A Poetic Paradox: Gender and Self in Anna Margolin’s Mary Cycle

Melissa Weininger


In 1929, the poet Anna Mar­golin, a pen name of the jour­nal­ist Rosa Lebens­boym, pub­lished her only vol­ume of poems, Lid­er. Mar­golin includ­ed a cycle of sev­en poems in this col­lec­tion titled Mari” (“Mary”), in which she exam­ines gen­der, sex­u­al­i­ty, and iden­ti­ty through the lens of a poet­ic per­sona who may or may not be linked to the Vir­gin Mary. Unlike many of her male con­tem­po­raries, who also employed Chris­to­log­i­cal themes in their work, Mar­golin used the fig­ure of Mary to express the com­plex posi­tion of the female Yid­dish poet. Mask­ing her iden­ti­ty through the poet­ic per­sona of Mary, Mar­golin explored the con­se­quences for women of male con­trol of both reli­gious and poet­ic norms. Margolin’s Mary cycle engages both explic­it­ly, through ref­er­ence to the sto­ry of the Vir­gin Mary and its themes, and implic­it­ly, through form and absence, with iden­ti­ty and the self-def­i­n­i­tion of a woman touched by an expe­ri­ence of the divine, whether a vis­it from God or an encounter with art. 

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Ikh to Zikh

In the nineteen-teens and -twenties, many avant-garde Yiddish poets were drawn to Christological imagery and the figure of Jesus in their work as part of an attempt to create a particularly Yiddish modernist aesthetic that at the same time participated in a larger European culture. Accordingly, Yiddish modernist poets were drawn both to apocalyptic and messianic imagery that accorded with their vision of radical change, as well as the symbols of the European culture they admired. The figure of Jesus, as a martyr, a messiah, and a symbol of Western Christian culture, was a strong draw for the Yiddish avant-garde. 1 1 Seth Wolitz, “Di Khalyastre, the Yiddish Modernist Movement in Poland: An Overview,” Yiddish 4:3 (1981), 10. Poets of Di Yunge, the Inzikhistn, and Di Khalyastre frequently evoked Jesus, often in sympathetic terms, sometimes even identifying themselves with his suffering. Male poets such as Moshe-Leyb Halpern and Uri Zvi Greenberg wrote of their affinity with Jesus, envisioning themselves as Christ-like victims or as “brothers,” as Greenberg put it. Jesus became a metaphor for these writers’ sense of cultural hybridity, standing on the brink of Western culture but deeply connected to Jewish culture and language. 2 2 For a general overview of images of Jesus in Jewish literature and culture, see Matthew Hoffman, From Rebel to Rabbi: Reclaiming Jesus and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007); for a discussion of representations of Jesus in modern Hebrew (and some Yiddish) literature, see Neta Stahl, Other and Brother: Jesus in the 20th-Century Jewish Literary Landscape (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); for an examination of the figure of Jesus in early Zionist thought and ideology, see Zvi Sadan, Basar mebesarenu: yeshua menatzeret behagut hatziyonit (Flesh of Our Flesh: Jesus of Nazareth in Zionist Thought) (Jerusalem: Carmel, 2008); and for an early investigation of Jesus as a symbol of Jewish suffering in Yiddish literature, see David Roskies, “Jews on the Cross,” Against the Apocalypse: Responses to Catastrophe in Modern Jewish Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 258-312.

During the same period, the Yiddish poet known by her pseudonym, Anna Margolin, published the one volume of her poetry that would appear during her lifetime. Margolin was born Rosa Lebensboym in the city of Brest in 1887. 3 3 Known in Yiddish as Brisk, at the time of Lebensboym’s birth Brest was part of Russia, having been annexed from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795. Today it is part of Belarus. An only child, she was educated in both secular and Jewish subjects. She came to New York for the first time at eighteen to prepare for university, but instead involved herself in the intellectual Jewish life of the Lower East Side, becoming romantically involved with the much older writer Chaim Zhitlowsky. She also began writing for the Yiddish press during this period. However, she did not stay in New York, moving instead to London, Paris, and then Warsaw, where she met and married the writer Moshe Stavsky. They moved together to Palestine, where Margolin gave birth to a son. She soon became restless, however, and in 1913 left her husband and infant son in Tel Aviv to move permanently to New York. There she became a prominent Yiddish journalist and began publishing fiction under various pen names. After 1920, she published her poetry exclusively under the name Anna Margolin, the name by which she is best known today. 4 4 Biographical information is drawn from Reuben Iceland, From Our Springtime, Literary Memoirs and Portraits of Yiddish New York, trans. Gerald Marcus (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2013), 122-164; and Shirley Kumove, “Introduction: The Poetry of Anna Margolin,” Drunk from the Bitter Truth (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), xiii-xxxii.

Her one published book of poetry, titled simply Lider (Poems), collected many of her previously published poems, which were organized not chronologically, but according to a thematic structure dictated by Margolin herself. One of the thematic sections of the book, titled “Mary,” is made up of seven poems that ambiguously reference Mary, mother of Jesus. Barbara Mann has suggested that Margolin’s use of Mary can be read in the context of the contemporaneous Jewish poetic reclamation of Jesus by male writers as a parallel mode of “rendering…the Christian-European landscape” as well as the domain of women’s poetry in Yiddish. 5 5 Barbara Mann, “Of Madonnas and Magdalenes: Reading Mary in Modernist Hebrew and Yiddish Women’s Poetry,” Leket: Yidishe Studies Haynt (Dusseldorf: Dusseldorf UP, 2012), 51. However, this article argues that Margolin’s Mary is not only a reclamation of the Christological for Jewish culture but also a repudiation of the masculine identification with the figure of Jesus and, by extension, the masculinist realm of modernist Yiddish poetry. Instead of a simple identification, Margolin offers a kind of archaeology of the self through the figure of Mary. Uncovering an identity masked by external religious and cultural definitions, Margolin uses the ambiguity and malleability of Yiddish to expose the zikh (self) behind a sometimes obscure or unreliable ikh (I). 6 6 The phrasing “ikh to zikh” is drawn from Kathryn Hellerstein, “From ‘Ikh’ to ‘Zikh’: A Journey from ‘I’ to ‘Self’ in Yiddish Poems by Women,” Gender and Text in Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature, eds. Naomi B. Sokoloff, Anne Lapidus Lerner, and Anita Norich (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1992), 113-143.

