Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Yiddish Women Poets

Most people mistakenly think that Yiddish literature and poetry was solely written by men. It’s unfortunate that this gross misconception exists, because there were hundreds of female Yiddish writers and poets, all of whom had their own distinct biographies and writing styles.

Edith Kaplan Bregman was one of these women. She was born in a Russian shtetl in 1899 to a Hasidic family, immigrating to New York when she was thirteen. In America, she was exposed to literature that hadn’t been available in Europe, so she became a voracious reader. Bregman went on to write poetry in her native tongue, Yiddish. Her love of language led her to meet many Yiddish literary giants, like Avrom Reyzen, a poet who became her mentor. While she wrote poems throughout her early life, her works weren’t published until 1939, when a Yiddish newspaper had a poetry contest that she entered and won. Her victory gave her the confidence to publish more of her written work. Some of the themes that recur throughout her poems are a love of Judaism and God, life in Europe, and Holocaust remembrance. In addition to writing poetry, Bregman sang and played the mandolin and piano. Bregman’s last poem was published in 1997, a few years before her death at age 99.

Another Yiddish woman poet was Celia Dropkin (1887-1956). An eager student, she was formally educated for most of her youth in Belarus. She began writing poetry in Russian at age ten, and was encouraged to keep writing by Uri Nissan Gnessin, a Hebrew poet who she became close with. After getting married, Dropkin immigrated to New York. She began translating her Russian poems into Yiddish and published them in several leading Yiddish literary magazines. While some of Dropkin’s works were about her life experiences and children, she is famed for her passionate poetry about sex, eroticism, love, and relationships, themes that resonate with readers today. In the early 1900s, most people thought that Jewish women only wrote tkhines, Yiddish prayers often concerning domestic matters and childrearing; Dropkin challenged that. While a number of critics felt that her works were too personal and too overtly sexual, her contemporaries were generally positive about her writings. Modern-day Yiddish enthusiasts have not forgotten Dropkin’s contributions to Jewish literature, as her poems have been published in several contemporary Yiddish anthologies and set to song by klezmer bands.

Some female Yiddish poets went out of their way to address women’s issues in their poetry. Kadya Molodowsky was one such woman. Born in 1894 in a Russian shtetl, her poetic career began in 1920, when she published her first poem. She married and moved to Warsaw shortly afterward, where she became active in the Yiddish Writers Union. Many of her works celebrate and discuss Jewish women and their role in the world. Her first book of poetry, Nights of Heshvan, is written from the point of view of a Jewish woman in her thirties who moves throughout Eastern Europe, like Molodowsky herself. It was received to wide acclaim. Another book of poetry, Freydke, features a narrative poem about a Jewish working-class woman. After immigrating to New York, Molodowsky wrote From Lublin to New York: Diary of Rivke Zilberg, a book of poems about a Jewish woman immigrant. She also wrote a column for The Forward about great Jewish women, as well as publishing a long poem about Gracia Mendes, a Portuguese Converso who saved innumerable Jews from the Inquisition. Molodowsky also cofounded and edited a Yiddish literary journal, Svive. Other themes that she wrote about are poverty, children, Judaism, the Diaspora, Zionism and Israel, and the Holocaust. Her lifetime of achievement in poetry was recognized when she received the Itzik Manger Prize, the most prestigious award in Yiddish literature, in 1971.

Yiddish women poets paved the way for modern Jewish women writers, impacting aspiring poets from Gertrude Stein to Adrienne Rich to Vanessa Hidary. May we learn from the legacy they left us and make the world a better place because of it.

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