After the flood, Noah’s son Japheth rescues a trapped angel. Both loved the same woman and bond through their memories of that love.
The voice was calling out the name that echoes forever in my heart, was calling out your sacred name: ‘Istahar!’

I knew that, for the flow of the project, I would have to write about someone related to the flood. The obvious choice was Noah, but Bill Cosby had pretty much cornered the market on that story. Shem did a lot of begetting, but I couldn’t come up with much of interest for him. And the story of Ham (or was it Canaan?) and his father (or grandfather?) is quite garbled, with additional unpleasant overtones added through history.

So I chose Japheth, and the story of Istahar served as a catalyst to the writing.

While searching for legends about Japheth, I came across the story of Istahar and Shemhazai in Louis Ginzberg’s indispensable Legends of the Jews. It apparently was first written down in the Midrash Akbir. There are many variants of it, and like the other writers, I tweaked it a bit to tell the story that I wanted to tell. (In Greek mythology, the story becomes the tale of the goddess of Justice, Dike, who became the constellation Virgo.)

The story of two unrelated people discovering that they had loved the same person had been in my head for a while. Decades ago, at a session at a poetry conference, I heard several poets read pieces about lost love. Spotting unusual similarities in their poems, they discussed how they came to be written. To their amazement, they discovered that each had been written about the same person, who had moved from city to city and won the hearts of poets in each one.

Like several others in The Book of Voices, Japheth is possessed by an obsessive, unrequited love. But unlike many of the rest, he finds a sort of resolution to his pursuit, and is able to move on with his life.


Did you ever desire something or someone so intensely that you mistreated or neglected other people or other needs in your life? Did you eventually achieve your desire? If so, was the result what you had hoped? If not, were you able to restore balance in your life?

Did you ever encounter others who had dealt with the same desire? Did meeting them help you deal with it or make your focus on it even stringer?

If you were in the same situation again, what (if anything) would you hope to do differently? What has changed in your life to make that possible?

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