This masked relationship to the poetic “I” stands in contrast to the largely male dominated poetic movements of the period, particularly Di Yunge (The Young Ones) and the Inzikhistn (Introspectivists), who both, in their own ways, insisted on a deeply personal poetry. Indeed, the manifesto of the Introspectivists, published in 1919, declared, “For us, everything is ‘personal.’” 7 7 Yankev Glatshteyn, A. Leyeles, N. Minkov, “Introspectivism,” trans. Anita Norich, American Yiddish Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology, ed. Benjamin and Barbara Harshav (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 779. But their emphasis on the personal element in poetry went far beyond simple first-person reflections or observations: “The world exists and we are part of it. But for us, the world exists only as it is mirrored in us, as it touches us. The world is a nonexistent category, a lie, if it is not related to us. It becomes an actuality only in and through us.” 8 8 “Introspectivism,” 774. The claim that the individual poet brings the very world into being through his poetry reflects not just a commitment to the personal but a nearly divine function for the poet as transcendental subject or agent.

This claim to the poet’s power was sometimes reflected, as we will see, in the identification of the poetic “I,” or the poet himself, with divine figures. It also places the ikh at the center of the poem, the most powerful figure in the poetic universe. In contrast, Margolin represents the ikh as a mediated figure, rather than a mediating one. Her poetic “I” is often hidden or absent, expressed through other characters who stand on their own, masking the poet herself. Through the figure of Mary in Lider, Margolin represents a modernist Yiddish poetics that subtly undermines the dominant masculine poetic norms of the time. 9 9 Ruth Wisse has claimed that the individualism of Di Yunge in particular, but also other aesthetic movements in Yiddish poetry, “had its roots in the Emancipation’s release of the individual from his collective identity.” Ruth Wisse, “Di Yunge and the Problem of Jewish Aestheticism,” Jewish Social Studies 38: 3/4 (Summer/Fall 1976), 268. Of course, the collective identity to which she refers here is a masculine identity, based in the traditional Jewish life of the ghetto, the male spaces of the beys medresh and the synagogue, to which women did not belong. Thus it seems natural that a female poet would reflect a poetic “I” that necessarily undermines the particularly male individualism extolled by avant-garde Yiddish poets.

Once I Was a Poet

Margolin begins to repudiate both masculinist poetic norms and the typical masculine identification with Jesus with the very first poem in Lider, the well-known “Ikh bin geven a mol a yingling.” Most readings of the poem center on its introduction of some of the central themes and ideas of Margolin’s work: her embrace of classical and European culture, her fascination with the hybrid, and her tendency to obscure identity, whether her own or that of the “ikh” of her poems. 10 10 See, for example, Kathryn Hellerstein, A Question of Tradition: Women Poets in Yiddish, 1586-1987 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014); Mann, “Of Madonnas and Magdalenes” and “Picturing the Poetry of Anna Margolin,” Modern Language Quarterly 63:4 (December 2002), 501-535; Abraham Novershtern, “‘Who Would Have Believed That a Bronze Statue Can Weep’: The Poetry of Anna Margolin,” Lider, ed. Avraham Novershtern (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1991). Indeed, even Anna Margolin was not Anna Margolin. She was—or had been until she began publishing her poetry in the 1920s—the journalist Rosa Lebensboym, and had also published under a variety of other pseudonyms. In this first poem of her collection, she presents the face of yet another identity, a young, sexually ambiguous, classical male persona:

איך בין געווען אַ מאָל אַ ייִנגלינ,
געהערט אין פּאָרטיקאָס סאָקראַטן,
עס האָט מײַן בוזעם־פֿרײַנד, מײַן ליבלינג,
געהאַט דעם שענסטן טאָרס אין אַטען.

Once I was a youth
heard Socrates in the porticoes,
my bosom-friend, my lover,
had the finest torso in all Athens. 11 11 Anna Margolin, Lider (Poems) (New York: Orion Press, 1929), 5. All translations are my own, although I have relied on both Kumove and Hellerstein, A Question of Tradition, to guide me.

The word ikh, “I,” begins the poem, and thus the book as well, suggesting that the poetic self is the primary subject not just of this poem but of Margolin’s work as a whole. But this “I,” like Rosa Lebensboym herself, is buried under layers of masked identity: a man, a gentile, a pagan, far removed from the world of Yiddish and Judaism.

In the second stanza, the “I” that conspicuously began the poem is consciously effaced. The subject ikh is awkwardly absent from the first line, in stark contrast to the preceding stanza:

געוועזן צעזאַר. און אַ העלע וועלט
געבויט פֿון מאַרמאָר, איך דער לעצטער,
און פֿאַר אַ ווײַב מיר אויסדערוויילט
מײַן שטאָלצע שוועסטער.

Was Caesar. 12 12 Margolin, 5. Here I follow Kathryn Hellerstein’s translation to preserve the sense of the missing subject. Hellerstein, 272. A bright world
Built of marble, I the last
And for a bride I selected
My proud sister.

At the same time, this “I” is also a hybrid figure, existing between sexual, cultural, and linguistic categories, erotically drawn to both men and women, husband to his sister, crafted in a Yiddish full of Greek and Latin words. Avraham Novershtern notes the pervasiveness of this “cultural hybridism” in Margolin’s poetry, tracing “the formation of a persona which comprises both femininity and masculinity, both Jewish and secular qualities; and, in order to avoid too simplistic or comfortable a synthesis, the secular element in her poetry takes on a sort of pagan hedonism.” 13 13 Novershtern, xxxix.

But this poetic persona is also temporally or historically in-between: the last stanza of the poem indicates that the speaker is also, unknowingly, on the cusp of a new age.

אין רויזנקראַנץ בײַם ווײַן ביז שפּעט
געהערט אין הויכמוטיקן פֿרידן
וועגן שוואַכלינג פֿון נאַזאַרעט
און ווילדע מעשׂיות וועגן ייִדן.

