The Feminine Ending: On Women’s Writing in Yiddish, Now Available in English

Madeleine Cohen greets new English translations of women authors who wrote in Yiddish.

The Feminine Ending: On Women’s Writing in Yiddish, Now Available in English

“I AM A HOUSEWIFE, a wife, a mother, a grandmother — and a Yiddish writer. […] So here I sit, writing from right to left. My older brother watches over me. […] Yiddish is not a language of exile, he answers my unspoken words — it is mame-loshn, our mother tongue.”

The opening lines of Blume Lempel’s essay, “The Fate of the Yiddish Writer” (included in the volume Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories) suggest a few of the complicated interactions between the Yiddish language and the feminine gender. Lempel’s list of identities — wife, mother, grandmother — are set against the final item: writer. The em dash, beloved in Yiddish letters, places the gendered roles and the occupation on opposing sides. These are different kinds of work, the dash tells us: the former domestic and feminine, the latter artistic and masculine. And yet, in Yiddish, the effect is different. In a language with grammatical gender, Lempel can’t simply call herself a “writer”; the word she must use makes explicit that she is a woman writer. Der shrayber is a man while di shrayberin is a woman, with an added feminine ending.

That’s not the only linguistic gendering going on in Lempel’s lines. Lempel bemoans her fate not as a writer but a Yiddish writer at the end of the 20th century. The potential audiences for her work seemed to decrease with every year, constantly reminding her of the traumas and catastrophes that transformed Yiddish from a vibrant and growing literary language in the first half of the century — a period of intense creativity that surely inspired Lempel’s calling — to a language of survivors, refugees, and aging immigrants whose children spoke (and read) English. In this state of despair, Lempel imagines the spirit of her brother, a member of the French Resistance killed by the Nazis, reminding her that Yiddish is not — or not only — a language of exile, it is also mame-loshn. While it’s common to refer to one’s first language as a “mother tongue,” the Yiddish phrase means more than that. Mame-loshn is one of the accepted names of the language, and it describes Yiddish’s role as the spoken vernacular of Ashkenazi Jewry. In contrast to Hebrew and Aramaic, learned languages of study, Yiddish was the language of the domestic sphere, of the mother — feminine. The implications of this have been explored in excellent scholarship by Naomi Seidman, among others. The opposition of “language of exile” and mame-loshn captures one of the inherent and productive paradoxes of Yiddish and of the culture it came to define: the domestic tongue of a stateless people.

Despite this feminine identification of the language, it should come as no surprise that modern Yiddish literature, which arose in Europe in the 19th century, is, like much of modern Western literature, patriarchal: while both men and women wrote in Yiddish, the majority of prominent authors — those recognized by prizes, awards, and canonization — were men. The long-lasting consequences of excluding women from the literary canon can be measured in part through the availability of their work in translation. It was typical in Yiddish literary culture to publish gorgeous “Collected Works” for major authors; while at least 60 male writers received this treatment, some of them with editions of 10 volumes or more, I am aware of only three or four examples of women’s writing being collected — and only in single volumes, not multi-volume editions. When translators and researchers go looking for new and important works to share with readers, these volumes are often a starting point. If a writer’s work didn’t warrant being collected from the newspapers and periodicals where it was originally published, is it worth reading or translating today?

A group of talented researchers and translators has answered that question with a resounding “yes.” They have been digging through the archives and scrolling through microfilm to help English-reading audiences rediscover Yiddish shrayberins, women writers, through a profusion of excellent new translations. In the past decade, there have been at least 10 volumes of work by Yiddish women writers published in English, including anthologies of stories and poetry as well as single-author volumes of poetry and prose. The stream is growing quickly, as evidenced by the fact that five of these volumes have appeared in just the last two years. Interestingly, all of these five have been single-author volumes of prose, which, alongside Lempel’s Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories — published in 2016, a bit ahead of the curve — offer English readers a rich sampling of writing that stretches from the 17th century to the 21st, following Yiddish from its origins in Germany to its heartlands in Eastern Europe, then into exile in Siberia, and, finally, to its refuges in Israel, Canada, and the United States. The works are essays, memoir, short stories, and serialized novels. Each in various ways foregrounds women’s experience, often explicitly. But just as often the fact of the woman author recedes as the writing explores the experiences of war, survival, immigration, and generational conflict in ways that speak across the centuries, across nation, and beyond gender.

