Women’s Voices from Yiddish to Polish

Aleksandra Kremer

Joanna Lisek, Kol isze – głos kobiet w poezji jidysz (od XVI w. do 1939 r.) [Kol ishe: The Voice of Women in Yiddish Poetry (from the 16th Century to 1939)] (Sejny: Pogranicze, 2018), 716 pages, 42 PLN.

Moja dzika koza. Antologia poetek jidysz [My Wild She-Goat. An Anthology of Yiddish Women Poets], ed. Karolina Szymaniak, Joanna Lisek, and Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota (Kraków-Budapeszt-Syrakuzy: Wydawnictwo Austeria, 2018), 624 pages, 56 PLN.

For decades, the main Polish sourcebook of Yiddish poems was an anthology of Jewish poetry edited by Salomon Łastik and Arnold Słucki. The book was prepared in the 1960s but published only in 1983, after a delay caused by the 1968 antisemitic campaign and by communist censorship. 1 1Antologia poezji żydowskiej, ed. Salomon Łastik and Arnold Słucki (Warszawa: PIW, 1983). In this classic anthology, 103 poets (twelve of whom were women) were presented in Polish translations in chronological order, with short biographical notes preceding the poems.

The Łastik and Słucki collection is an important precursor to two new volumes dealing with Yiddish poetry, both published in Poland in 2018, which focus on the work of women poets. Over the last few years many books on Yiddish culture and anthologies of Yiddish literature have appeared in Polish—including anthologies of the Warsaw Yiddish avantgarde, Yiddish poetry written in Poland after World War II, Holocaust poems, and Yiddish literature from Łódź, to name just a few. 2 2Warszawska awangarda jidysz. Antologia tekstów, ed. Karolina Szymaniak and Monika Polit (Gdańsk: słowo/obraz terytoria, 2005); Nie nad rzekami Babilonu. Antologia poezji jidysz w powojennej Polsce, ed. Magdalena Ruta (Kraków: Księgarnia Akademicka, 2012); Słowa pośród nocy. Poetyckie dokumenty Holokaustu, ed. Agnieszka Żółkiewska (Warszawa: Żydowski Instytut Historyczny, 2012); Sztetl, szund, bunt i Palestyna. Twórczość literacka Żydów w Łodzi 1900–1939, ed. Dariusz Dekiert, Ewa Wiatr, and Krystyna Radziszewska (Łódź: Wydawnictwo UŁ, 2017); Nowe życie? Antologia literatury jidysz w powojennej Łodzi, 1945-1949, ed. Magdalena Ruta with the assistance of Krystyna Radziszewska and Ewa Wiatr (Łódź: Wydawnictwo UŁ, 2018). However, these latest publications are unique in that they deal explicitly with women’s writing and, like the 1983 anthology, are meant for a wider audience. In this case, they appeal to readers interested in poetry and women’s history. The first of these books is the new anthology Moja dzika koza (My Wild She-Goat. An Anthology of Yiddish Women Poets), edited by Karolina Szymaniak, Joanna Lisek, and Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota, which uses its more than six hundred pages to present poems of different epochs, all of them written by women. The other book, similarly monumental in its scope, is a scholarly monograph by Lisek, titled Kol isze (Kol ishe), which discusses women’s voices in Yiddish poetry from the sixteenth century to 1939. The aim of both books is to recover poets who were marginalized in three different ways: as Jews, as women, and as writers using Yiddish rather than Hebrew.

Most of the names appearing in the two books will be new to non-specialists, revealing a new world of poetry for scholars of Polish culture. Although both books present Yiddish literature written beyond Poland’s borders, including authors from the US, Ukraine, and the USSR (Kol ishe), as well as Israel (My Wild She-Goat), the books also contribute indirectly to various scholarly discussions about the way Poland’s multicultural past should be covered in Polish literature classes taught in schools and universities. So far, these programs usually only include texts that were originally written in Polish (and Latin). 3 3 See Ryszard Nycz, “Możliwa historia literatury,” Teksty Drugie no. 5 (2010): 167-184; and Marta Skwara, “Polish Literature and Its Languages,” in Being Poland: A New History of Polish Literature and Culture since 1918, ed. Tamara Trojanowska, Joanna Niżyńska, and Przemysław Czapliński, with the assistance of Agnieszka Polakowska (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018), 273–89. A similar plea to include Yiddish in Polish studies programs and Polish in Jewish studies programs at American universities was made by Karen Underhill, in “Re-Judaizing the Polish (Studies) Landscape: The Doikeyt Model,” East European Politics and Societies and Cultures 28, no. 4 (2014): 693-703. While several universities in Poland offer Jewish studies programs where both Yiddish and Hebrew are taught, these are separate majors and minors, leaving most scholars and students of Polish with a very limited knowledge of what was being written over many centuries in the same urban centers—but in a different language (the same could be said about the knowledge of texts written in Ukrainian, Lithuanian, or German). The wave of new translations from Yiddish enables and encourages us to rethink the kinds of texts that could be taught in Polish. These two recent publications focusing on women poets further complicate this new literary landscape: now many non-specialists can have their first taste of Yiddish poetry from non-canonical or counter-canonical perspectives, and from female rather than male authors.