Garlanded and drunk until late
In boisterous revelry, I heard
Of the weakling from Nazareth
And wild tales about Jews. 14 14 Margolin, 5.

Here the speaker of this Yiddish poem is so far removed from Jewish culture that it is just tales, although significantly the “tales” here are rendered as the Yiddish-Hebrew word mayses, in contrast to the many Latinate words peppering the poem. However, the familiar Hebrew place-name Natseres, Nazareth, is here rendered in a Latinate spelling, Nazaret, defamiliarizing it from its Jewish context.

In addition to emphasizing the temporally and culturally hybrid nature of the “I” of the poem, which defies easy categorization, this stanza offers a reference to the figure of Jesus that stands in stark contrast to his representation in much Yiddish poetry of the period. The speaker, the hybrid, semi-effaced “I,” is dismissive of Jesus. He’s a weakling, a characterization that recalls the stereotypical maskilic image of the Eastern European Jewish man: the pale, effeminate scholar dominated by his more powerful wife. 15 15 For more on the history of this image of the Ashkenazi male Jewish scholar, see Daniel Boyarin, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997). Rather than being central, he is marginal; from the provinces. In the context of the poem he is not even exactly an actual person, but only a character in the mayses about the Jews.

There are two parallel critiques implicit in this characterization of Jesus. First, we are invited to see the speaker of the poem, the masked “I,” as naïve, unaware of the great changes that will be wrought by the effeminate Jewish “weakling.” Dismissing the Jewish Jesus as weak, relegating him to the realm of fairy tales, the speaker underestimates the power we know he will have. The reader is aware that although Jesus may seem marginal and inconsequential to the speaker of the poem, he will actually change the course of history. In this sense the poem seems to mock the poetic “I,” and to suggest the power of the margins, the potential for transformation contained in that which may appear powerless. It is in the recourse to the margins that the voice of the female Yiddish poet peers out from behind her poetic mask, the sophisticated, Europeanized Anna Margolin hinting at the Yiddish, Jewish-sounding Rosa Lebensboym hidden beneath.

Second, reading this poem in the context of other Yiddish poetry about Jesus from this period, we can see it as a critique of the way that male Yiddish poets treat Jesus. The most instructive and prominent example is the poet Uri Zvi Greenberg, who wrote an entire corpus of Yiddish poetry about Jesus and Christological themes in the early 1920s, much of which was published in his avant-garde literary journal, Albatros. Greenberg and other modernist poets of this period saw the figure of Jesus as symbolic of their radical poetics, and claimed that they, like Jesus, were presenting a new and unique mode of expression to the world. The poet Melech Ravitch published an aesthetic manifesto of sorts in the first issue of Albatros, titled, “Di naye, di nakete dikhtung: zibn tezisn” (The New, Naked Poetry: Seven Theses). In the final “thesis,” “Vetalu oto al haetz” (Hebrew for “They hung him on the tree”), he uses the crucifixion as a metaphor for the violent death of the old, romantic poetry. “Naked the word hangs on the cross. The proud INRI laughs at him. It wanted to be the king and redeemer of woe. From his hands and from his feet blood drips.” 16 16 Melech Ravitch, “Di naye, di nakete dikhtung: zibn tezisn,” Albatros 1 (1922), 16. In the final words, mimicking Jesus’ unanswered final question, Ravitch suggests that even God has abandoned aesthetically pleasing, beautiful poetry. The crucifixion metaphor also suggests a subsequent resurrection, which in this instance must be the renaissance of Yiddish poetry through the adoption of avant-garde aesthetics that favor disharmony over harmony, contradiction over beauty.

It is this contradiction that is expressed in Greenberg’s Christological poetry, in which Jesus is often referred to as “bruder yeshu,” and yet is also represented as an antagonist, the source of anti-Jewish Christian violence. Neta Stahl has characterized this ambivalence as a tension between “brother” and “other,” which Greenberg and many other Jewish writers saw as inherent in the figure of Jesus. 17 17 Stahl, 7. In his poem, “Uri tsvi farn tseylem INRI” (Uri Zvi in Front of the Cross INRI), which was published in the graphical form of a cross, Greenberg directly addresses Jesus, repeatedly referring to “bruder yeshu” and asking, “Do you remember, brother, holy Beyslekhem-village? Do you remember going with Miriam over Galilean field-paths: a little jug of anointing oil.” Greenberg not only expresses his personal identification with Jesus here, but also associates him with a Jewish history and landscape. Yet in the very same poem, Greenberg accuses Jesus of presiding mutely over a pogrom, enabling and authorizing anti-Jewish violence: “Hardened eyes see nothing: at your feet: a pile of cut-off Jewish heads. Torn tallisim. Ripped parchments. White linen with flecks of blood.” 18 18 Uri Zvi Greenberg, “Uri tsvi farn tseylem” (Uri Zvi in Front of the Cross), Gezamlte verk: tsveyter band (Collected Works: Volume 2), ed. Khone Shmeruk (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University, 1979), 433. Indeed, Seth Wolitz has even suggested that the use of the term “brother” is mocking and satirical, marking an address that encompasses the ambivalence of Greenberg’s representation of Jesus and Christianity. 19 19 Seth Wolitz, “Uri Zvi Greenberg’s Ideological Conflict with Yiddish Culture.” Jewish Affairs 53:3 (Spring 1997), 103.

Likewise, Greenberg’s use and representation of the symbol of the cross is marked by a somewhat ambivalent “double meaning,” in Stahl’s formulation: “On the one hand, it symbolizes Jesus’ suffering in the Christian world; and on the other, it comes to signify Christian persecution of the Jews.” 20 20 Stahl, 62. Greenberg’s relationship to the cross was a deeply personal one, as he made clear in a 1929 essay published in Hebrew, in which he recalled the day of a pogrom in his hometown of Lemberg: 21 21 Lemberg is the name in Yiddish and German (the city belonged to Austria-Hungary until World War One). Today it is Lviv, Ukraine.