Blume Lempel is not the only author among this group to consider how the feminine ending impacts her writing and identity as a writer. Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays by Chava Rosenfarb includes an essay entitled “Feminism and Yiddish Literature: A Personal Approach.” Rosenfarb is one of a very few well-known postwar Yiddish women novelists. Younger than Lempel, she also is a writer of the later 20th century. Unlike Lempel, who immigrated to the United States just before the outbreak of World War II, Rosenfarb survived the Łódź Ghetto, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen as a teenager, before immigrating to Montreal in 1950. After trying her hand at poetry and drama, she eventually turned to the novel as the only genre capacious enough to represent her experiences of the Holocaust. Over decades she produced thousands of pages that would become The Tree of Life: A Trilogy of Life in the Lodz Ghetto, Bociany, and Letters to Abrasha (the first two are available in English, the third not yet). This volume of essays was translated by the author with her daughter, Goldie Morgenthaler, who also edited the volume. Rosenfarb writes,

As for me, the fact that I am a woman matters to me only in my day-to-day life. Even though my being a woman is doubtless a factor in all my work, I am nevertheless not conscious of my femininity when I write. At such times, I feel instead as if I were a bisexual creature. What intrigues me in human nature is precisely the thing that defies gender and sexual difference, heredity and upbringing. If my character is male, then I must try to immerse myself in his masculinity in order to inhabit him completely. The same is true if my character is female.

Among the writers newly available in translation, Yenta Mash’s work aligns most closely with Rosenfarb’s ideas. While her narrators and main characters of On the Landing are almost all women, and the stories provide nuanced insight into their perspectives and psychology, perhaps it is the extremity of many of the stories’ settings that draws the reader’s attention to the universal and away from the particular. Mash, like Lempel and Rosenfarb, is a writer of the later 20th century (she and Rosenfarb in fact both lived and worked into the 2000s). Born in 1922 in what is today Moldova, Mash survived World War II in exile in labor camps in Siberia. After the war she eventually returned to Moldova, but it was only when she immigrated to Israel in the late 1970s, after the death of her husband, that she began to write — or, at least, to publish her writing. Several of the stories portray the harrowing conditions of her time in Siberia. “Alone” is told by a young woman pulling a sled through the winter forests. The story follows the woman’s wandering thoughts as she distracts herself from the hours of freezing cold drudgery she faces, the danger of which continues to grow and interrupt her daydreams:

Oh, Mama, if you knew how cold I am!

The weather has worsened. The sun is shining, but its teeth bite and burn without mercy. Galya pulls her hands out of her gloves and rubs her frozen cheeks, as Auntie Pasha has warned her a thousand times never to do. Auntie has also told her never to cover her mouth with her scarf, no matter how cold it gets. If the steam from her mouth freezes to the scarf, she’s finished, Auntie says.

Other stories draw a sharp contrast between the suffering of her youth and the relative luxury of life in Haifa. The narrator of the story “Bread” is alienated from Israeli society by the chasm between her many memories of hunger and the waste she sees around her. Remembering the war, she writes, “Bread — bread is holy! Bread waits for no man. Bread rhymes with dead. In those years, the last thing likely to appear before a person’s eyes as he takes his final breath is a slice of bread.” Writer and translator Ellen Cassedy is one of the forces behind this new movement to collect and translate Yiddish women’s literature. Cassedy’s translations of Mash and Lempel (the latter with co-translator Yermiyahu Ahron Taub) bring together two areas of her career: research into her Jewish heritage, and her involvement in the “9 to 5” movement that organized for women’s rights in the workplace.

