Jun 13, 2019
Zohar Weiman-Kelman. Queer Expectations: A Genealogy of Jewish Women’s Poetry (SUNY Press, 2018), 232 pages, $22.95.
The Hebrew writer Esther Raab once said of her poetry that it emanated from the “masculine side within me.” 1 1 “Beit Avi Chai,” from a talk by Sh. Shifra at an event marking Raab’s 100th birthday. Accessed May 22, 2019. https://www.bac.org.il/specials/project/kvl-ayshha/article/astr-rab-hasbta-shl-yvnha-vvlch Born in Petah Tikvah in 1894, Raab had the distinction of being the first sabra (or native Hebrew) poet, male or female, something that early critics latched onto, often characterizing her work as authentic, rooted, and true. But in a literary culture composed almost entirely of immigrant writers, nearly all of them male, Raab’s status as a native, female poet inevitably consigned her to the periphery of a nascent Hebrew literary culture, and she remained a marginal figure in Hebrew letters throughout her life. Raab’s identification of her poetry as masculine can be understood as simply par for the course for a poet seeking to establish herself within a milieu dominated by men, one whose search for role models would necessarily have led her to a poetic lineage that was almost entirely male. To put it differently, without the benefit of a female poetic lineage with which to identify, Raab may have believed that in order to be a poet she would have to identify her poetry, and her person, as at least partly “masculine.”
In the nearly one hundred years that have elapsed since Raab began to publish her poems, much has changed in the world of Hebrew letters, and Jewish literature more broadly. Alongside these changes new scholarship has emerged that has sought out alternatives to dominant literary genealogies. Thus, for example, in The Politics of Canonicity: Lines of Resistance in Modernist Hebrew Poetry (2003), Michael Gluzman highlights the suppressed voices of poets like Esther Raab and David Fogel and shows how they constitute an alternative poetic lineage, one that operated on the margins of the modern Hebrew canon. Wendy Zierler’s And Rachel Stole the Idols: The Emergence of Modern Hebrew Women’s Writing (2004) establishes a genealogy of Hebrew women’s writing that begins in nineteenth-century Italy, but also stretches further back and finds its roots in the Hebrew bible itself. In the field of Yiddish literary scholarship, Kathryn Hellerstein’s A Question of Tradition: Women Poets in Yiddish, 1586-1987 (2014) offers what may be the most comprehensive alternative to a male dominated Jewish literary history, showing how Jewish women have been producing literary work in Yiddish for many centuries, and how that work not only constitutes a discrete literary tradition but also was instrumental in shaping Yiddish literature more broadly.
These scholarly works, and others like them, have successfully uncovered histories long hidden from view. Together they reveal a surprisingly rich lineage of Jewish women’s writing across multiple languages. Enter Zohar Weiman-Kelman’s Queer Expectations: A Genealogy of Jewish Women’s Poetry, newly released in 2018 and more bold and far-reaching in its claims and aims than many of its precursors. Bringing together works produced by women in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish from the nineteenth century to the present day, this book advocates for not “only reclaiming and inventing histories, but also generating alternative modes of queer history and temporality alike” (xxii).
This is as much a political treatise as it is a scholarly work, and central to its articulation of a queer genealogy is resisting the impulse towards futurity, which the author argues necessarily leads to “determinist retrospective reading” of literature and of the past (xxvi). Weiman-Kelman draws extensively on the work of queer theorist Lee Edelman, and takes seriously his call to subvert a “symbolic order derived from the reproductive imperative” (qtd. in W-K xiii). In the book’s aptly titled introduction, “What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting,” she suggests that “Rather than investing in future viability… if we are to rethink Jewish literature, perhaps the future is not where we should be looking at all” (xxx).
Instead, Weiman-Kelman fixes her gaze, and our own, on the past, and asks us to consider the roads not taken in charting the history and development of Jewish literature, and of Jewish women’s writing in particular. Using Jewish women’s poetry as a point of entry, this work seeks to unearth the “vitality of the alternative pasts” and offers instead of pat reassurances or the promise of a better tomorrow a past “to look back to, without knowing what to expect” (xxix). This is a work that will not inspire hope, the author warns, but only because hope is something we have come to associate with a future that we can only wait for expectantly.
Each of the book’s six chapters brings together two or more poets, transgressing boundaries of time, language, and geography to put their work into dialogue. In the first chapter, “Queer Lines,” we encounter a literary lineage that extends in multiple directions from the Yiddish poet Kadia Molodowsky, to include not only the foremothers she addresses in a 1927 poem called “froyen lider,” but also the lesbian American Jewish poet and activist Adrienne Rich who would translate Molodowsky’s own work into English. Chapter two offers an even more startling pairing: the nineteenth-century American Sephardi poet Emma Lazarus and the twentieth-century Yiddish poet Anna Margolin, a contemporary of Molodowsky’s who immigrated to New York from Belarus in 1906. Juxtaposing Lazarus’s poem “Venus of the Louvre,” published in 1884, against Margolin’s 1929 poem, “I Was Once a Boy,” Weiman-Kelman reveals a common transgressive thread that subverts historical narratives and the borders they uphold. Lazarus’s poem draws on multiple histories—Greek and European, Jewish and Christian—in her tribute to the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who was himself a convert to Christianity, thus collapsing not only boundaries of time and place but also of religion. In a similar manner, Weiman-Kelman shows how Margolin conflates disparate geographical, temporal, and religious zones in her evocation of the gender-queer “stripling” who hears “in Socrates’ portico… the news / about the weakling from Nazareth / And wild tales about Jews.” By positing Lazarus, whose Sephardic family lineage can be traced back to the earliest Jewish settlers in colonial America, as precursor to radical Yiddish poetry in America exemplified by Margolin’s work, Weiman-Kelman subverts our own expectations of Jewish literary history in America.
