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Kol ishe – The Voice of Women in Yiddish Poetry (from the 16th Century to 1939.)

The monograph entitled Kol ishe – The Voice of Women in Yiddish Poetry from the 16th Century to 1939 is the culmination of many years of research on the poetry of women in Yiddish and related translation work. The main purpose of the book is to examine the manner in which feminine subjectivity became a distinct phenomenon, and the various strategies of self-expression that were developed to that end over centuries.

My monograph examines this process beginning with the earliest texts dating from the sixteenth century when the women poets in question acted as preachers, authors of prayers, religious songs or bookbinders (noting their thoughts on the margins of the books); through folk art as an expression of criticism of the established gender order; to works that reflect the twentieth-century moral revolution that radicalized attitudes and transformed the traditional model of Jewish femininity.

Writings by Jewish women in the Diaspora evolved under conditions that marginalized them in a three-fold manner: as representatives of a national and religious minority, as women functioning in a patriarchal system, and as artists writing in Yiddish, a language that, unlike Hebrew or Aramaic, was neither a source of prestige, nor a tool for power or for social promotion.

While the invention of the printing press did revolutionize women’s access to the written word, which in turn created opportunities for them to more actively participate in literary pursuits, they were always confined within strictly defined parameters. Even in the 20th century, Jewish women still did not have access to the same cultural tools as men; were excluded from the circles that controlled circulation of the written word; and were not allowed into decision-making bodies that represented the new secular literary elite.

At the same time, however, a limited religious education and exclusion from the study of sacred books opened perspectives for Jewish women that were, paradoxically, often inaccessible to men. It was easier for girls to gain a secular education and to make contact with European culture than it was for boys, whose education and reading were subject to strict rabbinical control.  Forbidden from studying Hebrew and Aramaic texts, Jewish girls could learn Yiddish and foreign languages.

In traditional communities, it was women who were engaged in the public sphere of commerce, and who oftentimes had more contact with the non-Jewish world than did their brothers or husbands. As a result, they became emissaries of new ideas that began to transform Jewish reality in the nineteenth century.

The subject of my research is how women functioned within their limits and how they pushed beyond those limits; how they broadened the scope of their activities; and how they redefined their role and position to leave  their own unique mark.

For centuries, writing has been one of the few means available to women for making their voices audible and for entering the public space. This reality is reflected in the title of the book, which refers to the concept of the kol ishe– the female voice. Its audibility was regulated by Jewish law as traditional Judaism prohibited a man who praying or studying the Torah from being within earshot of a singing woman due to the erotic effect attributed to her voice.

Kol isheimplies both the presence and suppression of the female voice. This tension between audibility and silence can be regarded as the perfect metaphor for the development of women’s poetry in Yiddish. My interest lies in bringing to the fore the presence of female poetic expression in oral traditions and in the printed word, and my research examines how men consistently sought to regulate forms of female creativity, primarily through publishing institutions and literary criticism.

I am also concerned with ways in which space was made in the Yiddish language for feminine subjectivity, and within that the issue of repressed and silenced voices. Therefore, by analyzing the creative journeys of numerous women poets, I seek to disclose how their collective poetic voice formed a diverse choir, and to capture the reasons why many of them faded away or even disappeared over time.

I am searching for a record of female experience by analyzing common, recurring themes, motifs and thematic areas in the works of poets created over centuries. I am looking for historical elements both permanent and variable that impacted this experience, and am trying to answer the question of how it manifested in texts. My analytical tools include feminist criticism, elements of literary explication, thematic criticism, along with an historical-literary interpretation.

The history of Yiddish poetry created by women is treated here diachronically, with the historical and literary discussion being closely connected to the examination of specific cases of creative authorship and to the interpretation of selected poems. Included are well-known poets, whose work has already been analyzed (primarily in English), as well as authors who are less recognizable, overlooked or simply forgotten.

I present the poetry of women in the context of the general processes taking place in Yiddish literature; and, at certain points, in the broader context of Jewish culture. Therefore, successive sections and chapters of the book are preceded by an introduction that provides the reader with a broader background in women’s creativity.

The book consists of a preface, introduction, two main sections (divided into chapters and subchapters), and a conclusion.

In the preface, I justify why I distinguish women’s creativity as a separate entity on the general historical and literary continuum; define the category of femininity I apply in my work; define the time and geographical framework of the material covered; and discuss the state of research and the structure of the dissertation.