Kadya Molodowsky’s novel A Jewish Refugee in New York: Rivke Zilberg’s Journal also tells the story of a young woman’s survival of World War II in exile, though across the world from Mash’s Siberia. Unlike Mash’s reflections, written decades after the war, Molodowsky’s novel was published serially in the New York Yiddish newspaper Morgn-zhurnal while the war was on, before the United States had officially entered, and before the “final solution” was put into practice. It is fascinating to consider the readers who followed the installments of this novel in their daily paper in 1941, printed alongside news from Europe. The young narrator, Rivke Zilberg, records her experiences arriving in New York at the end of 1939. Rivke struggles with the daily trials of learning English, adjusting to American fashion, finding work, and surviving the onslaught of male attention, while thoughts of her father and brother in hiding in a cow stall and a young niece blinded while escaping a bombardment interrupt her attempts to fit in among America Jews who would prefer not to be reminded of the suffering of their families and former neighbors in Europe.

The availability of Molodowsky’s novel in Anita Norich’s translation — especially when considered alongside the other translations under discussion here — is a turning point for our “assumptions about genre and gender in Yiddish literature,” as Norich wrote for Pakn Treger magazine. Molodowsky is unique among this group of writers in that she was very well known, perhaps the most prominent Yiddish woman writer from the first half of the 20th century. But she is famous as a poet, not as a novelist. Norich writes:

Women who wrote in Yiddish are almost always known as poets and not prose writers. There have been critical analyses and translations of Yiddish women’s poetry and even of short stories, but novels have long been considered a man’s genre in Yiddish belles lettres. But women wrote fiction in greater numbers than most of us know.

Professor Norich’s recent retirement from the University of Michigan has not brought about any decrease in her productivity as one of the preeminent scholars of Yiddish literature, but it has marked a change in focus; she has increasingly turned her attention to the work of women writers. Norich’s research has uncovered two additional novels by Molodowsky, published serially in the Yiddish press but never in book form (which A Jewish Refugee was, in 1942). The fact that such a famous poet could have written two novels that have lain buried in newspaper archives for half a century suggests that Norich is right: there is much more out there to be found.

The other novel in this group of new translations is an example of just such a find. Miriam Karpilove was a prolific and popular writer for the Yiddish press in New York in the early 20th century, but has received very little attention from contemporary scholars, translators, and readers of Yiddish literature. Indeed, she was successful enough that she made her living as a writer, not something that many achieved. Translator and scholar Jessica Kirzane discovered Karpilove’s novel Diary of a Lonely Girl, or The Battle against Free Love “several years ago while researching a footnote on ‘free love’ for my dissertation at Columbia University. I typed ‘fraye libe’ (free love) into the search box on the website of the Yiddish Book Center, found a novel I had never heard of before, and started reading.” What Kirzane discovered was another novel by a woman writer that was first published serially in a Yiddish newspaper in New York, though much earlier than Molodowsky’s. Karpilove’s novel, published in 1918, is about a young woman who discovers that the “free love” advocated by the modern, political, intellectual men she encounters is really only free for men. Kirzane writes in her translator’s note,

I was instantly drawn in by the intimacy and immediacy of the text, and as I laughed out loud at the sharp and sassy dialogue I knew that this was a translation project I had to take on. […] I have been energized by the startling relevance of Karpilove’s text to our own day. I hope readers struggling with experiences of men abusing their social power for sexual gain may find comfort in Karpilove’s narrator’s self-assurance and humor. As I have gotten to know her through the translation process, I have found her to be a plucky friend and I sometimes hear her sarcastic voice in my ear as I go about my life as a woman in a world still dominated by men.

As the novel progresses, the young narrator’s voice does become wiser, more sarcastic, often mocking the intellectual men trying to convince her to have sex with them without them ever noticing and frustrating them with her clever responses.