If the book’s first two chapters reveal unexpected points of connection, the theoretical crux of the work and its most salient arguments are most fully and convincingly articulated in chapters three and four, titled, respectively, “Waiting in Vain,” and “Heys Haunting.” In chapter three, Weiman-Kelman shows us, through her readings of poems by both Margolin and the Hebrew poet Lea Goldberg, how poetry can activate the resistance to futurity. Weiman-Kelman’s readings draw our attention to the particular ways in which the norms of expectancy are undermined, subverted, and cast aside in both Margolin’s and Goldberg’s work, in favor of a poetics of resignation and passivity. Situating Goldberg’s early Hebrew poems in their historical context, when the future of Hebrew “was far more in question than that of Yiddish” (62), Weiman-Kelman imagines alternative outcomes to the language wars that persisted for much of the early part of the twentieth century. She argues that “Jewish history had more than one inevitable future, geographically, linguistically and politically” (63). For the author, this is an important reminder because “it exposes the present moment as only one possible outcome, not the only necessary future, and not necessarily the best one” (63).
The terms queer and queering are used liberally in this book and are applied broadly to refer to subversive, transgressive or otherwise nonconformist ways of thinking about time, gender, sexuality, and religion, among other categories whose borders are often heavily policed. But it’s not until we reach chapter four that we encounter a sustained consideration of queerness and lesbianism as modes of being in the world. Reading poems by Molodowsky, Margolin, and Lazarus, Weiman-Kelman traces the ghostlike specter of queerness that forms a haunting presence in these works and in the lineage evoked throughout this book. Just as passivity and resignation are shown to be potential modes of political resistance to the “default mode of hetero-normative reproduction” (xxiv) and the futurity it upholds, so, too, the ghostly quality of being always somewhere between presence and absence is revealed here to be a powerful tool for disrupting temporal and other boundaries. As a tactic of survival for lesbians and queers, it makes possible the forging of new and unexpected alliances and genealogies. Drawing on Eve Sedgwick and Naomi Seidman, among others, Weiman-Kelman argues in this chapter for the affordances of queer spectrality, and of the haunting presence—of the Jew and of the lesbian—that can effectively destabilize seemingly rigid boundaries of sexuality, gender, and ethnicity.
The book’s final two chapters focus respectively on the communities forged through works like Ezra Korman’s 1928 anthology of women’s poetry in Yiddish, Yidishe dikhterins, and 1982’s Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology; and on transgressive possibilities opened up by translation in the bilingual poetry of the contemporary American lesbian poet and activist Irena Klepfisz. If in its opening chapters this book makes somewhat abstract assertions about queer lineages and histories before moving on to the two chapters that offer an explication of the theoretical underpinnings and political stakes inherent in such a move, its closing chapters offer examples for the practical implementation of queering literary history. But while the book’s philosophical core is clearly located in the two middle chapters, its political salience comes from the personal voice that makes this a truly unique work of scholarship. This is both the book’s greatest strength and at times also its biggest stumbling block. Because the author is so fully present in this work it can be hard to assess the arguments she makes in objective terms, and her literary analysis of the poems she cites sometimes feel overdetermined. As someone writing a dissertation on Jewish women’s poetry, I searched in vain in this book for analyses that underscored the particular relevance of poetry for the arguments Weiman-Kelman puts forth. Some of the questions I would have liked to see the author consider include: What, if anything, makes poetry, as a genre, a particularly useful lens for thinking about queer genealogies and the history of Jewish women’s writing? I wondered here about the foregrounding of literature itself in a work whose primary concerns seem to me historical in nature. While surely there are good reasons for using literary work, and poetry in particular, to rewrite and reimagine history, what was missing was a fuller explication of the connection between the literary work and the history it alternately conceals and reveals. Indeed, the presumption of continuity between word and world, between poetic artifice and lived experience, seems especially problematic in a book whose central thesis is so inextricably tied up with challenging prevailing notions of continuity. A more careful consideration of what poetry—its language and its form—does and makes possible, both for poets and for critics, would have strengthened the book’s overarching argument. While my reading of Weiman-Kelman leads me to believe that she conceives of poetry less as representation or mimesis than as a performative mode, and a kind of language play, her analyses would benefit from more explicit engagement with these methodological questions.
Still, the insertion of a personal narrative into this scholarly work is effective in provoking a call to action that will resonate even for those outside the fields of literature and Jewish studies. In both the introduction and the coda to this book, Weiman-Kelman makes it clear that what’s also at stake here is more than either politics or scholarship, but her own sense of being in the world as a politically engaged scholar who identifies as queer and lives and teaches in the politically fraught region of Israel/Palestine. As a scholar who draws on the multiple facets of her own identity in her work, Weiman-Kelman’s tracing of “alternative histories, and alternative, queer, approaches to history,” is her way of trying to “enlist the past to alter the present” (136).
Nearly one hundred years after Esther Raab began publishing her work in Palestine, work she saw as necessarily emanating from a particular, and particularly masculine side of her being, Weiman-Kelman offers a counternarrative to the one that Raab inherited. Through her construction of a cross-temporal and cross-linguistic genealogy of Jewish women’s poetry, Weiman-Kelman collapses the boundaries between theory and praxis in her own work, showing how scholarship can be a locus for political change.