A Question of Tradition: Women Poets in Yiddish, 1586-1987

A Question of Tradition: Women Poets in Yiddish, 1586-1987

by Kathryn Hellerstein

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In A Question of Tradition, Kathryn Hellerstein explores the roles that women poets played in forming a modern Yiddish literary tradition. Women who wrote in Yiddish go largely unrecognized outside a rapidly diminishing Yiddish readership. Even in the heyday of Yiddish literature, they were regarded as marginal. But for over four centuries, women wrote and published Yiddish poems that addressed the crises of Jewish history—from the plague to the Holocaust—as well as the challenges and pleasures of daily life: prayer, art, friendship, nature, family, and love. Through close readings and translations of poems of eighteen writers, Hellerstein argues for a new perspective on a tradition of women Yiddish poets. Framed by a consideration of Ezra Korman's 1928 anthology of women poets, Hellerstein develops a discussion of poetry that extends from the sixteenth century through the twentieth, from early modern Prague and Krakow to high modernist Warsaw, New York, and California. The poems range from early conventional devotions, such as a printer's preface and verse prayers, to experimental, transgressive lyrics that confront a modern ambivalence toward Judaism. In an integrated study of literary and cultural history, Hellerstein shows the immensely important contribution made by women poets to Jewish literary tradition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804793971
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 07/23/2014
Series: Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 512
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Kathryn Hellerstein teaches Yiddish as associate professor in the department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania. Her books include Paper Bridges: Selected Poems of Kadya Molodowsky and Jewish American Literature: a Norton Anthology.

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A Question of Tradition

Women Poets in Yiddish, 1586â"1987

By Kathryn Hellerstein


Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9397-1


The Idea of a Literary Tradition

In 1928, Ezra Korman (1888–1959), a poet, teacher, and literary critic, published a volume of Yiddish poems by women, Yidishe dikhterins: Antologye (Yiddish Women Poets: Anthology). Clothbound, lavishly illustrated, and replete with introductions, notes, and bibliographies, this book collected poems by seventy women who published between 1586 and 1927. The earliest figures represented in Korman's anthology wrote popular devotional poetry in Krakow and Prague. The post-Haskalah poets in the late nineteenth century wrote on national and social themes, adapting metaphorically the images and conventions of devotional literature. The modern poets of the 1910s and 1920s composed lyrics in America and in the Soviet Union under the influences of cosmopolitan modernism and socialism. From the evidence of Korman's collection, a reader might conclude that in 1928 women poets occupied an acknowledged and significant place in Yiddish literature and that there existed unambiguously a tradition of women writing poems in Yiddish. In fact, Korman's anthology set out to argue the case for such a tradition. But he was shouting into the wind.

Only a decade earlier, Korman's contemporaries—the Yiddish modernists in the United States—had engaged in their own attempt to establish a literary tradition for Yiddish poetry. Anthologies were their tools. In his Antologye: di yidishe dikhtung in amerike biz yor 1919 (Anthology: Yiddish Poetry in America until 1919), published in New York in 1919, Yunge poet Zishe Landau (1889–1937) asserted the criteria for a consciously modern and aesthetic Yiddish poetry in revolt against the didacticism of national and social poetry. One year later, the newly self-proclaimed Introspectivist poets Yankev (Jacob) Glatshteyn (1896–1971), A. Leyeles (1889–1966), and Nokhem-Borekh Minkoff (1893–1958) published In zikh: a zamlung introspektive lider (In the Self: A Collection of Introspectivist Poems), an anthology advocating an even more radical challenge to the poetic use of language, form, and individual voice. In each of these works, the editors selected poems to challenge the late-nineteenth-century conventions of the labor poets, with the belief that Yiddish poetry must serve the collective good of the Jews. As innovative as these collections were, they focused on poetry of the contemporary moment, published as the 1920s commenced. Several years into that decade, Ezra Korman decided to compile an anthology of his own. Although he had been an advocate of avant-garde poetry in Europe, the anthology on which Korman modeled his Yidishe dikhterins was not one of the modernists' manifestos but rather a historical anthology of 1917, compiled by the poet Moyshe Bassin (1889–1963). The deluxe two-volume Antologye: Finf hundert yor yidishe poezye (Anthology: Five Hundred Years of Yiddish Poetry) represented poets in Yiddish from 1410 through 1910, in what Bassin claimed was a strict chronological order. Bassin's anthology was successful enough that it came out in a second edition in 1922. In contrast to the modernist anthologizers' arguments for artistic individuality, Bassin emphasized the collective obligation of the Yiddish poet.

