Sewn with the Tiniest of Pearls

Jessica Kirzane

The Can­vas and Oth­er Sto­ries by Salomea Perl, trans­lat­ed by Ruth Mur­phy with an intro­duc­tion by Justin Cam­my. (Ben Yehu­da Press, 2020), $14.95.

In “Dos tepl” (The Pot) (1901), which is often seen as quintessential exemplar of his use of the monologue form, Sholem Aleichem introduces psychological depth to Yenta, a distressed female protagonist, by subtly introducing the agonies that underlie a woman’s request that her rabbi declare her pot kosher. 1 1 There are many discussions of “Dos tepl” in scholarship on Sholem Aleichem. Among them: Efrat Bloom, “A Woman’s Word: Sholem Aleichem’s “Genz”,” Prooftexts 35, no. 2-3 (Spring-Fall 2015), 163-185; Ken Frieden, Classic Yiddish Fiction: Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and Peretz (Albany: SUNY, 1995), 183–85; Dov Sadan, “Three Foundations: Sholem Aleichem and the Yiddish Literary Tradition,” Prooftexts 6, no. 1 (1986): 59 [an essay from 1959]; Meyer Wiener, “On Sholem Aleichem’s Humor,” Prooftexts 6, no. 1 (1986): 47 [an essay from 1941]. Dan Miron, Hatsad ha’afel bitsÿoko shel Shalom ‘Alekhem: ‘al yashivutah shel retsinut beyayas leyidish ulesifrutah (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2004), 39; Hana Wirth-Nesher, “Voices of Ambivalence in Sholem Aleichem’s Monologues,” Prooftexts 1, no. 2 (1981), 158-171; David G. Roskies, “Call it Jewspeak: On the Evolution of Speech in Modern Yiddish Writing,” Poetics Today 35:3 (Fall 2014), 225-301; Gabriela Safran, “Four English Pots and the Evolving Translatability of Sholem Aleichem,” Translating Sholem Aleichem, eds. Gennady Estraikh, Jordan Finkin, Kerstin Hoge, Mikhail Krutikov. London: Routledge, 2012, 113-133; Victor Erlich, “A note on the Monologue as a Literary form: Sholem Aleichem’s “Monologn” – A Test Case,” in Lucy S. Dawidowicz, ed., For Max Weinreich on his Seventieth Birthday: Studies in Jewish Languages, Literature, and Society (The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1962); Jordan D. Finkin, A Rhetorical Conversation (Penn State University Press, 2010), 103-108. Yenta intimates, though she does not state directly, that in questioning the injustice of her pot no longer being kosher she is issuing a complaint against society and God for the immensity of her suffering as an impoverished widow and mother of a dying son.

Fifteen years prior, Salomea Perl (1869-1916) published her story “On kinder” (Childless) in Y. L. Peretz’s Di yontev bletlekh, which takes up a similar situation: a woman inquiring about kashrut determines that the stakes of the question have more to do with systemic injustice and vulnerability than with the food itself. When Perl’s protagonist, Rivke, goes to the rabbi to inquire about an imperfection she found in her shabes chicken, she encounters a couple waiting to see the rabbi about a divorce because the wife has failed to produce children after eleven years of marriage. Rivke suddenly recognizes her own vulnerability as a childless woman in her tenth year of marriage, and her ability to produce a satisfying shabes meal becomes a matter of survival, in the hopes that she can please her husband enough that he will not wish to discard her as unfit for marriage, the way the rabbi might reject the chicken for its blemish.

