Christmas, Day 4: Ancient Tears

The fourth day of Christmas is set apart in Christian calendars to commemorate the massacre of innocents in Bethlehem shortly after the birth of Jesus. Herod, a Roman client king of Judea, felt threatened by the news that the “Anointed One” of God had been born and would rule the people. In an attempt to secure his political power, Herod ordered that all the male babies in Bethlehem be killed, thinking that surely the Messiah would be among them.

Applying the prophet Jeremiah’s words about the grief of exile (Jer. 31:15) to the present bloodshed, Matthew tells us in his Gospel that the night of the Bethlehem massacre,

A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more. (Matt. 2:18)

Rachel, a matriarch of Israel, was buried near Bethlehem, so the implication is that she was crying out from her grave in grief over her murdered descendants, joining the chorus of wailing Jewish mothers whose loss is unfathomable.

LOOK: Antiquarum Lacrimae (The Tears of Ancient Women) by Joan Snyder

Snyder, Joan_Antiquarum Lacrimae
Joan Snyder (American, 1940–), Antiquarum Lacrimae (The Tears of Ancient Women), 2004. Acrylic and dried flowers on linen, 78 × 120 in. Grand Rapids Art Museum, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Painted in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attack on the New York World Trade Center and the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the elegiac Antiquarum Lacrimae by Joan Snyder evokes the suffering of women in times of war and violence. Broad, lateral strokes of green in varying shades form a backdrop for the scrawled repetition of the Latin words of the title, which translate to “The Tears of Ancient Women”—women who weep in personal anguish, lamenting their own losses, but also more broadly for the state of the world. Dried flowers, pressed upside down onto the canvas, suggest a ravaged field, or gravesides, and the thick, round, deep red splotches of dripping paint suggest open wounds.

LISTEN: “Neharót Neharót” by Betty Olivero, 2006–8 | Performed by violist Kim Kashkashian on Neharót, 2009, and live on October 20, 2019 (see video below)

A chamber piece for solo viola, accordion, percussion, two string ensembles, and tape, “Neharót Neharót” is by contemporary Israeli composer Betty Olivero. Its Hebrew title translates to “Rivers Rivers,” referring to the rivers of tears shed by women—though Olivero also points out the word’s resemblance to nehara, meaning “ray of light,” thus identifying a faint hope that shines through floods of suffering. The composition is a textured lament led by viola, which plays lyrically over the top of an ensemble accompaniment and engages with recordings of women’s singing voices.

In 2006 Olivero was working on a commission from 92NY, a Jewish community center in Manhattan, when war broke out at the Israel-Lebanon border between the Israeli military and the militias of Hezbollah, an Islamist group. “Deeply touched and marked by the shocking television images of victims, corpses and mourning people on both sides of the border, [Olivero] chose elegies by mothers, widows and sisters who had lost their loved ones as a point of reference for her composition.”

Olivero taped women in mourning, as well as elegies and love songs of Kurdish and North African origin or derivation performed by professional Israeli singers Lea Avraham and Ilana Elia. One such song is “Fermana” (Destruction), which laments Saddam Hussein’s slaughter of the Kurds. Excerpts from these recordings are played back as part of the fabric of the live performance of “Neharót Neharót.” The piece also quotes Orpheus’s lament from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo.

“‘Neharót Neharót’ is a dedication to all those women and children living in areas of war,” Olivero says. Though it was catalyzed by and references particular conflicts, it is intended as a universal cry of sorrow on behalf of women everywhere who carry the wounds of war—especially the unremitting grief of having lost children to violence.

Snyder, Joan_Antiquarum Lacrimae
Joan Snyder, Antiquarum Lacrimae (detail). Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

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