A comparison of Bassin's and Korman's collections of Yiddish poetry shows how anthologies defined competing literary traditions for a newly self-conscious Yiddish poetry. Each work established a heritage and historical continuity for Yiddish from the fifteenth through the twentieth centuries, and they also articulated secular literary values distinct, yet not severed, from religious and folk sources. Taking Bassin's collection of mostly male poets as the model for his anthology of women poets, Korman sought to elevate and augment the place of women within Yiddish literary history, counteracting the trend among his contemporaries to contain or diminish writings by women.

In the tumultuous literary environment of Yiddish New York in 1917, where writers sought out the new and the modern, Bassin's anthology looked backward in order to define a literary tradition for avant-garde writers. Through scholarly collecting, he endeavored to establish the historical continuity of Yiddish writing from earlier periods to his present moment. The first volume of Bassin's two-volume anthology encompasses Yiddish poetry from 1410 through 1885. This volume begins with the opening poem, "Shabeslid" (Sabbath Song), by Reb Zelmelin, who died around 1456, and continues through the folklike poems of A. M. Sharkanski, who immigrated to the United States in 1887. In an intellectual atmosphere where the religious and folk roots of Jewish culture aroused ambivalence if not outright antagonism among his fellow immigrants, Bassin complicated the idea of a straightforward chronological tradition by including religious and folk materials alongside secular belles-lettres. The first volume of the anthology contains three parts. In part one, Bassin offers a selection of Yiddish prayers.

The second part contains folksongs, which, as Bassin explains in his introduction, are universally considered "the oldest form, the root of poetry," although in Yiddish, he asserts, they are predated by fifteenth-century written verse—acrostics, devotionals, and love poems. By claiming that these obscure printed devotions and popular folksongs are its sources, Bassin argued that the secular Yiddish poetry of the nineteenth century (included in the anthology's third section) was contiguous with the religious and folk past, even as it proclaimed its difference from those premodern genres. The scholarly apparatus—a glossary of archaic Yiddish words found in the poems and bibliographic and linguistic notes on the poetry—strengthens these claims of contiguous distinction.

The second volume of Bassin's anthology presents the modern period in a single, chronological sweep. It begins in the 1890s with the labor poet Morris Rosenfeld and ends with poems by Moyshe Bassin himself, who was 28 years old in 1917. Both volumes included biographical notes on individual poets, portraits of the poets by S. Zagat, and decorative illustrations by Y. Likhtenshteyn and Zuni Maud.

Bassin's opening remarks to the first volume indicate that he intends his anthology to be as inclusive and representative of all the kinds of Yiddish poetry as possible, although he stopped short of including "every single person who has ever jotted down a couple of verses." His collaborator, Ber Borokhov (1881–1917), developed the anthology's thesis even more explicitly in his brief but scholarly introductory essay. There, Borokhov argued that Bassin's anthology would ensure that the "Yiddish muse" would not be left "orphaned" and "vulnerable" to the works of "mere dilettantes," for it would present the "classical" tradition of Yiddish poetry. By stressing the idea that each individualpoet has a place in the overall development of a collective Yiddish tradition, Borokhov contradicted the Yunge ideal of individualism in the poetic voice. In Borokhov's view, a poet's intent, however individualistic or even iconoclastic, was subsumed by the writer's participation in promoting the overall good. Borokhov's idea of the Yiddish poet's accountability to the Jewish people contrasted with the discriminating modernist ideas of a Yiddish poetic tradition that were circulating well before 1917 and would soon be formalized by Di Yunge and Introspectivist anthologies. Such an emphasis on the cultural collective corresponds to the labor poets' socialism and Jewish nationalism, ideologies that the modernist poets rejected. The idea of literary tradition that Borokhov stated and that Bassin's anthology embodied was a political and nationalistic statement about the purpose of Yiddish poetry. In this scheme, poetry served the greater ends of peoplehood and national culture. This emphasis stood in opposition to the ideas of poetry that were driving the avant-garde poets of that moment.

