A Question of Tradition

nolead begins Women Poets in Yiddish, 1586-1987 nolead ends

nolead begins By Kathryn Hellerstein

Stanford University. 512 pp. $65 nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by Elizabeth Martins

Aside from the alluring treasury of poems this book holds, it is also a magnum opus unto itself. Author Kathryn Hellerstein, professor of Yiddish in the department of Germanic languages and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, worked on it for about 25 years. So it is not surprising that she writes with such powerful authority about poems that seem to be gushing with life.

In her selection of 18 women writing poetry in Yiddish, from the 16th to the 20th centuries, she presents a tradition-unto-itself that should be better known and better cherished. She discovers not only religious themes but also what she refers to as "sacred parody," as well as poems on motherhood, sexuality, family life, political discourse, art, and nature. The poems range from orthodox prayers to experimental prose. For each poem, Hellerstein provides historical and cultural background.

Consider Anna Margolin, who lived in the early 20th century. Hellerstein shows her as a feminist known for her sexually charged poetry. Her poem "Ikh bin geven a mol a yingling" is written from the perspective of a man - a jab at the prevalent notion that women could write only about their own lives:

I was once a boy, a stripling,

Listening in Socrates' portico,

My bosom-buddy, my sweet darling,

Had Athens' most stunning torso.

Was Caesar. And from marble constructed

A glistening world, I the last there,

And for my own wife selected

My stately sister.

Rose-garlanded, nursing wine all night,

In high spirits, heard tell the news

About the weakling from Nazareth

And wild tales about Jews.

As Hellerstein says, Margolin "purposefully summoned an eroticism and culture foreign to the traditional Jewish ethos in order, it seems, to shock the Yiddish reader."

"With Broken Wings" by Celia Dropkin is ambiguous at first but veers into simple yet deep beauty:

How have I written my poems?

How have I imagined my poems?

They say: The Shekinah has descended on me,

And it seems, surprisingly, that someone stands over me

In the dark, with broken wings.

Hellerstein explains that the poet is asking herself how she is able to write and imagine poetry. Shekinah is "the name for God's immanent presence that later became known as the feminine emanation of the divinity." In this short poem, the divine figure remains in the shadows with broken wings, and, as Hellerstein says, "offers no divine comfort."

The only grouse about this book is that the poems are so beautiful, they deserve an additional book unto themselves, away from the distractions of commentary. But perhaps that's work for another day. For now, Hellerstein has provided a new perspective on the female poets who contributed to Jewish literary tradition, creating a trove of stunning poetry as they did.