And in the year…such and such the Polish forces entered my city, where I learned alef-beys in the holy tongue in my childhood, and stood me and my father and mother, they should live, together with the small children – “on the wall” to be shot…why? – Because. They answer that we are Jews with “the blood of dogs” in our veins…so they said. Amen, I say: it was a miracle that I was not killed for nothing. It was a miracle that I was able to flee into hiding…so it is. I knew on that day that the symbol of terror is: the cross. 22 22 Uri Zvi Greenberg, “Min hagenizah shel paytan ivri chai…” (From the Archives of a Living Hebrew Poet), Kol ketavav (Collected Writings), ed. Dan Miron, vol. 15 (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1990), 180. Emphasis in original.

The trauma of the pogrom is marked in the text by the increasing disruption of punctuation and interjections, which he ultimately traces back to one specific image: the cross. This link between Greenberg’s own experience and his engagement with and even confrontation of Jesus and Christianity is made explicit in his poetry, which often takes the form of first-person address and monologue. For Greenberg, the ikh is openly identified with the poet, and with his ambivalent, half-brother, half-other relationship to Jesus.

By contrast, Margolin’s passing mention of Jesus in “Ikh bin geven a mol a yingling” repudiates this extremely personal representation of Jesus as both long-lost brother and perpetrator of violence. And unlike the avant-garde Yiddish poets of Greenberg’s circle, Margolin was not interested in the radical possibilities of a mythologized Christianity for her poetics. Indeed, as we will see, she often looks back toward a more formal, even biblical, poetics in her work. Rather, in Margolin’s telling, Jesus is merely a fairy tale, one of those vilde mayses about the Jews. He is irrelevant to the speaker, to the “I” who is both so central to and so hidden in the poem, bearing only passing mention, and not by name. Again, Margolin consciously sets apart the voice of her poem and the female poet from the prevailing cultural attitudes expressed in contemporary poetry by men.

Margolin’s Mary

It is in this context that we can read Margolin’s cycle of poems about Mary. Rather than a parallel to male writers’ treatment of Jesus, “Ikh bin geven a mol a yingling” suggests that Margolin sought an entirely different mode of understanding and relating to Christological figures and ideas. This mode was closely linked to the masked identities of her poetic voices and to the role of the female Yiddish poet. Rather than focusing on broad symbolism or the reclamation of the figure of Mary for Jewish tradition, Margolin allows Mary to stand on her own, exploring instead her interior life. In fact, there are few details that closely link Margolin’s Mary with the Virgin Mary explicitly, and critics vary in their characterization of the Mary of these poems. While Avraham Novershtern explicitly and seemingly deliberately overlooks the connection to the Virgin Mary, noting only that the name is “foreign-sounding” to Jewish readers (much like Margolin’s Latinate first name, Anna, spelled with two nuns), other critics, like Kathryn Hellerstein and Barbara Mann, explicitly link the poems to the Virgin Mary. 23 23 Novershtern, xiii; Hellerstein, A Question of Tradition, 307; Mann, in “Of Madonnas and Magdalenes,” simply assumes an equation between Margolin’s Mary and the Virgin Mary. Certainly, Margolin’s Mary is an ambiguous figure, never explicitly identified as the Virgin Mary, yet a look at both Margolin’s poetic oeuvre and the themes of these poems make a link between them interpretively clear. As we have seen, these were not the only poems in which Margolin engaged with Christianity or Christological themes: in “Ikh bin geven a mol a yingling,” Margolin foregrounds an engagement with Christian figures in her mention of Jesus and her use of his liminality to introduce themes of hybridity and difference that pervade her work. As mentioned, “Ikh bin geven a mol a yingling” is the first poem in Lider, in a section titled “Vortslen” (Roots), indicating its fundamental importance. In another poem found in the first section of Lider, “In gasn” (In the Streets), Margolin compares a woman’s suffering to that of Jesus at the crucifixion:

האָסט אַלע גאַסן דאָך פֿאַרוואַנדלט אין גאָלגאָטע.
אין אַלע גאַסן רינט מײַן בלוט.

You have yet transformed all the streets into Golgotha.
My blood runs in all the streets. 24 24 Margolin, 9.

Similarly, in the “Mari” (Mary) section of the book, there are numerous references to both Christian figures and symbols as well as more general references to religion: prayer, a priest, goblets of wine, Mary’s godliness, God itself. At the same time, certain recurrent themes seem to refer to the life of the Virgin Mary: motherhood, the loss of a child, absent lovers, unrequited love. Taken together, these argue for an association between Margolin’s “Mari” and the Christian Mary, although one that remains, in a fashion characteristic of Margolin, ambiguous enough to be open to many meanings and interpretations. This ambiguity itself is part of Mary’s usefulness to Margolin: in Mary, Margolin finds a persona with which to evoke a marginal female self who, through her own concealment, can expose the masks forced on women, and particularly on the Yiddish woman poet.

The section of Lider titled “Mary” functions as a complete cycle, moving through stages of a woman’s life and psychological development, from maturation to death. It consists of seven poems, a number that connotes completion in Jewish tradition, corresponding to the days of creation. It begins with a question as the title and refrain of the first poem, “Vos vilstu, mari?” (What Do You Want, Mary?). Both the dialogic nature of the poem and its themes introduce some of the central preoccupations of the Mary cycle: desire, motherhood, self-knowledge, memory, and power. The next two poems, “Maris tefile” (Mary’s Prayer) and “Mari un der prister” (Mary and the Priest) form a kind of pairing. In the first, Mary speaks of herself, her desire for God both sexually and spiritually, in the first person. In the second, Mary is described in the third person and compared to an object: a goblet that acts as the vessel for the wine that stands for the blood of Christ, handled and controlled by the priest of the title. In the middle poem, “Aynzame mari” (Lonely Mary), we get a third-person description of Mary’s interior life, perhaps as a kind of companion to her first-person prayer, bookending “Mary and the Priest.” The last three poems create a kind of movement both internal and external: in “Mari un di gest” (Mary and the Guests), an alienated Mary hosts a party that becomes the occasion for a journey through memory and an exploration of desire and powerlessness; in “Mari vil zayn a betlerin” (Mary Wants to be a Beggar Woman), Mary speaks of a desire to shed externalities and return inward, to the self; and finally, in “Mari un der toyt” (Mary and Death), Mary moves forward, into the unknown, appearing to choose her own death on her own terms.

