’Tis the season for angels. Songs about them singing fill the air waves, and their graceful wings and golden horns deck malls and front lawns. And it’s not just Christmas that’s bringing them out. Angels have also been occupying synagogues, where the annual cycle of Torah readings just brought us to Jacob, with his night visions of angels climbing ladders and wrestling on the river bank.
If all that weren’t enough, an angel has appeared in a story I’m writing. It’s a kids’ story, based on a Yiddish folktale. At one point in the tale, a man in a graveyard sees a woman passing with a basket of bread. The man’s hungry, so he leaps out at her. The woman assumes he’s a dead man rising from the grave. Terrified, she drops her bread and runs, leaving our hero a nice lunch.
In the original version, the man knows that he’s not dead, and the incident in the graveyard is just, well, incidental. In my rewrite, I wanted the man to believe he’s dead. And I wanted the dropped-bread event to drive the story towards its conclusion. But I couldn’t figure out how to make it work.
My husband David suggested that I have the man mistake the woman for an angel. If the man believes he’s dead, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch for him to also believe he’s seen a messenger from God. And, David added, if the woman is young and beautiful, the man’s reaction will make even more sense.
I liked the angel idea, but balked at young and beautiful. What image would that conjure for the reader? Disney princess? Anorexic super model? Why must beautiful always be paired with young? And what did any of this have to do with my story?
If a man is hungry and someone brings him food, he’ll be grateful whether or not she’s a babe. Her angelic essence isn’t based on appearance, but action: she shows up at exactly the right time, provides just the right thing, and exits.
I made her an old woman. Angels are ageless, I told David. (And also, by the way, not women. The Torah refers to the angels who visit Jacob in the night as “men.”)
Still, I wondered. Whose angel idea was more off the wall, David’s or mine? I took my question to Facebook. When you hear the word “angel,” I asked, what do you picture?
I got a lot of answers. People talked about children, dogs and good friends. Wings came up more than once. Two musical friends mentioned music. Others referenced the angels on the Neapolitan Christmas tree at the Metropolitan Museum. Some cited Genesis 22 (where an angel stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac – an action I actually would love to imagine performed by a beautiful young woman).
Two academics, a chemist and an historian, went back and forth about biblical depictions of angels. In Genesis, they’re simply described as mysterious men or strangers, the chemist pointed out, echoing my thoughts. The historian quoted Ezekiel, who sees angels variously as interlocking wheels, flying chariots, and creatures with multiple faces. For both these guys, the bottom line was that the image of “lithe, vaguely concerned white women with wings” (as a third friend put it) isn’t backed up by Scripture.
“Angels are NEVER described in the Bible as looking like the ridiculous winged beings portrayed in European art,” my historian friend asserted. “The whole cherub thing came from Roman art and John Milton was the first one to give them a harp.”
His vehemence raises the question: Can there be an authority on angels? If the buck stops at the Bible, that suggests the book is an irrefutable historical document. I don’t see it that way, but rather as a collection of myths and legends and traditions woven into a brilliant and also often-inconsistent narrative. What’s more, the concept of angels didn’t originate with the Bible’s authors — or end with them. The idea has mutated and evolved through times and cultures, from the mysterious messengers in Genesis through the hallucinations of Ezekiel and the babelicious beings of Botticelli to It’s a Wonderful Life and made-in-China tchotchkes kitsch. What has remained consistent, more or less, isn’t what angels look like, but what they do: show up at exactly the right time, provide just the right thing, and exit.
I’m keeping the old woman in my story. Will it surprise some readers to think of her as an angel? Maybe. And maybe that will make them question the assumption that correlates traditional standards of beauty with moral goodness. In other words, maybe the old woman’s impact won’t just be on the man in the graveyard, but also on the reader. She’ll show up, have a good impact on the reader, and disappear. In short, act like an angel.