Joseph the Matriarch

Today marks the 10th anniversary of this blog. To celebrate, an essay about Joseph and queerness and embodying our inner grandmothers.


It’s a blustery day, and I sit all cozy, balancing books and laptop, a shawl wrapped around me – a grandma shawl. Well, not an actual grandma shawl. My own grandmothers were smart dressers and opted for cardigans with pearled buttons and eventually, in one case, pant suits. But their Old Country grandmothers certainly did wear shawls, and they perhaps better represent the archetype that I, in my shawl, am reaching for. Mythical grandmothers, from another time, like this one: great-great grandmother Miriam Lipshitz, after whom my mother, Marilyn, was named.

When I picture myself old (if, God willing, I should have the good fortune to grow old), it is not as T. S. Elliot’s old man, trousers rolled, hair parted from behind. I see myself as a grandma, fussing and cooking and scratching the backs of children in the same way my Grandma Sade would scratch my sister’s back for hours. Or not fussing, not cooking, not scratching. But certain special young children past and present have called me Tanta Irwin, and I’m beginning to feel the itch to graduate to Bubbe Irwin.[1]

I embody this grandma archetype on these blustery days, and also on the Chanukah nights that go with them when, fitted out in Grandma Sade’s apron, I stand pouring latke batter into hot, spattering oil. The grandmother archetype feels like it would be a good place to land at the end of a life full of ambition and struggle and carefully considered gender self-presentation. It feels like a chance to just be myself.

This is on my mind this time of year not only because of the weather and the latkes, but also because of Torah. Because we are now in the annual 4-week saga of Joseph, and I find myself eyeing him across the ages. I see him young, middle aged and, at long last, at the end of his life, settling in to be a grandmother, the matriarch of his line.

Sounds crazy, no?

Well, not crazy to me.

Others[2] have noticed and explored Joseph’s queerness – a queerness that might not have been homosexuality, and certainly would not have been “gayness” as we understand it, but was perhaps some other non-conformity that our sages kept coming back to as a kind of gender problem.

Joseph was this boy described as being beautiful in exactly the way his mother had been.[3] He was full of big dreams. He was – by his own request we hope – dressed by his father in clothing typical of princesses.[4] He was considered by the rabbis to be childish at age 17 because of his tendency to check out his eyes, primp his hair and “lift his heels”.[5] Bullied by his brothers, cast out, he rose to prominence in the big city.[6] The angel Gabriel taught him the world’s 70 languages, making him an expert code switcher. His beauty drew unwanted attention from Potiphar’s wife and, per midrash, from Potiphar himself.[7] And unlike the classic hero’s journey, Joseph did not return home in his lifetime. His heart’s desire was never of the “if I can’t find it in my own backyard I never really wanted it to begin with” sort. He knew there was no going back to Kansas, no safe return to his childhood home. Instead he brought his family to him in Egypt, installing them closeby. Not too close, but close enough.

Joseph’s is not a classic hero’s journey but a queer journey. He is an outsider, an outcast, a dreamer of dreams and transgressor of gender who endures bullying and brutality and, through personality, skill, belief in his destiny, chutzpah and a timely revealing of identity prevails.

I love this story. I love all the queer elements of it; the sense of destiny to it. God did not command Joseph onto a journey as with Abraham. Nothing so frontal and obvious in Joseph’s story. Instead, a combination of innocence, instinct and subtle intervention by a stranger led Joseph to his destiny. The rabbis of antiquity talk about him as a sort of dandy, and regard him with suspicion.[8] Still, he saved the future of our entire tribe.

Those of us who have lived queer lives easily spot Joseph in the crowd of Torah. He sets off our gaydar instantly. I am kin to Joseph in a way that I am not kin to Abraham, Sarah, and the rest. They are ancestral names on a list recited while davening. I know and love and care about their stories. But Joseph is someone into whose heart I instinctively have insight. He is not the forebear of the Jews – we mostly descend from his brother Judah. This makes Joseph more of an uncle – the funny uncle, whose glamour remains the stuff of family legend.

So when did Uncle Joseph become Grandma Joseph? It’s at the end of his life that we finally get a faint hint of Joseph becoming an old woman. Torah says,

Joseph saw Ephraim’s children of the third generation; the children also of Makhir[9] the son of Manasseh were born upon Joseph’s knees. (Genesis 50:23.)

Mazeltov! So he merits seeing grandchildren and great grandchildren. That’s great. But then what’s that funny bit about his grandchildren being born upon his knees? This is a rather specific and unexpected turn of phrase. We see it 20 chapters earlier when Joseph’s mother, Rachel, sends her husband Jacob in to sleep with her handmaid, Bilhah. She says, “and she shall bear upon my knees that I may also have children by her.” (Genesis 30:3.)

Childbirth statuette from Cyprus.

Childbirth statuette from Cyprus.

Giving birth upon someone’s knees was a standard birthing posture in antiquity. Instead of flat on a bed working against gravity, the birthing mother would instead be in some sort of half-squatting, half-reclining position, with a midwife in front of her, and leaning back on the knees of her mother or grandmother or, in Genesis, the higher ranked wife (see image). And in this last case, bearing upon the knees of the more highly ranked wife constituted the child as belonging, in some legal or spiritual way, to that wife who could not conceive.

