The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shifrah and Puah. He said, 'When you deliver Hebrew women, you must look carefully at thebirth stool. If [the infant] is a boy, kill it; but if it is a girl, let it live.'Exodus 1:15–16
1. Puah Speaks
In the time of Pharoah,
we had two sets of names:
slaveholders names and our names from G-d.
Pharoah called me Puah and my mother
Shifrah. G-d called us Miriam and Jocheved.
I did not want to be a midwife.
I didn't like blood.
I resented that childbirth happened with pain.
Mother liked the daily reminder:
trevail, struggle, anguish, then
the cries of newborns.
I wanted no part of it, but by virtue
of my birth, I was a midwife. [End Page 18]
I wanted to sing and dance and tell stories,
but in the time of Pharoah
there was limited singing and dancing.
I didn't want to be a midwife.
I wanted to be a prophet.
I wanted to lead our people to freedom.
2. Puah Laments
Shifrah always heard G-d's voice
as we were delivering babies.
In the final moments before birth
when the woman was exhausted,
covered in sweat, when the greatest
contraction seized her body, when
the baby's head broke through the cervix,
Shifrah would sing softly.
The parturient mother screamed
in a way that I thought summoned death or
demanded release from absolute misery
but Shifrah heard G-d.
She welcomed the new baby into the world,
crying and thanking her for aiding passage
from the mother's wombic world into ours.
I tried to hear G-d, but I couldn't.
I listened, but I could not hear G-d's voice. [End Page 19]
3. Pharoah Commands
Pharoah commanded us to kill
the male newborns of the Hebrews.
I despaired, but Shifrah heard G-d more:
no longer just speaking in the moments
before an infant scream.
She heard G-d
speaking all the time
telling her what to do.
She became pregnant again,
even though I was of the age to be having children.
Her belly blossomed.
I still struggled
to hear the voice of G-d.
4. Jocheved Labors
She wasn't like other women.
It was as if she felt no pain.
She walked through her contractions and
smiled as they grasped her body.
Finally she called to me—Miriam,
she whispered, it is now that your brother
is to be born. Gather round me. Prepare.
I felt inside my mother's body;
she felt no pain—G-d dilated her cervix.
I felt my brother's head,
ready to enter the world bravely. [End Page 20]
When my mother was giving birth—
when Moses passed between her legs,
I finally heard the voice of G-d.
G-d whispered to me:
Miriam great things will happen
in your brother's lifetime
You have birthed a great miracle
Your brother will be a prophet
You will be remembered by the slaveholder's name
That is how it is written.
Julie R. Enszer is a writer and lesbian activist living in Maryland. She has previously been published in Iris: A Journal About Women, Room of One's Own, Long Shot, Jewish Women's Literary Annual, and Poetica. In addition to writing poetry, she is exploring the 613 mitzvot in a blog. You can learn more about her at www.JulieREnszer.com.