The Naming. Galeet Dardashti. Galeet Dardashti, 2010.

Reviewed by Sarah Imhoff

In the Genesis creation account God speaks and the world springs into existence, light and dark, water and sky, earth and seas. The voice is coextensive with creation. Galeet Dardashti’s new recording The Naming can claim no such miraculous speech acts, but her music recalls both the creative power of the voice and a near-divine ability to bring women to life.

Dardashti’s Persian-Jewish heritage and academic training come together in a beautiful and yet theologically provocative recording. The music is at once traditional and radical: the first song begins with the prayer for laying tefillin but in a woman’s voice, while “Dinah” incorporates a traditional Moroccan piyyut, and “Sarah/Hagar” includes recent Hebrew and Arabic headlines about political violence. At times Dardashti employs a Mizrahi cantorial style, to which her rich voice brings depth and emotion. Even her own personal lineage leaves an imprint on the sound: her father, cantor Farid Dardashti, sings in “Endora.” Perhaps the most striking moments in the recording, however, are in the songs composed of biblical verses. Their radical character lies not simply in the verses themselves, but rather in Dardashti’s midrashic construction of the songs: the presence, absence, order, and juxtaposition of verses can ultimately be read as bold reinterpretations of the power, the agency, and the simple humanity of the biblical women.

The title track and its subtle interpretation of the biblical text provide a representation in miniature of the recording as a whole. “The Naming” begins with Dardashti singing a portion of what has been called the “curse” after Eve has eaten the fruit in the garden. God addresses Eve: “To the woman he said ‘I will make most severe your pangs in childbearing; in pain shall you bear children” (Gen 3:16). The song, however, departs from the verse before its last line: “Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” In omitting the end of the verse, the song reorients the traditional picture. Eve stands in the foreground, listening to God, while the song has yet to speak the man into existence.

“The Naming” continues with Genesis 3:20, where the man names his wife, and then he recedes. The man’s naming speech serves as a prelude to Eve’s dramatic naming speech in Genesis 4:1: “Eve conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have created a male child with the Lord.’” What begins as a textual play on the name Cain (קין) and “created” (קניתי) produces a radical theological statement: Eve’s words suggest that she too creates.[1] After being the recipient of Adam’s naming speech, Eve does more than simply repeat the naming action for her child. “The Naming” transforms the scene into an intimate moment between Eve and God, a lyrical co-creation.  The chorus affirms the image of a generative matriarchal world with its citation of Song of Songs 3:4: “I held him fast and I would not let him go until I brought him to my mother’s house, to the chamber of her who conceived me.” The biblical women name children, but in doing so they also participate in creation.

The subsequent verses of “The Naming” cite the narratives of Leah conceiving (Gen 30:16, 18) and Rachel giving birth to Benjamin (Gen 35:16b-18). The story of the naming of Benjamin traditionally evokes both death and life, but Dardashti’s recording transforms the story. Although Genesis 35:19 begins: “And Rachel died,” and details her burial, the song omits both the phrase and the sentiment. The rhythmic sounds of Dardashti’s breath recall life rather than death, implicitly invoking Genesis 1: just as God breathed into the nostrils of the first man, in order to bring him to life, the sounds of breath here continue to animate these Biblical women. Not only have Eve, Leah, and Rachel created life with God, but Dardashti has created them, as living women.

Although textually more removed from the creation account, the other songs also mirror the divine act of creation by speaking their women protagonists into being. In contrast to Eve, Rachel, and Leah, King Saul’s daughter Michal never had children; likewise, Dardashti explains, her great aunt Tovah remained childless. Both women, inspired to take on traditional men’s religious responsibilities, donned tefillin (phylacteries). According to the Babylonian Talmud (Eruvin 96a), the Sages did not object to Michal’s practice, and through the song “Michal,” Tovah’s experience finds its own place in the tradition. The radical nature of textual reinterpretation is reflected in the sound, which takes inspiration from both tradition and contemporary styles. Dardashti’s striking interpretation of the taqrir (a Persian vocal skill) and the sounds of the hammered dulcimer and zither recall classical Persian performance, but she reinterprets them with electronic beats.

The creative shift of emphasis onto women also allows Dardashti to reconsider how biblical and midrashic motifs are deployed in contemporary discourse. Sarah and Hagar, serving as matriarchs and metonyms, birth boys in parallel verses of “Hagar/Sarah.” If the two peoples are often symbolized by the splitting of Abraham’s line into Isaac and Ishmael, then the chorus of “Hagar/Sarah” offers a prayer of peace between the children of the two women. The Arabic and Hebrew headlines concluding the song offer a challenging dialogue: two voices and yet continuing violence.[2]

The Queen of Sheba and Vashti, both queens of significant political authority but circumscribed social and sexual power, are some of Dardashti’s less predictable biblical characters. Her two songs about non-Jews/Israelites highlight Dardashti’s ability to portray the humanity of the textual women. “Sheba” retells Jewish and Muslim legends about an intellectual battle and subsequent affair between the famed queen and King Solomon. Solomon, impressed with her beauty and wisdom, had only one complaint: her hairy legs. After she shaved her legs, the affair commenced. “Vashti” uses the well-known story from the scroll of Esther of the king’s celebration and sudden demand for his beautiful queen to come dance before the revelers. The song’s upbeat syncopation—especially in its contrast to the quietly chanted introduction—suggests both the celebratory atmosphere and Vashti’s strength and independence. The queen Vashti sees herself in a bind: if she appeared before the king’s drunken friends and they found her attractive, they would want to possess her for themselves, but if they did not find her to their approval, the event would embarrass the king. She refuses to appear. The chorus instantiates the event that the king’s advisors fear: Vashti the Queen started a rebellion in the capital city. Because of Vashti’s defiance, women would know they could disobey their husbands. The results of Vashti’s actions extend to the unnamed women of the land in the form of knowledge, and therefore power.

In The Naming, the man does not “rule over” the woman, eclipsing her in the textual or artistic world. While the biblical men exist, they are quiet. The Hebrew title (שם ותקרא) uses the feminine form of the verb, and in doing so, The Naming has opened a space to hear biblical women who are clever, devout, and even flawed. With her powerful voice, Dardashti has sung them into creation.

[1] The ambiguity in this verse has sparked much debate. Ilana Pardes, for instance, reads it as Eve’s statement as a response to Adam’s naming speech, in which he seems to take partial responsibility for the creation of the woman. Eve, in this reading, says that she has acquired a man (ישא)—that is, Adam.  See Ilana Pardes, Countertraditions in the Bible (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), 47-48.

[2] My sincere thanks goes to Lauren Osborne for help with the Arabic.

Sarah Imhoff, Borns Jewish Studies Program, Indiana University /Bloomington.