So what does it mean in this story that Joseph’s grandchildren were born on his knees? It is as if he now has the chance, in this last phase of his life, to be who he could not be earlier. That perhaps his more ample and fluid gender gives him an awareness of (and sadness about) what he has missed by not having a body that would give birth. And this is as close as he can get. Maybe in the family system, he has now become not an old man like Jacob, but a kind of wise woman and matriarch. And the honor of being part of the birth of the grandchildren falls rightfully to her.

The rabbis are, of course, quick to explain this verse in other ways. In the 11th and 12th Centuries, Rashi and Ibn Ezra say that Joseph’s grandchildren were brought up on his knees. In the 19th Century, Rabbi Shmuel Luzzato says, more generously, that Joseph received his grandchildren upon his knees when they were born. The 2nd Century CE Aramaic translation of Jonathan reformulates the verse entirely to read that when his grandchildren were born, Joseph circumcised them – substituting a specifically male role for an archetypally female one.

All of this is to say that for at least 1700 years, biblical commentators have worked hard to explain why this verse means something other than what it actually says.

Either Joseph’s grandchildren were born on his knees or they weren’t. And if they were, then Joseph, through some dint of queerness or genderqueerness or however it was conceived in his time, and living in the land of Egypt where there were cultic roles for people of atypical gender – Joseph was able to embody some roles that were otherwise reserved for women, for the matriarchs and the aunties and the grandmothers.

At the end of his life, with all the pressures of survival and success and being the family’s savior behind him, Joseph could at last be himself in a way that he hadn’t been since he was 17. Joseph no longer cared what his brothers or anyone else thought. S/he didn’t need to.

Instead, at the end, we see her in the birthing chamber, exchanging meaningful glances with the midwife, whispering encouragement to daughters-in-law and granddaughters who were resting against her. The other women of the household outside the door, nervous about the birth, knew what a blessing it was for a child to be born on the knees of Grandma Joseph.


At this point every year, I put my Tanakh down and take a deep breath, pleased with this, Joseph’s happy ending. I don’t know if it’s quite true of course. Maybe I’m projecting in order to feel as happy with the story as those who say he was circumcising. Maybe. But then I feel Joseph winking at me across the generations, across the columns of Torah. Joseph slowly rises, aging body full of ache, and leaves the birthing room chuckling, and I pull my shawl closer about me. The rain is now hitting the window, and I rise too, grateful not to be aching today, and I grab the kettle, thoughts of of hot tea now filling my head.

[1] To clarify: my desire to embody the Grandma archetype does not require the appearance of actual grandchildren.

[2] See, especially, Gregg Drinkwater, “Joseph’s Fabulous Technicolor Dreamcoat,” in Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible (2009, Drinkwater, Lesser & Shneer, eds.).

[3] Compare Genesis 37:3 (v’Rachel haytah y’fat-toar vifat mar’eh) and Genesis 39:6 (vay’hi Yosef y’feh-toar vifeh mar’eh). In both cases, something like “beautiful of appearance and beautiful of visage.”

[4] Compare Genesis 29:17 (v’asah lo k’tonet pasim – Jacob made for him a k’tonet pasim, a striped garment?) and II Samuel 13:18 (v’aleyha k’tonet pasim ki khen tilbashna v’not-hamelekh hab’tulot – she [Tamar] wore a k’tonet pasim, as was worn by maiden princesses). It is not irrelevant that both Tamar and Joseph were victimized by brothers.

[5] Bereishit Rabbah 84:7, commenting on Genesis 37:2. The rabbis are explaining Joseph’s immaturity, Torah calling him na’ar – “youngin’”. The rabbis say he engages in the aforementioned ma’aseh na’arut – “childish ways,” which they clearly see as feminine. It might well be that what they in fact meant in the midrash was the identically spelled ma’aseh na’arot – “girlish ways”.

[6] Lest we romanticize the purity of his success, consider how he upheld, or was used to uphold, an oppressive social system. See Jessi Roemer, “Dissonant Doubles: The Trouble with Joseph,” on the Jessi Roemer blog, Dec. 4, 2018.

[7] BT Sotah 13b.

[8] But, interestingly, when the Kabbalists select biblical figures as the avatars of the sefirot, they assign Joseph to yesod, on the center spine of the Tree of Life, the balance point between what they see as male and female energies, and in the location that represents sexuality. They see Joseph as deserving of this because of his great righteousness in abstaining from sex with Potiphar’s wife. But really?

[9] In 14th Century Spain, Rabbeinu Bahya suggests that Joseph’s grandson Makhir is mentioned here explicitly because he is the grandfather of the daughters of Tzelafchad, and this teaches that Joseph had to be a great tzaddik to be the progenitor of these wise and righteous women. These five, whose story is told in Numbers 27, are not only righteous, they are (unlike many sisters Joseph undoubtedly had) specifically named in Torah – Machlah, Noah, Choglah, Milkah and Tirtzah. And the name they make for themselves is as advocates for the poperty rights of women. In a way – and I think this is lovely – Rabbeinu Bahya is giving Joseph cred and pedigree not by association with his ancestors but by linkage to the powerful women who will descend from him. And somehow getting birthed on Joseph’s knees plays a role in that.