Kathryn Hellerstein notes that this narrative organization presents a kind of argument,

that if a woman, like the New Testament’s Mary, encounters God and is impregnated by Him with divinity, she will be sacrificed to men’s ideals. She will bear a child whom she cannot mother, and she will be isolated among people….In Margolin’s telling, society and religion offer a woman touched by divinity with no place to go but to death. 25 25 Hellerstein, A Question of Tradition, 307.

This encounter with divinity works on two levels: first, as a metaphor for the condition of women under patriarchy, in which they are subject to the whims, desires, and laws of the father; and second, as a metaphor for the woman poet, whose experience of the world Margolin compared to a persistent and painful, and perhaps unwanted, encounter with divinity that simultaneously offered fulfillment and rewards. Margolin wrote to her lover Reuben Iceland, “The authentic artist carries within himself another world to which the ordinary person has no access. The great value of the poet is that he enriches us with new, thoroughly experienced feelings, with unseen or differently seen landscapes.” 26 26 Quoted in Kumove, “Introduction,” xxviii. This semi-divine experience of the poet-as-seer sets her apart from others, in a way analogous to Mary’s encounter with God in the poems.

The theme of self and identity is the starting point for the Mary cycle, which begins with the poem, “Vos vilstu, mari?” (What Do You Want, Mary?) The form of the title, which is repeated as a refrain three times in the poem, already indicates the unsettled nature of Mary’s identity, and the verb vil, want, introduces the question of agency. This question punctuates the two main stanzas of the poem, in which Mary offers increasingly abstract answers until she herself counters with her own question about her identity. When the poem begins, the answer to this question, vos vilstu, is answered concretely:

וואָס ווילסטו, מאַרי?

אפֿשר אַ קינד זאָל ליכטיק דרימלען אין מײַן שויס.
די טיפֿע שטומע אָוונטן אין שטרענגן הויז
אַליין. פּאַמעלעך וואַנדערנדיק.
אַלץ וואַרטנדיק און וואַרטנדיק.
און זאָל מײַן ליבע זײַן צום מאַן, וואָס ליבט מיך ניט,
שטיל און ווי פֿאַרצווייפֿלונג, גרויס.

What do you want, Mary?

Perhaps a child who would doze brightly in my lap 27 27 As Hellerstein points out in her translation, shoys can also mean womb, giving this line another possible layer of meaning.
The deep, silent evenings in the stern house
Alone, slowly wandering,
Always waiting and waiting
And my love would be for him who loves me not,
Quiet and like despair, immense. 28 28 Margolin, 103.

This answer seems certain and particularly reflective of women’s experience: the longing for a child, the impulse to motherhood. But the contingency expressed by efsher, “perhaps,” better characterizes the rest of the stanza, and it is no longer clear if the speaker is answering the question or describing her current condition, waiting for an unrequited love, which calls into question the concreteness of her initial claim: without a lover, there can be no child.

After the repetition of the title question, the second stanza again begins with a concrete desire, again expressed with a certain linguistic contingency:

איך וואָלט געוואָלט די פֿיס פֿאַרוואָרצלט אין דער ערד,

I would have wanted my feet to be rooted in the earth,

Only now, in the middle of the poem, does the ikh appear, and rather than directly expressing a wish that would answer the question of what she wants, the speaker couches her answer in the conditional volt gevolt, “I would have wanted,” rather than the direct vil, “want.” Yet the metaphorical image presented here is hardly conditional; like the child in the first stanza, it is strong and material: to be attached to the earth, literally grounded. The ambivalence expressed in both of these opening lines in answer to the question of desire marks the speaker again as in between, both wanting and uncertain, grounded and wandering.

Her responses also define her through absences: the imagined child, the missing lover, the lack of place. In every instance she indicates her desire, but is not enabled to choose: in the first stanza she loves but her love is not returned, so she must wait rather than act; in the second she longs for rootedness but instead is tossed about by a storm which penetrates her, “beygt mikh hin un her,” “bending me this way and that.” And in the final part of this stanza Mary responds with her own question:

בין איך אַ מענטש, אַ בליץ, די אומרו פֿון די וועגן,
אָדער די שוואַרצע קרעכצנדיקע ערד?

Am I a person, a lightning bolt, the restlessness of the roads,
Or the black, groaning earth? 29 29 Margolin, 104.

And her own answer to this question is, “Ikh veys nit mer,” I no longer know. Here the self is masked from the self: Mary, the “ikh” of the poem, is suspended, hidden even from herself.

In Christian traditions, Mary has long been viewed as Mediatrix, both as the vehicle through which salvation came into the world, and as one through whom humanity has access to Christ. In other words, through her unique position between God and humanity, she both made the redemption possible and acts as intercessor with the divine. 30 30 Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in History and Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 132. This liminal position also extended to other aspects of Mary’s mythology, as Jaroslav Pelikan notes, “…the Virgin Mary could be seen as Our Lady of the Paradoxes: Virgin but Mother, Human Mother but Mother of God.” 31 31 Pelikan, 51. In Mary, however, these paradoxes do not exist in contradiction. As Marina Warner points out, Mary is “the one creature in whom all opposites are reconciled….Christ the God-Man and Mary the Virgin-Mother blot out antinomy, absolve contradiction, and manifest that the impossible is possible with God.” 32 32 Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), 336. Mary’s unique relationship with the divine establishes her as symbolic of precisely the kind of extraordinary access to the hidden that Margolin identified as the primary province of the poet.

At the same time, Mary’s symbolic liminality places her between traditions. In the early church, Mary’s status as a descendant of King David made her the link between Jewish and Christian history. Born in the tradition of ancient Israel, she literally gave birth to the new tradition of Christianity. Thus, according to Pelikan, “One of the most profound and most persistent roles of the Virgin Mary in history has been her function as a bridge builder to other traditions, other cultures, and other religions.” 33 33 Pelikan, 67. In this sense, Mary is a particularly appealing figure to the Jewish poet, particularly the Jewish woman poet, seeking a point of identification for her unusual vision and voice, for her own liminal position within Yiddish literary circles and Jewish culture, and a model of female spiritual or artistic power.

