Did Mother Sarah Moisturize?

Not long ago I read Drinking Problems at the Fountain of Youth, a wry look at the beauty industry by Beth Teitell, a reporter for the Boston Globe.  In the tradition of sardonic, wisecracking Jewish writers, Teitell is obviously much too smart to fall for the dramatic, age-reversing claims beauty products and cosmetic procedures make that she knows can’t possibly be true.  But along with her age cohort—she wrote the book at 46—she also can’t shake the secret hope that somehow they are.

Teitell blames these unrealistic expectations on the usual suspects: the 21st century American beauty culture with its emphasis on youth, and the multibillion-dollar cosmetic/plastic surgery industry.  Modern culture tells us that we have to be young, and cosmetic salespeople, dermatologists, and surgeons are happy to help.

Of course, Cleopatra bathed in goat’s milk a long time before Coco Chanel, but never mind.

And then, during shacharit on the first day of Rosh Hashana, I noticed a typically opaque piyyut by Rabbi Eleazar HaKallir, who wrote many of them.  This one dealt with Sarah Imenu, whose miraculous late-life fertility we read about in the Torah portion that day.

Kallir writes (translation by Lord Jonathan Sacks):

O matriarch who aged in righteousness,

though she had lost hope, she was finally granted fecundity

when He who brought her forth remembered her on Rosh Hashana.

it was this very day when she said, “Behold I am condemned

to remain wretched as my youth comes to an end.”

As usual, Kallir is citing midrashim that expand on the Torah passage (which says nothing about Rosh Hashana, for instance.)  A few stanzas later he continues:

All who heard of her joy laughed and rejoiced (a twist on the laughter that gave Yitzhak his name.)

for all childless women did bloom, though their time had passed

and all called out to her, “The mother of sons is joyous.”

So what have we here?  A woman who has given up on her lost youth, suddenly—miraculously—regains it.  And all her friends rejoice with her as they regain theirs.  Does all this delight about regaining lost youth sound just a bit modern?

You might counter that, in Kallir’s telling, Sarah and her friends were not celebrating getting younger so much as staying fertile, the measure of a woman’s life success in traditional society.  But then you would have to deal with the next verse:

She found her peace though she had already begin to lose the freshness of youth,

and her beauty was renewed like an eagle

as women of noble birth rejoiced in her company.

What’s all this?  In the Torah Sarah says she is old and withered to emphasize that she couldn’t conceive, not that she was unattractive.  (Though when she was younger, we read that she was so beautiful that Avraham had to use subterfuges to protect her from the local gentry.)

And what about women of noble birth rejoicing in her company?  There’s nothing in the midrash about that.

Beth Teitell has some amusing things to say about what middle-aged women like her think about their lost youth.  She recalls with nostalgia that when she and her friends were in their twenties, they went out to eat and flirt with the waiters.  At this point Teitell presents herself as a sober professional with a happy marriage, not someone looking for a dalliance with a busboy.  She just would like to imagine that, in theory, if she did want one…..

But if not that, she might settle for walking into a dinner party and having her stylish friends catch sight of her, gasp in astonishment (and envy!), and exclaim, “Why, darling, you look amazing!  Your skin is glowing!  Did you have work done?  Is it that new miracle cream you wrote about in your last column?  You must tell us!”

No rabbinic source forced Kallir to add the part about women of noble birth rejoicing in Sarah’s company.  He just extended the theme of miraculously regained youth, clearly as potent in his time as in ours, to imagine what a woman like Sarah would dream of: aristocratic matrons, the style-setters of their day, seeing her as she breezes in, and gasping, “Why Sarah, you look mahvelous.  It’s a miracle!”

Well, yes.

If you think the word “miracle” in this context is overdrawn, then you may not, as I do, spend part of your days perusing purple cosmetic ad copy or listening in on breathless sales pitches for the next big skincare line.

Men, by the way, are no less tempted than women by the hope of regaining lost youth.  We’re just less delicate about what we want to regain.

Kallir wrote around the turn of the seventh century.  He lived somewhere in the Near East, though no one knows exactly where.  Maybe scholars should narrow down the list of possible cities by picking those with a Neiman Marcus.

About the Author
Avi Rockoff lives in Newton, Massachusetts