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

Stanford University Press  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.

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