However, Margolin also exposes the peril that comes with symbolic power, namely, the potential loss of one’s personal identity through public manipulation, raising questions about the relationship between obedience and free will. In particular, the annunciation, an event perhaps obliquely referred to in “Vos vilstu, mari?” through references to a child and unrequited love, forces questions of the relationship between “necessity and free will, divine sovereignty and human freedom,” to the forefront. 34 34 Pelikan, 83. On the one hand, in her submission to God and acceptance of her role as the vessel of the divine, Mary was cast as the handmaid of God, passive and obedient. On the other hand, she was also viewed as the powerful woman of valor of Proverbs, who actively accepted the grace of God and in this sense exemplified free will. 35 35 Pelikan, 90. Thus Mary became an archetype for a particularly feminine conflict between freedom and submission, choice and obedience.

In Margolin’s Mary cycle, this conflict is evident in the next two poems, which both represent Mary in relationship to men: In “Maris tefile,” we read of Mary’s unique relationship to God, and “Mary un der prister” makes clear the extent to which Mary has been defined not just by individual men but by patriarchal institutions like the church. Again, the tension between Mary’s agency and her manipulation by outside, largely male forces comes into play in these poems. In “Maris tefile,” she writes of her active pursuit of God, yet after each of her devotional claims there is a corresponding image of passivity:

גאָט, הכנעהדיק און שטום זײַנען די וועגן.
דורכן פֿײַער פֿון זינד און פֿון טרערן
פֿירן צו דיר אַלע וועג.

איך האָב פֿון ליבע געבויט דיר אַ נעסט
און פֿון שטילקייט אַ טעמפּל.

איך בין דײַן היטערין, דינסט און געליבטע,
און דײַן פּנים האָב איך קיינמאָל ניט געזען.

און איך ליג אויפֿן ראַנד פֿון דער וועלט,
און דו גייסט פֿינסטער דורך מיר ווי די שעה פֿון טויט,
גייסט ווי אַ ברייטע בליצנדיקע שווערד.

God, meek and silent are your ways.
Through the flames of sin and tears
All roads lead to you.

I built you a nest of love
And from silence, a temple.

I am your guardian, servant, and lover
Yet I have never seen your face

And I lie on the edge of the world,
And you go darkly through me like the hour of death,
You go through like a broad, bright sword. 36 36 Margolin, 105.

This type of parallelism recalls biblical poetry, with some parallel meaning or relationship between the two halves of the line (in this case, the two lines of the middle stanzas) and no regular meter. Underscoring the allusion to biblical form, this poem diverges from the majority of Margolin’s poetry in that it contains no internal rhyme or rhyme scheme. The recourse to a biblical form enacts the poem’s claim to prayer, in a sense, forging a connection with a foundational religious text.

The parallelism of the poem, which here is often represented in contrasting rather than perfect mirror images, also creates a mounting tension between Mary’s own agency as a woman in love with God and the limits of her ability to act or choose what happens to her. It is clear from the final stanza, in which the “I” of the poem is penetrated by divinity, that forces far greater than Mary ultimately control her, calling into question the possibility of her own agency. Barbara Mann notes this tension between agency and passivity, suggesting that “this ambiguity suited the aesthetic needs of these women poets operating within normatively patriarchal literary systems.” 37 37 Mann, “Of Madonnas and Magdalenes,” 65. More broadly, it also points to the impossibility of this tension: the invocation of death at the end of this poem as well as the following poem, “Mary un der prister,” suggests that the only possible resolution to the impossible conundrum of female agency and male control is the ultimate end.

“Maris tefile” in particular uses language and form to reinforce the connections between women’s speech, poetry, and the divine. In doing so, it justifies women’s place within the world of Yiddish letters by linking women’s poetic voice to the special communication between God and various women in Jewish and Christian tradition. Mary’s unique position in relationship to the divine, and the way her voice is represented in the New Testament, becomes an entry into an exploration of what is at stake for women when they possess and try to express the otherworldly voice of what Margolin called the “authentic artist.” To do this she makes use of the tensions, outlined above, inherent in Mary’s character, but also emphasizes Mary’s exceptional, liminal status through her use of language and form. Barbara Mann notes the ways in which Margolin’s sometimes forcible and unusual rhymes call attention to the hybridity of Yiddish itself, making it “an ideal linguistic medium for expressing a hybrid cultural affiliation.” 38 38 Barbara Mann, “Picturing the Poetry of Anna Margolin,” Modern Language Quarterly 63:4 (December 2002), 513. With Mary, Margolin does not execute a seamless hybridization, but rather suggests an identification with Mary that maintains her difference rather than a reclamation of Mary that insists on yet another external definition of her character. By writing about Mary in Yiddish, itself a language that straddles nations and cultures, Margolin draws Mary into Jewish culture while allowing her to remain foreign.

As noted, “Maris tefile” is unusual among the Mary cycle and Margolin’s poetry more generally in that it does not rhyme, not even in the occasional way that characterizes Margolin’s work. The conspicuous absence of rhyme suggests the intentionality of her recourse to a specifically biblical form, a move that argues forcefully for women’s place within Jewish literary tradition through two parallel moves. First, through an allusion to Luke’s Magnificat and the text of Hannah’s prayer, from which it is drawn, the poem establishes a chain of tradition for women’s poetic voices; it also establishes a history of female communication with the divine that links Jewish and Christian traditions. This places women legitimately within both the religious and textual traditions, specifically in relationship to prayer and its often poetic form. Second, the use of biblical form is a challenge to the derogatory association between Yiddish and female readers often expressed in the aphorism “for women and men who are like women.” 39 39 For a full explanation and analysis of this phrase, see Chava Weissler, “‘For Women and for Men Who are Like Women’: The Construction of Gender in Yiddish Devotional Literature,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 5:2 (Fall 1989), 7-24. By writing in Yiddish in an elevated, classical idiom, Margolin places herself within a male literary tradition and claims a place for women in that tradition, past and present. 40 40 This is also in opposition to the tendency of male avant-garde Yiddish poets, noted earlier, to use Jesus as symbolic of all that was radical in their poetics. Margolin, by contrast, returns to a more formal style as a claim to legitimacy.