In Perl’s story, as in Sholem Aleichem’s more famous monologue, the full weight of the psychological pain of the situation is not explicated: After remembering the time she conceived and then miscarried after six weeks, Rivke returns to the question of the meal, saying she had hoped for perfection in the shabes meal only to find that “today this too had been severed; six weeks she’d raised a hen…” only for it to have been unkosher (72). As the narrator trails off, the connection between the hen and the miscarriage, and all the lost hopes that experience entailed, is articulated by the elegant suggestiveness of the ellipses. Nevertheless, the narration is much more explicit about Rivke’s understanding of her own situation, and its relationship to her inquiry to the rabbi, than in Sholem Aleichem’s narrative. Perl gives her female protagonist much more credit for understanding her own mind as she lingers at the doorway to listen to the edict about the couple’s divorce and draws parallels to her own situation. 2 2 In my reading, Yenta does not fully understand the importance of her own words – in accord with Dan Miron’s suggestion that the dramatic irony of the monologue depends on the reader’s intellectual superiority and sophistication in relation to the speaker. This interpretation is shared by Gabriella Safran, who refers to Yenta’s speech as “disorderly” and “self-contradictory” – “she cannot add up the years she lived with her husband, nor can she understand the economics of supply and demand that govern her brother-in-law’s fish business” – she is incapable of rational thought. Dan Miron, Shalom Aleykhem: pirkey masa [Sholem Aleichem: Critical Essays] (Ramat-Gan, 1970); Gabriela Safran, “Four English Pots and the Evolving Translatability of Sholem Aleichem,” Translating Sholem Aleichem, eds. Gennady Estraikh, Jordan Finkin, Kerstin Hoge, Mikhail Krutikov. London: Routledge, 2012, 113-133. According to Hana Wirth-Nesher’s reading of the monologue, Yenta is self-aware about the situation and “what she actually wants is an answer to a question far more profound than that concerning dietary laws.” Her grievance “seethes below a manner of speech and a context that represents proper behavior, custom, and resignation to the rules of society” making it impossible for her to level her accusation directly, and her speech patterns can be attributed to her avoidance of directly speaking what she knows to be true. Even if one accepts Wirth-Nesher’s convincing reading of Yenta’s speech as an expression of speaking truth to power within the limitations of her position (she reveals truths so unspeakable that the rabbi faints before she can explicitly uncover the metaphor), Sholem Aleichem’s Yenta’s garrulousness would be productively compared with Perl’s more even-keeled protagonist. See Hana Wirth-Nesher, “Voices of Ambivalence in Sholem Aleichem’s Monologues.”

Both stories take as a starting point a woman’s precariousness and relative powerlessness in a society in which her fortunes are dependent on the men in her family and on rabbinic authority. A comparison between the two seems to suggest that in developing the much-praised feminine “speechlore” of his monologues featuring women speakers Sholem Aleichem perpetuated an understanding of women as ignorant of their own minds and unconscious of the systems of oppression that they were forced to navigate. While in Perl’s “On kinder” a woman’s thoughts appear to move through logical associations from a failed shabes meal to the potential dangers of not pleasing her husband in the matter of dinner, particularly as she has failed to produce children, in Sholem Aleichem’s “Dos tepl” a colorful speaker appears to ramble, and only reveals seemingly unconsciously the relationship between the broken pot and her own helplessness in the face of her son’s illness. The contrast illuminates the notion that the “folk speech” of Sholem Aleichem’s monologues appears not to have given “free rein” to the voices of marginalized speakers, but to have perpetuated a misogynist view of what those speakers were capable of understanding and expressing. 3 3 In “Call it Jewspeak: On the Evolution of Speech in Modern Yiddish Writing,” David Roskies refers to “Dos tepl” as “Sholem Aleichem’s first and most brilliant monologue in a woman’s voice” and notes the specificities of gendered speech in the monologue, in which “Yente’s speech mimics the associative-digressive flow of Talmudic debate… from an antithetical, female point of view” and praises Sholem Aleichem for bringing to life women’s “speech and speechlore” which are singularly “privy to the dark secrets and absurdity of life.” He goes on to explain that “folk speech,” as explored by Sholem Aleichem, “was a vehicle for giving everyone a voice and giving that voice free rein.” (243-244). As Hava Shapiro, a Hebrew writer who, like Perl, was part of Peretz’s Warsaw circle at the end of the 19th century, explains, “Time and again, when we are amazed and awed [both verbs in feminine form] by the great talent of a ‘wonder worker,’ one who penetrates [masculine form] the woman’s heart, we feel at the same time as though a strange hand has touched us.” 4 4 Hava Shapiro, preface to Kovets tsiyyurim [A Collection of Sketches], 1909, quoted in “To Tread on New Ground”: Selected Hebrew Writings of Hava Shapiro, Carole B. Balin and Wendy I. Zierler, eds. (Wayne State University Press, 2014), 46. “Wonder worker” alludes to the liturgical God as creator. According to Balin and Zierler, “Together with her second description of the male author as ‘one who penetrates the heart of woman,’ [Shapiro] anticipates much later feminist theoretical objections to the idea of authorship based on a masculine God concept on the one hand and the pen as a phallus on the other.” (Balin and Zierler, 23.) In other words, women writing about women tend to portray women’s voices differently than men, talented writers though they may be.

