world over, Debbie Friedman and “Miriam’s Song” are the kinds of modern Passover traditions we need. Inclusive and powerful, shedding new light on ancient traditions. For, as Debbie Friedman reminds us, “The more our voices are heard in song, the more we become our lyrics, our prayers, and our convictions.”
Laura Swearingen-Steadwell (AKA Laura Yes Yes) has competed in slams nationwide, notably as a finalist in 2010’s Women of the World Poetry Slam. She tours and leads workshops as part of the queer female duo Shadowboxers Anonymous. Laura’s first book, How to Seduce a White Boy in Ten Easy Steps, was nominated for a National Book Award. She is currently an MFA candidate at Warren Wilson College.
Editor’s Note: I had the pleasure of seeing Laura Swearingen-Steadwell perform at louderARTS this week. louderARTS is home to a longstanding open mic, reading series, slam forum, and workshop series. Monday nights in Manhattan’s Bar 13 have been turning out the likes of Roger Bonair-Agard, Ocean Vuong, Elana Bell, Sabrina Hayeem-Ladani, John Paul Davis, Regie Cabico, and countless other rising stars and champions of the written and spoken word for years. The tradition continues every week. Show up at 6:00, like I did, and be treated to a FREE writing workshop with louderARTS members and visiting workshop leaders. I was lucky enough to kick off my evening with a workshop lead by today’s featured poet.
When Laura Swearingen-Steadwell opened up “Salem 1994” by inviting us all to join in a Kumbaya-esque rendition of Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know,” I was all in. When the performance morphed into a feminist celebration of the songstresses who have been writing and performing the soundtrack of my life since I was fourteen years old, the poet officially had a new fan. When she performed “College Transcript” we were all invited to call out “brain,” “cunt,” “liver,” “fist” to accompany each of the poet’s hand gestures. It was fun. It was interactive. It was engaging. And it was truth, spoken from the poet’s own honest experience to resonate with our own. This is a poet who speaks her mind, who speaks her heart, who tells it like it is, unafraid, claiming the world for herself and for us all.
Editor’s Note: I had the pleasure of seeing Roger Bonair-Agard read at a recent poetry salon, and I was blown away. This man is an incredibly talented poet and a dedicated human rights advocate. Influenced by everything from hip hop to steel drum music, from American Culture to Caribbean, from racial tensions to human sexuality, this passionate performer is an inspirational boundary-pusher who schools poets on both the page and the stage. Keep an eye out for his forthcoming book, which is sure to be epic.