These three anthologies—namely, those edited by the Yunge poet Landau, by the Introspectivists Glatshteyn, Leyeles, and Minkoff, and by the literary historian Bassin—represented few women poets. Landau included two, Fradl Shtok (1890–ca. 1952) and Celia Dropkin (1887–1956). The 1920 Introspectivist anthology featured eight male poets and no women, although the first issue of the In zikh journal (also published in 1920) began with two poems by Celia Dropkin, the sole woman writer published there. From 500 years of Yiddish writing, Bassin included a total of nine women poets: Gele (born 1702), Yehudis (pseudonym for Rokhl Bernshteyn) (1869–?), Roza Yakubovitsh (1889–1942), Zelda Knizshnik (1869–?), Anna Rappaport (1870 or 1876–?), Paula R. (pseudonym for Pearl Rozental Prylucki) (1876–1941), Sarah Reyzen (1885–?), Roza Goldshteyn (1870–?), and Fradl Shtok (1888–1952). From this list, a reader might conclude that just one woman wrote poetry before the late nineteenth century and that only eight others had written poetry after that.

It was to address this misconception that Ezra Korman began work on his anthology in 1925 or 1926, Yidishe dikhterins, which assessed the actual contribution of women poets to Yiddish literature. A contemporary of Landau, Glanz, and Bassin, all of whom had come to the United States before 1910, Korman remained active in the literaryscene in Kiev, Warsaw, and Berlin until he immigrated to the United States in 1923. Korman himself was a teacher, a literary critic, a bibliographer, a translator, a poet, and the editor of two previous anthologies of Ukrainian Yiddish poetry, focused on the theme of revolution.

In his first American anthological effort, though, Korman shifted his agenda from the politics of the Russian Revolution to the sexual revolution. Was it with irony or adulation that Korman modeled his anthology of women Yiddish poets on Bassin's anthology? Although one might be tempted to view Korman's collection of women poets as a radical correction to Bassin's male-dominated canon, one might also see it as a tribute and an enriching supplement to Bassin's tradition-building. In his introduction, Korman states his intention to establish the place of women poets in the tradition of Yiddish writing, but he does not claim to be original, and in copious footnotes he credits others whose recent works had brought to light literate and literary women. Seeking to ground contemporary Yiddish culture in a centuries-long history of Yiddish literature, these publications included the first literary encyclopedia of Yiddish literature by Zalman Reyzen in 1914 Warsaw (Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur un prese [Lexicon of Yiddish Literature and Press]); scholarly essays, such as Max Erik's 1926 "Brantshpigl: Di entsiklopedye fun der yidisher froy in zibetstn yorhundert" (Brantshpigl: The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Woman in the Seventeenth Century); and Shmuel Niger's 1913 article "Di Yidishe literatur un di lezerin" (Yiddish Literature and the Female Reader). In Korman's eyes, Bassin's 1917 historical anthology proved a 500-year legacy and shared with these works the assumption that Yiddish writing of the early twentieth century would gain legitimacy in the view of modern world literature if it could prove its roots in a medieval past. Korman followed this model. By discussing at length the textual and bibliographical variants of the oldest poems, which his anthology shared with Bassin's, Korman acknowledged his debt to his predecessor and marked his collection as part of an anthological tradition.

Korman's anthology resembles Bassin's anthology in its massiveness, its chronological span, its format, and its apparatus. But Korman improves upon Bassin materially. The first edition of Bassin's anthology was visually impressive; the book was bound in boards and imprinted with a stunning, folklike, four-color graphic design by Y. Likhtenshteyn. Korman's anthology was even better. It was clothbound, in dark blue with gilded lettering; the blue dust jacket matched the end-papers, and it was imprinted with black graphics by Todres Geler in the style of Russian Formalism. Because Korman used higher-quality materials than Bassin, Korman's binding remains sturdy today, whereas the Bassin volumes are now extremely fragile. The Bassin volumes featured S. Zagat's sketched portraits of each poet. But Korman, utilizing the more advanced and expensive printing technology of zincography, tipped in photographs of each modern poet as well as facsimile reproductions of significant pages from some of the original books of poems. Examples included the first and last pages of Toybe Pan's seventeenth-century poem (a prayer for God's mercy in time of plague), along with a variant version of that poem, and a photomontage of title pages of modern poetry books. Although Bassin's anthology had an alphabetical index of authors at the end of each volume, Korman's opened with an eleven-page table of contents at the beginning of the book and ended with separate alphabetical indexes of the authors, their poems, and a list of their pseudonyms. Whereas the total texts of Bassin's "A Few Words," Borokhov's introductory essay, and his concluding "Linguistic and Bibliographic Comments" on the poems consisted of only 18 pages in the two volumes, Korman's introductory essay alone was 38 pages long, including footnotes. His 35-page section of biographies and a bibliography of 232 titles established the scholarly heft and depth of Korman's volume.

