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A genealogy of Yiddish women writers.

Mendele Mokher Sforim begat Sholem Aleichem, who begat I. L. Peretz. So runs the genealogy of Yiddish writers. Mendele the grandfather, Sholem Aleichem the father, and Peretz, by default, the son. Every culture needs its foundational myths, and this is the foundational myth of modern Yiddish literature. And just as in Genesis 10, where the sons of Noah beget this son and that son, there is no mention of women, certainly not as daughters (who needs daughters?); not even as mothers to the sons. People who know nothing else about the history of Yiddish literature do sometimes know the Mendele-Sholem Aleichem-Peretz genealogy. But it's all wrong. Just as we can infer that Noah's sons didn't get their sons out of thin air, we can also conclude that there must have been women in Yiddish literature. And with only a few generations separating us from them, and a published record of their work, it is possible, with some digging, to ferret them out.

Of course the genealogy is wrong in other ways too: Mendele, Sholem Aleichem and Peretz were actually roughly contemporaries, and there were numerous others writing simultaneously, from the 1860s through the 1910s. Together these writers formed the first wave of secular, modern writers in Yiddish; and because they were modern, they wrote about concerns that resonated with women as well as men; and because of this, women as well as men also chose to write in Yiddish.

In addition to this influence, there was also the discovery and publication of the memoirs of Ghuckel of Hameln. This 17th to 18th century figure kept a private diary intended for her children in the years 1690 to 1699, and again in 1715 to 1719. These memoirs were first published in Germany in 1896, in their original Yiddish. In many ways, Gluckel represented more fully established tradition than the newly-sprung Yiddish belles lettres of Mendele and his cohort. While her writing was intended for a private audience, in it she discusses contemporaneous events of importance to Jews in central Europe during those years. It falls into the category of instructional writing, intended to guide her children in how to live, and includes her ethical will. Yet it is also an accomplished work in its own right, not simply a family document. If male writers rushed to create an instant tradition with the naming of three male "ancestors," women writers found in Gluckel a tradition already in place.

Dvora Baron is one of the most interesting women to begin publishing her work in the years that followed. In 1902, when she was fifteen, Baron's first Hebrew stories appeared; her first Yiddish stories, in 1904. Not only did she write in both languages, she also sometimes wrote versions of the same story in each language. Herself the daughter of a rabbi, several stories are told from the point of view of a child watching the interactions in her father's rabbinical court--a framing device later made famous by I.B. Singer's In My Father's Court. After she made aliyah in 1910, she worked almost exclusively in Hebrew, but continued to set her stories in the Eastern European shtetl. Her stories show a dynamic awareness of women's particular burdens in rabbinically-moderated culture, but are not all straightforwardly critical of it. At times traditional laws are shown to be of assistance to women: in one story, a woman is able to receive a divorce from an unhappy marriage, an option not then available to Christian women, for example. In other stories, though, divorce is forced upon women who have done nothing wrong except fail to produce a male heir.

Baron married and had a daughter, and in 1919 took to her bed, from which, for 37 years, she edited Tel Aviv literary magazines and wrote the vast majority of her work. She produced a total of 13 books of stories. Baron's daughter acted as her editorial assistant, and became herself a literary editor held in high esteem; but this daughter also was reclusive and eventually died of self-starvation.

In spite of his use of one of the same narrative devices, it is not I.B. Singer but his sister, Esther Kreitman, whose life and work shadows and reverses Baron s in startling ways. Kreitman and Baron share almost the same lifespan--Kreitman lived from 1891 to 1954, Baron from 1887 to 1956. While both were the daughters of rabbis, Baron's father was adaptive to the needs of his intellectual daughter, teaching her Hebrew and Aramaic, allowing her to study Talmud and gain a firm footing in yeshiva-learning then reserved for men. Kreitman's father actively hindered her efforts to educate herself, whether in religious or secular subjects. Kreitman's mother, who was herself well-educated, similarly belittled her daughter's intellectual quest, and this lack of support from both parents and the injustice of their attitude towards her was probably the most devastating single factor in a life that went from disappointment to disappointment. Submitting to an arranged marriage to escape her unhappy family, Kreitman found her married life equally unsuitable. While her husband was meek, he did not understand his wife's intelligence or her creative needs, and in spite of working in the Antwerp diamond market, he never managed to make much of a living. Kreitman destroyed her early writings before her marriage: some say this was an effort to conceal her intellectualism from her in-laws, in case it scuttled the match. Other sources say carrying Yiddish writing across borders was dangerous in times when the tsarist authorities worried about the revolutionary tendencies of the Jews. Kreitman herself said that she did not think of these early stories as public documents, and destroyed them simply because she did not think them worth preserving. For whatever reason, Kreitman's publishing life did not begin until she was in her 40s.