The existence of this earlier version of the story should give those of us in Yiddish studies pause. First of all, it seems highly probable that Sholem Aleichem read Perl’s version before he created his own, as it appeared in the publication of his rival, Peretz, during a decade when the two were competing for literary and cultural clout. The influence of Perl’s text on Sholem Aleichem’s does not detract from the creative energy that Sholem Aleichem brought in introducing the skaz, or spontaneous oral account, into Yiddish literature, but it should cause us to question masculinist histories of singular literary geniuses and instead think in terms of networks through which literature was exchanged and reimagined. It should also force us to turn our attention toward the role of women in the foundational era of modern Yiddish literature at a time when Sholem Aleichem was declaring modern Yiddish literature a patrilineal tradition. 5 5 See Irena Klepfisz, “Queens of Contradiction: A Feminist Intoduction to Yiddish Women Writers,” Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers (Second Story Press, 1994), 37. Perl’s story demonstrates that women’s literary influence likely extended beyond the credit they were given for it.

Salomea Perl’s “On kinder” is one of her only seven known stories, which have been collected and translated by Ruth Murphy in her recent volume The Canvas, and Other Stories, with an introduction by Justin Cammy. Each of these seven stories, translated into a fluid and idiomatic English, centers on the lives of women, often focusing on the misalignment in desire and understanding between women and their husbands, and pointing toward women’s internal lives that extend beyond the boundaries permitted within their social positions. For example, in the story “Der teater” (The Theater), a woman who suspects her husband of surreptitiously attending the theater purchases herself a ticket and discovers the nobility of the art, which “forces its way into her heart and mind” though she had previously been convinced that it would be a corrupting influence (46). In recognizing her own yearning for artistic inspiration, she ultimately draws closer to her husband, who is himself suffocating from the smallness of their lives, as the two reconcile with joy at the thought of attending theater together. The most concrete representation of this expansive understanding of women’s creative mental capacities can be found in the title story, “Di kanve” (“The Canvas”), a monologue told from the perspective of a woman who once embroidered elaborate, colorful tapestries “sewn with the tiniest of pearls” and pined after a consumptive student, who later finds herself constrained in a childless marriage to an elderly, paralyzed merchant (26). As Cammy notes in his introduction, “Perhaps Perl’s narrator, at once silenced by the market forces of marriage but creatively productive when left to herself… is symptomatic of the broader fate of Yiddish women writers, not only in her own time, but even, until very recently, in translation” (xii).

Indeed, the lack of attention given to women writers has not only obscured our understanding of the scope of women’s writing in Yiddish, but also impoverished scholarship about the literary exchanges and conversations between writers such as Salomea Perl and more canonized figures like Sholem Aleichem. In “Broyt zukhndik” (“Seeking Bread”), an exchange of letters between a wife in a shtetl and a husband who has gone to Warsaw seeking better fortunes, Perl appears to respond directly to Sholem Aleichem’s epistolary feuilletons between Menakhem Mendl and Sheyne Sheyndl, which he had begun publishing several years prior. In the story, an earnest husband writes desperately of his time in Warsaw, “I placed myself in the middle of the street so that someone might send me on an errand, and I stood there an entire day in vain… all the jobs were taken” (86). Unlike Menakhem Mendl, the faithful husband Mikhoel does not exaggerate or make false promises, and appears to be honestly hoping and working toward bringing his wife Genendl to Warsaw with him: “It’s dry bread we’ll be eating,” he warns her, “but together!”(96). And unlike Sheyne Sheyndl, Mikhoel’s wife Genendl does not berate him for his lack of success. Instead she expresses her hope and describes her suffering. She is honest about her woes, writing, “I must confess to you that for me it is a disgrace and a shame to be a servant,” but the tone is of sadness, rather than browbeating (92). In fact, she begs her husband to take better care of himself: “Do it for me, and eat a little sausage every day” (98). This ennobling portrait of a couple in dire economic circumstances appears to be a quiet upbraiding of Sholem Aleichem’s approach as a sometimes cynical humorist to the figures about whom he writes.