Like “Maris tefile,” the Magnificat is a prayer voiced by Mary and written in a form that recalls the poetic parallelism of the Bible. The text of Mary’s prayer in the Gospel of Luke is highly allusive to the text of Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel, and both are written in a typically parallel structure. Margolin’s poem alludes to both, but with important reversals: both Hannah and Mary’s prayers begin with a very similar, first person, individual cry to God, claiming their devotion and joy at God’s attention. But the rest of their prayers focus largely on God’s attributes, praising God in the third person. Margolin’s poem reverses this pattern, beginning with a third-person address to God that, rather than praising and rejoicing, claims God’s ways as “meek and silent” and suggests that the path to God is not through exultation but through “sin and tears.” Then, in opposition to the biblical prayers, “Maris tefile” moves to the first person, characterizing the interior life of the speaker, Mary, rather than God’s attributes, in terms of Mary’s unrequited love for God. Aligning her poem with these two biblical women’s prayers recalls both of these embedded layers of religious tradition, while retroactively legitimating these prayers as a form of poetry and connecting the poet herself with that tradition. At the same time, the shifts in perspective and focus magnify Mary’s voice, and by extension that of the female petitioner/poet, crafting a speaker with wants and desires. “Maris tefile” makes the voice of the female poet central, voicing the unvoiced “I” in the biblical prayers.

Even more, however, by making Mary the voice of the poem, and through the multiple layers of biblical allusion, from Hebrew Bible to New Testament, Margolin associates this high literary language, and poetry itself, specifically with women’s prayers and encounters with the divine. In a sense, she suggests that poetry, not just in Jewish tradition but in Western culture more generally, derives from prayer and divine encounters, and points to the way that in both Judaism and Christianity those divine encounters have been mediated by women. Just as the text from Luke makes use of the text from Samuel to create a religious lineage, Margolin uses her allusions to these texts to create a poetic lineage for women rooted in the most sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity. Mary’s presence in this chain links Margolin and Yiddish poetry more generally to a wider tradition, offering a less parochial view of Yiddish literature.

In addition to establishing a women’s poetic tradition, Margolin also uses the character of Mary to explore the ways that the representation of women has been controlled by both male writers like Luke as well as the institution of the church. Margolin directly explores the way in which the public persona of Mary, and by extension women like her, perhaps even women poets generally, has been defined only in relationship to others, others who control who she is and what she means to the world. In “Mari un di gest,” the longest of these poems, the consequences of Mary’s lack of agency become clear. The conceit of the poem is a dinner party of which Mary is the host, a party that becomes the platform for an extended meditation on Mary’s past, her former lovers, her regrets, motherhood, and loss. And throughout this journey through Mary’s psyche, the presence of the guests stands as a constant reminder of the way that external forces have shaped Mary and continue to shape her, often in opposition to her own desires and needs.

After setting the scene, the poem launches into a prolonged reflection on past lovers: the old man in whose “sunset” she “flickered,” who overshadowed all those “she knew in the nights”; the “silent brown youth” who “strayed from a star, like an alien”; and the poet described as “half-holy, half-criminal.” This list concludes with the line:

און דו, און דו, און דו – אַ לאַנגע קייט.

You, and you, and you – a long chain.

Suddenly, in the next line the concrete embodiment of those affairs is suddenly made present in the poem:

און דאָס קינד איז דאָ.

And the child is here.

It is not clear who the child is or to whom he belongs; he is only “dos kind,” the child, and he arrives at “der muters tir,” the mother’s door, alone, small, sad, isolated. There is no maternal feeling expressed in the poem; rather, the final line of this stanza reads:

אויגן, קלאָגט מיך ניט אָן, אויגן, קערט זיך ניט אָפּ.

Eyes, do not accuse me, eyes, do not turn away. 41 41 Margolin, 109.

This line reminds us that the guests arrayed around Mary are also her judges; the public whom she serves and entertains as hostess also decides what is appropriate in her behavior and what deserves reproach. She is not free to do as she wishes, but must contend with others’ expectations. Indeed, when she imagines herself escaping, the line above is repeated with an addendum, isolated on its own line:

אַ פֿליסטערן, אַ שאָרכן, שטילער שפּאָט.

A murmuring, a swishing, soft scorn. 42 42 Margolin, 110.

This line, which itself sounds whispery in the Yiddish, full of sibilant “sh” sounds, brings the reader out of Mary’s reminiscences, her memories of former lovers, with a reminder of the way her behavior is policed through the characterizations of others. The gossipy talk in this isolated line brings external voices to the fore, revealing the extent to which Mary’s identity is determined by outside forces and voices.

The final stanza completes the implication of these lines, that Mary’s character is as much constructed by the desires and expectations of others, her guests, as it is a function of her own desires. These guests, at the end, become less and less familiar to Mary, a metaphor for the way that Mary’s character, over time, has been removed from any historical reality and replaced by representations of her, religious and cultural. Marina Warner writes of the way that, in Roman Catholic tradition, Mary “is presented as a fixed immutable absolute, and the historical process that changes the character of the Virgin is seen merely as a gradual discovery of a great and eternal mystery, progressively revealed.” 43 43 Warner, 334. Over centuries, as Mary’s meaning has evolved within the context of the church, it has manipulated her image to fit institutional and religious purposes while insisting on her character as static and reducing her to a fixed object.

In the poem, Mary’s own lack of control over her self-representation and meaning is represented by her alienation from the guests at the party. She walks the rooms asking,

ווער ביסטו? און דו ווער ביסט? און דו?

Who are you? And who are you? And you?

These are not her friends, invited into her home, her life, but strangers whose expectations control her:

זי איז אַליין. בײַ אַ פֿרעמדן פֿעסט.
זי איז קיינמאָל ניט געווען מיט זיי פֿאַרוועבט.
זי האָט איר לעבן קיינמאָל ניט געלעבט.

She is alone. At a strange celebration.
She has never been a part of them.
She never lived her own life. 44 44 Margolin, 110.