In the introduction, I discuss the relationship between femininity and Yiddish in the context of the confrontation between male and female aspects of Judaism as manifested in the sphere of linguistic assignations. Divisions in the sphere of impact between Yiddish and the Hebrew language are inextricably connected with issues of gender and social hierarchy.

Yiddish literature, written in a language implicitly open to various influences and forms of discourse, and far from any homogenization or aspirations of being the authoritarian voice of the elite, proved to be a congenial medium for creative activity by women. It became a tool whereby marginalized groups could be present in culture. This is a key issue for understanding the specificity of early Yiddish literature, often addressed „to women and those who are like women,” and generally defined as womanly.

It is at this point in my study that I discuss various parallels between the women’s emancipation movement and the social advancement of Yiddish. The history of this language and its literature was a struggle with limitations, marginalization, and contempt. My conclusion addresses the question as to why Yiddish literature constituted a specific niche in which female cultural subjectivity could exist and thrive.

In the first section, I discuss the position of women in early Yiddish literature covering the period from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century.  I considered this necessary because the works from this period remain the most neglected, and yet at the same time comprise the foundation of the Jewish writing tradition. The opening chapter of this section looks at the role of the reader as the main addressee of early Yiddish literature in the context of the process of feminization and democratization of reading that followed in the wake of the invention of the printing press.

Of key importance for the creation of Yiddish written texts were the needs of Jewish women, only a few of whom were fluent in Hebrew. The authors often referred to themselves as „the servants of pious women.” In this chapter, I consider both secular and moralistic religious literature, all deeply rooted in Judaism, but also impacted by external cultures, the result being a heterogeneous picture of Jewish culture.

Biblical translations and paraphrases, morality books, collections of tales and legends like the Mayse-Bukh, and adaptations of chivalrous romances were, until the mid-nineteenth century, the preferred reading material of Jewish women, and the foundation of the so-called the feminine style of early Yiddish literature. Women also acted as publishing patrons of this type of literature.

This chapter sets the background for the emergence of women’s creativity and the focus of the second chapter of the first section, wherein I discuss female poets appearing in Yiddish literature since the 16th century. They were authors of rhymed prefaces and epilogues attached to printed works (e.g., Royzl Fishels, the author of a versed preface to a translation of the Psalms published in Krakow in 1586; or Gele the printer’s daughter, who, when not yet twelve years old, wrote the epilogue to a prayer book published in 1710).

In addition, I distinguish a group of preacher poets, in which Ryvka Tiktiner, who lived in Prague in the sixteenth century, occupies a leading position as the author of, among others, a masterly hymn for Simkhes-Toyre. I also devote special attention to tkhines(prayers in Yiddish recited primarily by women), which developed mainly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and constituted the quintessence of the womanly style in Yiddish literature.

The third chapter of the first section concerns folk creativity with a clearly marked component of female subjectivity. I discuss songs related to both private forms of worship as well as secular folk songs which played an important role in the shaping of individualized lyricism and constituted a model of female expression in lyrical love poetry.

Part two of the book begins with the formation of a new model of the Jewish female reader in the nineteenth century, and emphasizes the importance of popular literature in the mores revolution and the women’s emancipation movement. I contend that women’s issues became an important element of the Jewish national discourse. These processes lay the groundwork for modern women’s poetry written in Yiddish.

The participation of women poets in these developments is divided into two basic stages: the first covers the years 1888-1918, when the various forms of female expression were established, from imitation and camouflage to the first attempts at speaking clearly in their own voice. This diachronic stage is further divided into sub-periods: 1888-1900, 1900-1910, 1910-1914, 1914-1918, reflecting successive waves of poetic debuts, changes in poetic expression, and historical factors.

This phase in the history of women’s poetry in Yiddish is characterized by the search for new ways to express the female „I”: from the creative re-casting of traditional literature patterns for the benefit of women, through developing the motives of Jewish pogrom literature, to referencing the stylistics, mood and eroticism of European modernism; the latter being undoubtedly apparent also in Polish literature at the turn of the century (for example, the cult of Przybyszewski among Jewish women).

