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

Kathryn Heller­stein
  • Review
By – December 22, 2014

The chronol­o­gy in the book’s sub­ti­tle dates from 1586, because, as Heller­stein explains, A Ques­tion of Tra­di­tion is a book about a book” — one that itself begins in 1586. Ezra Korman’s Yidishe Dikhterins: Antol­ogye (Yid­dish Women Poets: Anthol­o­gy), pub­lished in 1928, pre­sent­ed sev­en­ty poets and pro­vid­ed the first frame­work for consid­ering a spe­cif­ic his­to­ry of women’s poet­ry in Yid­dish. Every poet Heller­stein dis­cuss­es in depth appears in Korman’s anthol­o­gy, except for Mal­ka Heifetz Tuss­man (this isn’t entire­ly clear in Hellerstein’s text; I make that assump­tion because Heller­stein does not men­tion Korman’s anthol­o­gy in her sec­tion on Tuss­man). Kor­man argued for the cen­tral­i­ty of women in Yid­dish poet­ic tra­di­tion — at a time when the notion of a Yid­dish poet­ic tra­di­tion was far from a giv­en. Heller­stein shows how Korman’s anthol­o­gy, per­haps espe­cial­ly his long intro­duc­tion to the poems, serves as both an exam­ple and a pro­duc­er of the contradic­tory stances toward tra­di­tion that have come to char­ac­ter­ize poems in Yid­dish by women. Giv­en his sig­nif­i­cance to Yid­dish women’s poet­ry, it would be inter­est­ing to learn more about Kor­man, par­tic­u­lar­ly his moti­va­tion to anthologize. 

Kor­man was intent on artic­u­lat­ing a long his­to­ry of Yid­dish women’s writ­ing, but secret­ly dubi­ous about the exis­tence of that his­to­ry, he steered clear of ana­lyz­ing the pre- Enlight­en­ment poems he includ­ed. Advances in aca­d­e­m­ic Yid­dish stud­ies and a gen­der stud­ies lens allow Heller­stein to look more deeply than Kor­man dared into poems by Gele, Toybe Pan, and oth­ers. Heller­stein shows through­out this fine book that the work of anthol­o­giz­ing is nev­er neutral. 

The pop­u­lar and pro­lif­ic Kadya Molodowsky is cov­ered in two sep­a­rate chap­ters — one on poets who wrote in 1920s Poland and anoth­er on Molodowsky’s lat­er work, after her immi­gra­tion to Amer­i­ca. In her ear­ly career, Molodowsky engaged rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics along­side issues of Jew­ish law, faith, doubt, and domes­tic­i­ty. In one of these love­ly, chal­lenging poems Molodowsky writes, 

I still don’t know whom,
I still don’t why I ask.
A prayer lies bound in me,
And implores a god,
And implores a name. 

For mod­ernist poets Celia Drop­kin and Anna Mar­golin, both East­ern Euro­pean immi­grants to New York, the choice to write in Yid­dish sig­naled the search for new mod­els of Jew­ish wom­an­hood. Dropkin’s poems present hard truths about domes­tic­i­ty, long­ing, and dis­sat­is­fac­tion that call to my mind the work of mid-cen­tu­ry fem­i­nist writ­ers like Adri­enne Rich and Max­ine Kumin. In To a Young Poet­ess,” Drop­kin writes: 

You need to love with­out sense, with­out pride,
Love unto death!
Only when you rec­og­nize death
In love,
Write love poems! 

Prob­a­bly because some of the book’s chap­ters have been pub­lished as stand­alone arti­cles, some of the infor­ma­tion is repeat­ed, at times near­ly word for word, in mul­ti­ple chap­ters. This is a small quib­ble, how­ev­er. Hellerstein’s sub­ject and meth­ods are schol­arly, but her writ­ing is refresh­ing­ly jar­gon-free. The appen­dix includes use­ful bib­li­o­graph­i­cal essays on some of the poets. This well-writ­ten study recov­ers strong and dif­fi­cult voic­es that demand to be heard.

Relat­ed content:

Lucy Bie­der­man is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of cre­ative writ­ing at Hei­del­berg Uni­ver­si­ty in Tif­fin, Ohio. Her first book, The Wal­mart Book of the Dead, won the 2017 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Award.

Discussion Questions