Both Molodowsky’s and Karpilove’s serialized novels are presented as diaries, which lend themselves to serial publication, and place the novels in conversation with a long history of journal writing as a women’s genre (though, in their introductions, both Norich and Kirzane discuss how these novels play with and subvert the expectations of that genre). One of the works they converse with are the memoirs of Glikl of Hameln, written between 1691 and 1719 in a language that has been called Judeo-German, Western Yiddish, and Old Yiddish. This unique document is available in a new translation by Sara Friedman, based on the research of scholar Chava Turniansky, who published an authoritative and annotated bilingual Yiddish-Hebrew version of the work in 2006. Glikl’s memoirs have fascinated historians since at least 1896, when they were first published by David Kaufmann, having been preserved by Glikl’s descendants in manuscript form for nearly two centuries.

Glikl begins writing when she is 45 years old, recently widowed. She writes in order to fill her melancholy nights since the death of her husband and to tell her children about their family and her life. Through this document we meet an educated woman, who saw herself as an equal business partner with her husband (and indeed, he left her solely in charge of their business after his death), a mother of 14, who was born near the end of the Thirty Years’ War in territory that spans the contested and changing border between Denmark and Sweden, in a time and place where Jewish communities could and did have their permission to reside revoked, causing hundreds to pick up and move at a moment’s notice. She was also witness to the rise and fall of the false messiah Sabbatai Zevi, a phenomenon that caused immense upheaval for the Jewish communities of Europe — including her own father-in-law, who she reports sent barrels of linen and preserved food to her and her family because he “thought people would simply depart and make the journey from Hamburg to the Holy Land.” Here is how Glikl describes the consequences of the craze for Sabbatai Zevi:

When I recall how young and old alike all over the world began repenting of their sins, as is well known, it cannot be described. Ah God, Lord of the Universe, we were hoping that You, compassionate God, would have mercy on Israel, Your wretched people, and redeem us. We hoped for this fervently, as a woman on the birthstool, in great labor and anguish, expects that after all her pain and suffering she will rejoice in her child. But after all her pain and suffering, nothing came but wind.

A footnote helpfully confirms the humor of Glikl’s metaphor: “This is apparently a delicate way of saying that the woman did not give birth but only let out gas.” How wonderful that Glikl uses a metaphor of childbirth to explain the disappointment for Jews when they realized that Sabbatai Zevi was not the messiah. What better example could there be of the gift that all of these translations offer? They are not only wonderful literature, but they also center women’s experience in order to enrich our understanding of historical reality.

As the reader may have noticed, the authors of the above works are not the only women whose work is here represented. The translators, editors, and researchers we have to thank for these volumes are Ellen Cassedy, Sara Friedman, Jessica Kirzane, Goldie Morgenthaler, Anita Norich, Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, and Chava Turniansky — all women but one. It is my privilege to have worked with most of them through my role as director of translation initiatives at the Yiddish Book Center, which has supported several of the projects: Cassedy, Kirzane, and Taub have all been participants in our translation fellowship; Oedipus in Brooklyn was awarded the Center’s Translation Prize in 2012; Norich is a frequent contributor to our educational programs and publications. The Center’s website has materials on all of these writers and translators that the curious reader is encouraged to explore: podcast interviews, articles, additional translations, oral histories.

Lempel ends her essay “The Fate of the Yiddish Writer” with a depressing story about the trials she underwent in order to see a book published. Not only did she have to fund the publication herself (and have the printer raise the fee in the process), she also had to figure out how to distribute the book on her won. And yet Lempel bore it all, so that she might share her work with the Yiddish-speaking world, however scattered and circumscribed that world might have seemed. Today we can hope that these translations will reach many more readers eager to hear the voices of the yidishe shrayberins.


Madeleine Cohen is the director of Translation and Collections Initiatives at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, and the president of the Board of Directors of In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.

LARB Contributor

Madeleine Cohen is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, and the president of the Board of Directors of In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies. She received her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, and her dissertation, “Here and Now: The Modernist Poetics of Do’ikayt,” explores connections between the representation of place in modernist Yiddish literature and revolutionary politics in the interwar period.


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