It is at this time that the figure of the „ New Rachel” (a reference to Rachel in Wyspiański’s play „Wesele”) appeared as representative of the neo-orthodox women who were educated, well-read, oriented in political and social problems, yet anti-assimilationist, remaining rooted in Yiddishkeit, and openly demonstrative of their Jewish affiliations (e.g.,  Rosa Jakubovitz and Bronia Baum). The first poetic reactions to the First World War were also written during this period; the war being a critical experience for the generation of writers active during the interwar period.

The works of Bronia Baum from Tomaszów Mazowiecki provides us with insight into the turbulent maturation of a poet during the First World War. Although her work goes beyond the framework of poetry written in Yiddish (Baum produced works in Polish, Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish), I include an analysis of her poems in all the languages (with the majority having been written in Polish), because the author is a typical representative of a generation of poeticizing young Jewish women born at the end of the nineteenth century.

Baum’s legacy is unique because it springs from orthodox Judaism, a form of Judaism that is hermetic by nature.  On the basis of her poems, I can study the issue not only of the multilingualism of the women poets, but also the way in which content differentiated depending on the language in which they chose to work.

The second period – which I refer to as the Golden Age of Yiddish women’s poetry – spans from 1918 to 1939, when it became a clearly visible, distinctive, and publicly discussed phenomenon in Yiddish literature. The poets under question made their debut in the first half of the 1920s. The flourishing of the creativity of women poets was situated along geographical lines and aligned with  the largest centers of Yiddish culture: in Poland (Łódź, Warsaw and Galicia), in the United States (New York), and in the Soviet Union (Moscow), including two major centers of Yiddish in Ukraine (Kiev and Kharkiv).

The most recognizable names today made their mark during this period, including Kadya Molodovsky, Celia Dropkin, and Debora Vogel. The outpouring of creative aspirations by Jewish women in the wake of World War I culminated in Yiddishe dikhterins(Yiddish Women Poets), a collection of works by seventy women poets published in 1928 by Ezra Korman, and one of the most important literary anthologies ever published in Yiddish. The anthology prompted a heated debate in the press, which I review at the beginning of section two.

The changes introduced by women into Yiddish literature during this second period were primarily of a thematic nature: in the creation of a distinct lyrical „I,” in the manner in which women’s experiences were recorded, in the expansion of the boundaries of intimacy. In their  work, the women poets sought to rebel against traditional forms of female existence, and to express their  desire for independence and social recognition.

The women poets began scrutinizing motherhood, corporality, eroticism, and creativity from a completely new perspective. Within this new definition of femininity, we can, generally speaking, distinguish three models of women as emancipated activists, as religious feminists, and as revolutionaries. Radical women’s voices in Yiddish poetry repeatedly met with disapproval in literary criticism. Secular critics of Yiddish, often authors of modern, avant-garde literature that openly rejected Jewish traditional values, expected conservatism in works by women. They wanted women to champion a variety of Jewishness that guaranteed the continuity of their mothers’ and grandmothers’ customs.

My monograph ends in 1939. Although the Holocaust does not mark the end of Yiddish culture, it does constitute a very brutal and painfully clear delineation. The development of Jewish Yiddish life and the history of the language itself that had existed for hundreds of years in Europe was fundamentally disrupted.

Collecting the source material presented in the monograph required wide-ranging archival work to track down numerous unpublished documents. I used a variety of multilingual primary resources that  were difficult to access. The cornerstone of my work are poems written in Yiddish that appeared in the press, in poetry collections and anthologies, and were preserved in manuscripts. The vast majority of my sources were written in Yiddish. Alongside poetic sources, I also examined press reviews, correspondence and other ego-documents.

In comparison with English language studies of Yiddish works by women, my research covers a much broader geographical field (including the USSR), and a much broader approach that scrutinizes the general historical phenomena that shaped female subjectivity in Yiddish poetry, including references from folk poetry, modernism, Zionism, and socialism. This is the first synthesis that appraises feminine poetry in Yiddish as a historical-literary process in which the concept of tradition played a significant role; by tradition I mean a heterogeneously understood concept connecting native elements deeply rooted in Jewishness, but also factors that corresponded with pan-European literary tendencies.

In the field of Polish-language Jewish studies, this monograph is a pioneering work that will fill in a major lacuna in the field of Yiddish literature by women in Poland. Previous publications devoted to individual artists did not provide an overview of the primary source material, traditions, or transformations in the development of this literature, understood as a specific historical process, nor did they attempt to trace strategies of constructing female subjectivity by means of the written text. In this sense, my work is a major and innovative contribution to the field.