Many of her stories are set in the shtetl, but others show life in Belgium, and later England, where she lived the bulk of her life. Continually separating and reuniting with her husband, Kreitman's only close relationship was with her son, Maurice Carr, who became a journalist and translator of his mother's work. Carr went on to a happy, long life, and lived in Paris and Israel with his wife and daughter. But happiness continued to elude Esther Kreitman. Unlike Baron, she could not find employment in the literary world, although she translated two books to earn extra money; and she could not find enough time to write because of her need to earn money through menial jobs. She ran a grocery store and at times took in piece work in her home, but together she and her husband barely made enough to live on. In her later years, it was almost certainly her son's income that supported her. She produced only two novels and a book of short stories, and a handful of uncollected stories and essays.

Baron and Kreitman each wrote a story about the birth of a girl, told from the point of view of the child as it comes into the world. In Baron's story, "The First Day," it is the mother-in-law who is most furious at the birth of a girl instead of the desired boy; the baby's father is the one who in the end comforts and sings to the child, but even this sympathetic character cannot completely shield the girl, for she has seen in a vision what lies ahead for a female in a world that values males.

In Kreitman's story, "The New World," there is a general lack of joy at the birth of the girl, and the newborn wonders why she was born at all. The father is largely absent except to insist that the girl be named after one of his relatives. Then it seems the mother is too genteel to breastfeed, especially given that the child is perpetually hungry. The baby notes that she at last brings joy to someone--the wetnurse, who will earn ten zlotys a week. The wetnurse's husband is less overjoyed that his wife is earning better than he is, though they need the cash. The child's hunger--to be the recipient of love and tenderness as much as for physical sustenance--is never sated.

It is unlikely that these writers knew each others' work in any detail, given their geographic distance from each other, and the fact that by the time Kreitman was immersing herself in Yiddish literature, Baron was working largely in Hebrew. The similarity between the stories "The First Day" and "The New World" probably lies in the basic need for this narrative to be told. The arrival of daughters into traditional households would have been witnessed by both Baron and Kreitman, and, coming of age at the same time in different parts of Eastern Europe, with the Haskalah well underway but still lagging in its application to women, they both chose to show how women's lives were hobbled from the very moment of their arrival in this world. And in neither story do women necessarily provide support for each other or the newborn girl, underscoring both writers' awareness of the lack of a movement of women that would provide the specific liberation the Haskalah offered to men.

Yet their awareness of these issues did not save either Kreitman or Baron from succumbing to the restrictions of their own societies. Esther Kreitman never failed to notice the greater financial rewards devolving to her brothers, who both were able to support themselves as journalists at the Forverts. Very few women writers were given regular positions at Yiddish newspapers, while this was a common way for men to support themselves and still have time and energy for their literary writing. It was also possible for men to avoid financial responsibilities, such as in the case of I.B. Singer, who deserted his first wife and son in Poland and later allowed himself to be supported by his wife until he achieved enough success to make a living from his writing. Kreitman, while she frequently left her husband, never considered abandoning her son or stopping work. Not surprisingly, both I.J. and I.B. Singer wrote much more than Kreitman, earned more for their writing, were more widely translated, and much more lauded.

While Kreitman's life was certainly more tragic, Dvora Baron's life story also has troubling aspects. Baron only managed to have her creative life through self-imposed invalidism, and apparently taught this method of escape to her daughter as well. This creation of a completely private space in which to work has frequently been seen as the only way for women to write (Emily Dickinson did something similar). We can respect this decision as providing a greater creative autonomy than any other open to her. Yet it is still disturbing to find that men could write, support themselves, and be public figures; while women could at most, really achieve only one of those.

As another example of this dynamic, several women contributed poetry to the growing Yiddish literary movement earlier than Baron published her stories; but very little is known about them since these very early figures usually did not go on writing. If they did, they moved away from creative writing. The only reason they are at all known today is because of the groundbreaking anthology Yidishe Dikhterins (Yiddish Women Poets), edited by Ezra Korman and published in 1928. For this anthology, Korman set out to prove the existence of a women's tradition of poetry, in much the same way that Gluckel provided an antecedant for modern prose writers. He scoured old newspapers and found a variety of women pietistic writers of the 16th through 18th centuries. He also republished poems that appeared in Eastern European literary journals in the 1880s and 1890s--women such as Rosa Goldshteyn, whose work appeared in 1888 in the St. Petersburg Yidishe Folksblat. She was eighteen at the time. It is not clear what happened to her or her writing after that.

Anna Rapport's first poems appeared, under a pseudonym, in 1893 and 1894, when she may have been as young as 17 (her date of birth is uncertain). There followed ten years of silence; her next poems appeared between 1903 and 1909. After that, Rapport went on to a career in Yiddish and English journalism in New York, and seems not to have continued writing poetry. Zelda Knizhnik was 31 in 1900, when her poems appeared in the Kracow newspaper Der Yid. Knizhnik also wrote in Hebrew, and was the daughter of a rabbi who educated her. These scanty biographies show the importance of intellectual, financial, and familial support in the ability of women to write.