Divided into two main sections, "Sources" and "Literature," Korman's bibliography lists books of poems by individual writers; anthologies; handbooks; collections and periodical publications; studies and literary histories; articles and reviews; a bibliography of Old Yiddish literature; and translations of Yiddish poems by women into Hebrew, English, and Polish. With this bibliography, Korman accomplishes several tasks. First, by documenting the sources for all the writers in his anthology, Korman establishes his own credentials and the validity of his research. Second, he shows how widely published these poets were in their contemporary culture. Third, he establishes the range of the audience for works by these women poets, as they appeared in anthologies, specialized collections of literary movements, political and literary journals, daily newspapers, and even a short-lived weekly journal for women titled Froyen zshournal-vokhenblat (Women's Journal-Weekly). These various works were published both in the centers of Yiddish culture, such as New York, Montreal, Warsaw, Vilna, Moscow, Kiev, and Lodz, and in more remote places, such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Cape Town. Fourth, Korman provides an invaluable tool for future readers of Yiddish literature long after most of the ephemeral publications, such as newspapers and journals, have been discarded along with many of the Yiddish books themselves.

We can read the bibliography for a portrait of the book's own time, when women generally lagged behind men in the publication of books. For instance, Korman lists thirteen books of poems by individual writers and 126 entries under "collections and periodical publications." These two lists show that by 1928 women poets had published a relatively small number of books, but they had contributed more prolifically to periodicals. In contrast, during this same period, a much larger number of poetry books had been published by men. Although many of the younger male modernists had published two or more books of poems, their female counterparts had as of then published no books. Two of the women whose poems regularly appeared in the American Yunge and Introspectivist journals—Celia Dropkin and Anna Margolin—published only a single volume of poetry each during their lifetimes. Other women who had brought out one book were prevented by economic or political circumstances from publishing another. Korman describes manuscripts of second books by two women poets in Poland—Miriam Ulinover and Roza Yakubovitsh—as completed but not yet in print. Expected to appear after 1940, these two manuscripts vanished during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Although women poets actively wrote and published, they were less visible on the literary scene than men.

The introduction to Yidishe dikhterins set forth Korman's ideological position. By presenting modern Yiddish poetry by women (or "the modern women-poetry" [der moderner froyen-dikhtung]), alongside examples of the works of women writers (froyen-farfasterins) who wrote in what he called variously and somewhat inaccurately Yidish-taytsh (Judeo-German) or di eltere yidishe literatur (Old Yiddish literature), Korman hoped to show the parallel between the nascent vernacular Jewish literature in the sixteenth century, which marked the beginning of a new epoch of Jewish life, and the current period, in which the buds of that early period had blossomed. Yet although Korman emphasized the creativity of women, old and new, his introduction was at the same time ambivalent and contradictory. Korman explicitly denied that a continuous poetic tradition of women poets existed, even while he implied a line of influence between the early and later periods. He considered the Yiddish poetry of the early modern period for, and presumably by, women as "immeasurably huge and incomparable," and he thought that modern poetry by women was a mere "thin thread" continuing that heritage that still affected the new women poets. Korman argued that Old Yiddish literature had an abiding influence over the modern poets because no single, great modern voice had appeared to restructure the relationship of the new to the old. Significantly, although Korman stated that the old literature of women in Yiddish outweighed the new, his selections in the anthology reversed this judgment: the sixty-six modern poets vastly outnumber the four examples of the premodern writers.


Excerpted from A Question of Tradition by Kathryn Hellerstein. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


1. The Idea of a Literary Tradition,
2. Old Poems in a Modern Anthology,
3. Revolution, Prayers, and Sisterhood in Interwar Poland,
4. The Folk and the Book: Miriam Ulinover and Roza Yakubovitsh,
5. The Art of Sex: Celia Dropkin and Anna Margolin,
6. Prayer-Poems against History: Kadya Molodowsky and Malka Heifetz Tussman,
Letters from Women Poets to Ezra Korman, 1926–1927,
Bibliographic Essays,
Celia Dropkin,
Anna Margolin,
Kadya Molodowsky,
Malka Heifetz Tussman,
Miriam Ulinover,
Roza Yakubovitsh,
Works Cited,

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