In a kind of cruel joke, it becomes clear that Mary’s party was never her own—her life has always belonged to others rather than to her. Even the final rhyme here, “farvebt” and “gelebt,” underscores this point. While the simple meaning of the line indicates Mary’s outsider status, the connection between these two words adds a layer of meaning, suggesting the way that Mary’s life is actually intertwined with the “guests,” in that they are the ones who control it, the reason why she has not lived it on her own terms.

The assumption that the Virgin Mary is a figure whose character has been largely determined by men has been common to scholars in both religious studies and literary criticism, particularly feminist critics. 45 45 Kimberley VanEsveld Adams, Our Lady of Victorian Feminism: The Madonna in the Work of Anna Jameson, Margaret Fuller, and George Eliot (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2001), 5. Marina Warner has pointed out Mary’s status both within Catholicism and without as an “icon of feminine perfection, built on the equivalence between goodness, motherhood, purity, gentleness, and submission.” 46 46 Warner, 335. And Jaroslav Pelikan notes that understandings of Mary reflect more general discussions with Christianity about what it means to be a woman and how womanhood is defined. 47 47 Pelikan, 219. Like the gossiping guests, presumably talking about Mary’s liaisons and dubious past, these male-dominated institutional representations of Mary as pure and good enforce a particular notion of womanhood. But as Kimberley Adams points out, this perspective ignores the fact that often, purity “tended to give women independence and the power to act, especially in unconventional ways.” 48 48 Adams, 9. It is primarily the freedom that comes with the assumption of purity that Margolin isolates within these poems, whether through the special poetic encounter with the divine open to the devout woman or through a turn toward the internal.

Mary, whom Margolin has, in a sense, made into the prototype of the woman poet, achieves this freedom by stripping herself of the guests, the unwanted scrutiny and interpretation of others. In recovering her own identity, Mary gains the agency denied her through the external control of her image. In “Mari vil zayn a betlerin,” 49 49 Novershtern points out that this poem was originally published under the title “Zayn a betlerin,” and suggests that the desire to rid the self of external baggage relates to Margolin’s desire to be free of particularly male poetic influence (especially that of Mani Leyb and the Inzikhistn) and shape her own poetic “I,” which is not inconsistent with my interpretation of the revised poem. Novershtern, xiii. Mary expresses her desire

וואַרפֿן אַלע אוצרות אויפֿן ווינד [...]
און אַז איך אַליין זאָל מער זיך ניט דערקאָנען –
אויך מײַן גוטן צי מײַן שלעכטן נאָמען.

To throw all the treasures to the wind […]
And – when I no longer know who I am –
Also my good or my bad name. 50 50 Margolin, 111. This translation is Kathryn Hellerstein’s rendition of this complex line.

Thus the poem opens with an image of Mary discarding everything that defines her, particularly, as she mentions, “di last fun dayn libe un last fun di freydn,” the burden of your love and burden of happiness, until her identity is entirely destabilized, even erased, unrecognizable. She wants to become something ephemeral, insubstantial like a prayer or a flame, and “zayn aynzam,” be alone. But this shedding of the external, this turning inward toward the indefinable and singular in the self, paradoxically leads Mary to a recognition of her own identity. The poem comes full circle from its opening, ending with the lines:

און גיין אַזוי מיט פֿאַרוווּנדערטע אויגן
דורך גרויסע סודותדיקע טעג און נעכט
צום הויכן געריכט,
צום שמערצלעכן ליכט,
צו זיך.

And walk thus, with wondering eyes
Through great, mysterious days and nights
Toward the high court,
Toward the painful light,
Toward my self. 51 51 Margolin, 112.

Kathryn Hellerstein has noted the movement from “ikh” to “zikh” in Yiddish women’s poetry, which is a movement “from the assertion of the first person singular pronoun ‘I’ to the evolution of a self on paper” and notes that this helped to shape a “tradition beside the mainstream.” Margolin, however, uses Mary to propose an alternate, or incomplete, version of this movement. Though the poem does end with the return to the self, the “zikh,” it does not begin with the “ikh,” which is conspicuously absent from the first lines, which begin laconically, “zayn a betlerin.” As in the second stanza of “Ikh bin geven a mol a yingling,” the “I” here is effaced, unvoiced, an incomplete movement from I to self. The odd half-rhyme between “zikh,” the self, “gerikht,” and “likht” in the last lines reinforces this lack of completion. Even the “zikh” here is still marginal, slightly outside both the rhyme scheme and the world of the poem. Margolin’s representation of Mary, even as she comes into herself, does so incompletely, semi-effaced, her movement “tsu zikh” still complicated and imperfect. Although this incomplete journey to the self suggests the difficulty or even impossibility of wholeness, it is nonetheless consistent with Hellerstein’s notion of women’s poetry in Yiddish as an alternate tradition, beside, although not necessarily outside, the center.

It is partly through the persona of Mary, herself part of a tradition alternate to and yet contiguous with Margolin’s own, that she constructs a poetic self that stands parallel to that of the male, modernist Yiddish poet. In contrast to the fraught identification with Jesus expressed by male Yiddish poets of this period, Margolin specifically repudiates their approach, not adopting or reclaiming Mary for Judaism but making use of Mary’s difference to explore questions of gender, art, and identity. Mary’s own paradoxical characterization within Christianity provides Margolin with an ideal figure on which to project her image of the woman poet, attempting to amplify her unique voice in a space dominated and controlled by men. Likewise, Mary’s special status with regard to the divine, her position as intercessor with and vessel of God, allows Margolin to explore the relationship between women’s speech, poetry, and prayer, and to create a valorized poetic lineage for women. In doing so, Margolin uses her Yiddish Mary to expose the masks imposed on women, particularly on women touched by an experience of the divine, whether that divinity comes in the form of a visit from God or an encounter with art.

Weininger, Melissa. “A Poetic Paradox: Gender and Self in Anna Margolin’s Mary Cycle.” In geveb, May 2017:
Weininger, Melissa. “A Poetic Paradox: Gender and Self in Anna Margolin’s Mary Cycle.” In geveb (May 2017): Accessed May 22, 2024.


Melissa Weininger

Melissa Weininger is the Anna Smith Fine Senior Lecturer in Jewish Studies and the Associate Director of the Program in Jewish Studies at Rice University.