During the first weekend in May, my wife, Sandy, and I returned, yet again, to the Yiddish Book Center, in Amherst, Massachusetts.
From Friday evening until Sunday at noon, we explored the topic “Yiddish Women Writers Reclaimed.”
Anita Norich, a professor of English and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan, guided those present through four intense and illuminating discussions focusing on a number of women Yiddish writers of poetry and prose, the majority of whose works were published in the first half of the 20th century.
We devoted most of our study time to a close reading of texts in English translation, as well as, selectively, in the Yiddish original.
The reading material was sent to the participants several weeks prior to the program. All of us were struck by the vitality, daring and rebellious spirit of the poetry and prose. The underlying theme uniting these diverse women writers was their demand to be heard, their demand to give voice to their deepest selves without fear, without shame. Their brave new words defy the strictures of their patriarchal Jewish world. As a group, they proclaim: “We will be silent no more!”
Like many of the women writers discussed during the weekend, Anna Margolin (1887-1952) refuses in her poetry to be locked into a single identity. She seems to be telling her readers, “Do not try to identify me in ways that you think you know me. I am the person I choose to be; I am the many different individuals I choose to be.”
In “Once I was Young,” Margolin “shapeshifts” her way through time and space and, perhaps, the Yiddish original suggests, through gender. As a young girl (boy), she (he) “hung out / in doorways listening to Socrates ….”
“Then came Caesar and a world / glittering with marble … / … For my bride, / I picked out my proud sister.”
In this poem, Margolin assumes many selves. She sits in the presence of Socrates in ancient Athens, and – impossibly, except in the world of imagination – hundreds of years later, she is in Caesar’s Rome, where she suggests, transgressively, that her bride could be her sister.
Insisting upon her right as a woman to celebrate sexual desire in the fullness of its agony and ecstasy, Celia Dropkin (1887-1956) loads her poem “The Acrobat” with erotically charged imagery: “I dance between daggers / erected in the ring / tips up.” She ends her poem of 19 compressed lines with “I want – my blood warming / your bare tips – / to fall.”
In her poem “Widowhood,” Malka Heifetz Tussman (1893-1987) echoes Dropkin’s claim to sexual enjoyment, even when she finds herself a widow. “My name is Desire,” she proudly proclaims, as she refuses to renounce “the wailing in my flesh.” On multiple levels, Tussman’s poem expresses a fierce and ferocious hunger to live life in all its fullness, even after her husband’s death.
“God of Mercy,” written in 1945, just as the full horror of the Holocaust was coming to light, is the best-known poem by Kadya Molodovsky (1894-1975); indeed, “God of Mercy” could well be the best-known poem by any woman Yiddish writer.
In a burst of bitter rebellion, Molodovsky turns on its head the traditional notion of us Jews being God’s chosen people: “O God of Mercy / For the time being / Choose another people. / We are tired of death / tired of corpses, / We have no more prayers. / Choose another people. / We have run out of blood / For victims.”
The poet continues for another 29 angry lines, finally urging God to “[t]ake back the divine glory of our genius.” The original Yiddish for the word translated as “divine glory” is shechinah; in both Yiddish and Hebrew, shechinah refers to the indwelling presence of God. In the aftermath of Auschwitz, Molodovsky – audaciously, defiantly – tells God to go away and leave us alone, even though God has for millennia been the source, the very root, of Jewish genius.
In addition to deepening our appreciation of several poets, Norich directed discussions of a number of prose works by Yiddish women writers who display the same convention-shattering defiance as their sister poets. They refuse to remain trapped in the cage of traditional Jewish patriarchy.
Esther Singer Kreitman (1891-1954), sister of world-renowned writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, is but one of many examples. In her novel “Deborah” (1946), published in Yiddish in 1936, the leading character expresses her profound contempt for the Polish Hasidic family into which she has entered through an arranged marriage:
“It positively reeked of poverty and wretchedness …. She noticed a fly on a yellow flypaper, suspended from the ceiling, struggling furiously to escape the fate of the scores of its fellows that had long since given up the struggle and lay dead in the sticky mess. But this one refused to yield, and in the end by forfeiting its leg it saved its life, and the mutilated remains flew away with a horrible buzzing noise. What a foul thing to have in the home – a cemetery of flies!”
The Yiddish women writers we encountered during the first weekend of May have found their voices; they are silent no more. To echo the words of Elie Wiesel, they reflect in their poetry and their prose souls on fire.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.