Even later in the modern period, in North America, where gender and economic roles proved more adaptable, many women wrote for a short while only, giving it up for other creative endeavors, falling into paralyzing writer's block, or simply falling off the radar and leaving little trace of themselves.

Celia Dropkin is best known for her erotic poetry, which scandalized and titillated the Yiddish world. Her first poem published was in 1917, and she continued to write and publish in New York journals until late in the 1940s. But at that point she turned her energy to painting, and in the last ten years of her life was a prolific and gifted amateur painter. Her works were several times included in gallery shows, and once mentioned in The New York Times; yet, it is her poetry that continues to be considered her real accomplishment. It isn't entirely clear why she chose to discontinue writing, but the timing coincided with the death of her husband. It may be that for Dropkin, the support of her husband was essential to her literary creativity. Or perhaps the horrors of the Holocaust, as the true nature and extent of the tragedy began to be fully integrated into North American Jewish consciousness, defied language. Perhaps only the images in her painting were left for her.

Dropkin's close friend Anna Margolin also stopped writing. Margolin's single book of poetry, Lider, published in 1929, was a sensation. In a well-known incident, Margolin's first poems, when they appeared in New York literary journals, were judged by many to be the work of a man hiding behind a female pseudonym. Anna Margolin was a pseudonym: her real name was Rosa Lebensbaum, and she was a journalist at Der Tog, the intellectual New York daily. Following the publication of her book, however, she gradually became unable to write either journalistically or creatively. She secluded herself more and more from the world, retreating to a home in New Haven, Connecticut that she shared with the writer Reuben Eisland. Eisland supported her financially and emotionally. After her death, he wrote a heartfelt memoir of her, in which it becomes apparent that her inability to write caused her true anguish, an existential crisis that lasted twenty years, from her last published poem in 1932 until her death in 1952.

Fradel Schtok's silence is perhaps the most mysterious of all the Yiddish writers. Schtok was a short story writer and poet whose work began to appear in 1910, when she was 20, just three years after she arrived, alone, in New York. She was the orphaned child of a professional gangster, yet had somehow managed to obtain a modern education. She was praised for producing elegant sonnets in Yiddish, but when she began writing short stories, she received a much colder critical reception.

It is notable that many women writers found their poetry more to the liking of male contemporaries than their prose. It has been theorized that poetry is seen as "emotional" and prose as "cerebral": of these two, only feelings are understood to be natural to the women's sphere.

Schtok resisted attempts to revert to her earlier poetic forms by switching to writing stories in English. Although a book was published, Musicians Only, by as mainstream a publisher as Pelican, in 1927, this too was panned. After this disappointment, Schtok fell into a deep depression, and it is believed that she was institutionalized for some years. Many people believed she had died in a sanatorium; but in 1940, she sent several stories to Yiddish newspapers, where they were published. After that, nothing further is known of her.

Given these biographical narratives, it becomes simply astonishing, not that women wrote so much less than men, but that they wrote at all. Slowly, their work is becoming more available in English, with new anthologies such as Arguing With the Storm (already issued in Canada; forthcoming from the Feminist Press in the U.S.). The only previous English-language anthology of Yiddish women writers was Found Treasures, now more than ten years old. There have been several recent editions of individual women writers, including a new edition of Anna Margolin's work. And Esther Kreitman has achieved a number of "firsts" for a woman writer in Yiddish: perhaps the first novelist (in 1936); the first to have a novel translated into English (in 1946); and soon she will be the first to have all her books translated into English, when the British Judaica publisher David Paul brings out her second novel (they have already published her book of short stories). Through these activities, a community of feminist translators and publishers are defining the distaff line in the genealogy of Yiddish literature.

References:

Naomi Seidman. A Marriage Made in Heaven: the Sexual Politics of Hebrew and Yiddish. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers. Edited by Frieda Forman et al. (Toronto: Second Story Press, 1994). See esp. introduction by Irena Klepfisz.

Esther Kreitman. Deborah. Translation by Maurice Carr. (New York: Feminist Press, 2004). See esp. afterword by Anita Norich.

(Leksikon fun der Nayer Yidisher Literatur). Ed. Sh. Niger and Y. Shatzky. (New York: Kultur-Kongres, 1956-1981).

FAITH JONES is a librarian, and part of a three-person collective that translates the poetic works of Celia Dropkin into English. Her scholarly articles have appeared in Canadian Jewish Studies, The Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, Publishing Research Quarterly, and Judaica Librarianship, while other essays and criticism have been published in The Forward, Canadian Jewish Outlook, Forverts and Afn Shvel. She serves as Yiddish editor for Bridges: a Jewish Feminist Journal. She is an active volunteer with KlezKamp and co-produced the double-CD release, "Live From KlezKamp!"
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Author:Jones, Faith
Publication:Midstream
Date:Jul 1, 2007
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