Black, Beautiful and No Buts About It

In a modern view of The Song of Songs, Marcia Falk reinterprets verses we think we know.

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Women working under the sun. Vincent van Gogh: 'Red Vineyards at Arles,' Pushkin Museum, Moscow

Song of Songs 1:5-6

Yes, I am black! and radiant—
O city women watching me—
As black as Kedar's goathair tents
Or Solomon's fine tapestries.
Will you disrobe me with your stares?
The eyes of many morning suns
Have pierced my skin, and now I shine
Black as the light before the dawn.
And I have faced the angry glare
Of others, even my mother's sons
Who sent me out to watch their vines
While I neglected all my own.

A modern translation by Marcia Falk, from “The Song of Songs, Love Lyrics from the Bible," Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977. Reissued by Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England, September 2004.

New translations of familiar lines jolt readers into re-thinking commonplaces. In this version of material rabbis define as an allegorical treatment of God’s love for Israel, we have a miniature but detailed portrait of a particular woman.

Marcia Falk writes: “My translation is not literal but, I trust, faithful to the roots and power of the original. The Song of Songs, traditionally read on the Sabbath of Passover, celebrates sensuality and erotic love against the background of the natural world. I see it as an anthology of lyric poems with a variety of contexts and speakers.

Marcia Falk. Credit: Stephen Damon

“This poem, the second in the collection, is spoken by a woman to a hostile audience of city women, ‘the daughters of Jerusalem’ and my reading departs from standard interpretations. Most translators see the lines as an apology and render the conjunction in the first line as ‘but,’ suggesting that the speaker accepts the judgment of outsiders who consider blackness and beauty contradictory. The Hebrew, however, says 'I am black and beautiful'—a self-confident assertion emphasized by beginning the line with ‘Yes’ and interrupting it with an exclamation point.

“I’ve tried to bring to the surface the poem’s use of underlying paradoxes—light that darkens and light contained in darkness—to support the speaker’s posture of defiance. These paradoxes are buried in the roots of key words in the second stanza: sh-z-f (in sheshezafatni) means both ‘burn’ and ‘glance:’ the eye of the heavens gazes, burning the speaker ‘black,’ sh'horah, and "black-black," sh'harhoret. Sh-h-r is also the root of shahar, meaning ‘dawn’ or, originally, ‘the light before the dawn.’ The woman asserts she is radiant in her blackness, glowing like the source of light that has turned her black—she is ‘Black as the light before the dawn.’

“Rhyme links the second and third stanzas, to help convey that the speaker remains undaunted by the expectations of others – her brothers or the city women. She is her own person.”

Marcia Falk is a poet, translator, and liturgist based in California. Her most recent book is The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season (Brandeis University Press, 2014).

*Musing: Imagine sophisticated Jerusalem women gossiping about the woman in the poem. Now imagine sophisticated Tel Aviv residents gossiping about more rustic Jews.

*Bonus: Ofra Haza performs a Ladino ballad based on these lines, “La Morena” (“Black Girl”) translated into Hebrew by Moshe Elimelech: “Shecharchoret”.