The existence of this apparent literary dialogue between Salomea Perl, a long-forgotten writer, and Sholem Aleichem leads me to ask: What happens when women appearing in men’s writing are taken to be the sum total of what Yiddish literature has to say about women? What truisms about women, and their representation in Yiddish literature—or indeed the gendered character of Yiddish itself—have been upheld by taking at face value male writers’ representations of women’s speech and thought, or simply by giving so much attention to male writers’ creative reworkings of a modernizing, increasingly unstable Jewish gender system? As Irena Klepfisz explains, “to state the obvious: the classical writers wrote as men… the frequent negative depiction of women, especially those from the shtetl – wives, market women, unmarried women as shrewish, conniving and gossipy – helped male writers to bond with male readers and establish a male audience.” 6 6 Klepfisz, “Queens of Contradiction,” 37. Thus, Sholem Aleichem’s depiction of Sheyne-Sheyndl’s “rich arsenal” of “female speechlore, drawn from the particular everyday experience of Yiddish women” in contrast to the writing of her husband Menakhem-Mendl, who is “a conduit for new ideas and concepts” perhaps should not be read as simply an “artful representation of the Jews as a people of the spoken word” but an artful representation of a male perspective on Yiddish women’s speech patterns. 7 7 Roskies, “Call it Jewspeak,” 241. In this formative period for modern Yiddish writing, as Justin Cammy notes in his introduction, male writers and editors were “navigating their own internalized stigmas about the relationship between Yiddish and femininity that could potentially threaten the status of this emerging literature.” The same “psychosexual fear of emasculation” that Cammy argues “led them to keep women writers from garnering too much influence” had a significant impact on these writers’ representations of women’s characters (xiv). Ruth Murphy’s translation of Perl’s work is an important corrective to the largely male canon of Yiddish writing, especially in the late 19th century.

Unfortunately little is known about Salomea Perl outside of a few short references in literary encyclopedias, the contents of which Cammy relates in his informative introduction. Cammy’s introduction helpfully situates Salomea Perl’s writing within the history of Yiddish literature, offering background on the gender politics of Yiddish and the place of women writers as welcomed but only in a limited way by contemporaneous male gatekeepers of Yiddish letters. He also situates the publication of this translation within a recent growing body feminist literary recovery and translation of Yiddish prose fiction. More questions than answers remain with regard to the writer herself. What was the nature of Perl’s “disagreement” with Peretz which, as Cammy explains, seems to have “stymied her publication”? (xiii) Did she write other stories that were never published? Or did she simply lack the proverbial room of her own in which to produce literature?

I was disappointed to find that little was revealed in the introduction about the translator and how she came to this work. I wish there had been an opportunity to learn about where she first read these stories, how she understood their significance, and the challenges she faced as a translator. The latter set of questions would have been of particular interest because of the unique layout of the text, which appears in side-by-side bilingual form. The nature of the volume – a slim collection of seven short stories – makes it possible to present everything bilingually without making the length of the text overly cumbersome: it clocks in at a sleek 131 pages. The cleanly typeset reprints of these Yiddish stories, free of the blur of old microfilm, makes this an attractive teaching volume for instructors who teach Yiddish literature in translation and wish to offer original Yiddish versions for those who have the appropriate language skills, as well as an excellent source for independent students of Yiddish, who could read the original stories and check them against the translation for comprehension purposes. It also lends the volume to a classroom discussion of surprising translation choices (such as the translation of “[zi] iz geven a reyn mezuzele” to “[she] was a real gem” (2)). A more robust translator’s introduction would have been a welcome supplement to facilitate these conversations.

My desire for more about the translator and her process in no way detracts from my enthusiasm for this volume. It is incumbent upon Yiddish studies scholars today to “challenge the silence” that has surrounded Yiddish women writers who were long “forgotten or ignored by well read Yiddishists,” as Irena Klepfisz and other feminist literary activists began to do some thirty years ago. 8 8 Irena Klepfisz. “The 2087th Question or When Silence Is the Only Answer.” In geveb (January 2020): The reasons for this are not only identitarian, but because, as Anita Norich asserts, “as anyone who has ever stirred a pot knows, if you add new ingredients you inevitably change the mix,” and an acknowledgement of women’s writing in Yiddish might well unsettle previous truisms about foundational texts of modern Yiddish literature to create “a fuller picture.” 9 9 Norich, Anita. “Translating and Teaching Yiddish Prose by Women.” In geveb (April 2020): Murphy’s translations of Perl’s stories allow us to appreciate an ever more colorful canvas of modern Yiddish literature.

Kirzane, Jessica. “Sewn with the Tiniest of Pearls.” In geveb, February 2021:
Kirzane, Jessica. “Sewn with the Tiniest of Pearls.” In geveb (February 2021): Accessed Jun 13, 2024.


Jessica Kirzane

Jessica Kirzane is the assistant instructional professor of Yiddish at the University of Chicago. She holds a PhD in Yiddish Studies from Columbia University. Jessica is the Editor-in-Chief of In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.