The monograph and the anthology are closely connected but are not entirely parallel projects; they were begun around the same time but developed slightly differently. The anthology is the collective work of three editors, who also serve as the main, but not the only, translators; alongside new translations are earlier twentieth century translations by the poets Debora Vogel, Julia Hartwig, and Mieczysława Buczkówna. The poems in the anthology come from the sixteenth to twenty-first centuries and are organized by thematic rather than chronological blocs, in which texts from different epochs meet and interact. This idea was inspired by the poet Kadya Molodowsky, who, in a 1930 article, voiced her opposition to a unified view of women’s poems, declaring that their texts were often so different that they could never meet under a single rubric. Playfully countering this claim, the editors show that poems by women could indeed meet, in intriguing and inspiring ways, across space and time, especially when the texts are grouped by categories such as “genealogies,” “(self)-portraits,” “prayers,” “masculinity,” “mirrors,” “home and homelessness,” “khurbn,” “looking,” “writing,” and others. At the same time, these categories still acknowledge the diversity of women’s poetry. In their approach, the editors refer to a recent anthology of contemporary Polish poetry by women, titled Solistki (Soloists). 4 4 Maria Cyranowicz, Joanna Mueller, and Justyna Radczyńska, eds., Solistki. Antologia poezji kobiet (1989-2009) (Warszawa: SDK, 2009). That book similarly does not present a common ideological worldview, or any essentializing perspective, or even women as speaking in unison. Instead, the editorial strategy is mostly aimed at recovering women poets and their solitary poetic projects, which has all too often been ignored in more “general” anthologies.

My Wild She-Goat opens with a comprehensive introduction by Karolina Szymaniak and ends with helpful notes and poets’ bios, but in between the volume offers an anarchistic, unbound exploration of different themes, historical periods, and poetics, all mixed together—just as “wild” as the book’s title, taken from a poem by Rukhl Fishman, suggests. The editors make Polish readers jump into a sea of unknown names and titles, encouraging synchronic reading and the discovery of poems that speak to contemporary sensitivities.

Many such discoveries are also observed and contextualized in Lisek’s monograph, which discusses several of the poems and most of the authors from the anthology, but, due to the length of the work, stops at 1939. Lisek’s book is a chronological survey of changes in the expression of women’s subjectivity in Yiddish poetry, and of the conditions that restricted, influenced, and inspired it—not only Jewish religious traditions, but also folk poetry, fin-de-siècle literature, Zionism, and socialism. 5 5 Lisek presents this as the main difference from Kathryn Hellerstein’s A Question of Tradition: Women Poets in Yiddish, 1586-1987 (Stanford U P, 2014). Lisek’s book is also more survey-like, covering more authors and providing more historical context. Lisek is more interested in the different ways of expressing womanhood than in any poems that happened to be written by women; she focuses on texts that reflect on the experience of gender. In the first part of the book there is an overview of connections between Yiddish language, popular literature, and women readers, including works translated or adapted into Yiddish primarily for female audiences (e.g., the Tsenerene and similar glosses on biblical texts, chivalric romances), followed by a discussion of the first known prayers written by women in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, as well as an overview of women’s voices in folk poetry. The last section of the book focuses on modernity, and we get a detailed overview of different women poets grouped by period: 1888–1900, 1900–1910, 1910–1914, World War I, and 1918–1939. This part of the book is further divided into regions, covering writers in Poland, New York, Ukraine, and the USSR.

While the texts discussed in Lisek’s book are similarly varied, the author reveals a slightly different agenda than the anthology in her introduction, as she is clearly interested in the expression of women’s subjectivity and is not afraid to use the Polish term “poezja kobieca,” which can be translated as both “women’s” and “feminine” poetry, and brings to mind stereotypes of female writing. Lisek’s aim is to reclaim this term and the notion of femininity (or womanhood, which is the same word in Polish) as a complex and equal part of the human experience. In this vein, she often refers to ideas of sisterhood and to the French feminism of Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray. Similarly, Lisek is interested in the spaces and topics of the everyday, in the quotidian and the personal—such as the kitchen in Malka Lee’s poetry—and in spheres culturally associated with women, which are deemed lower, emotional, and popular, and opposed to the notion of genius. As Lisek shows, a close rereading of poems related to such traditional spheres of womanhood can complicate the image of traditional female experience. For example, Lisek discusses secular Yiddish folk poems in which women complain about their hard lives after marriage, their husbands’ behavior, and even domestic violence. Another example is the love poetry by Roza Yakubovitsh, a poet committed to “women’s topics” and traditional Jewish themes, who in some texts evokes the images of the femme fatale and the vampire. The discussion of Yakubovitsh’s book Mayne gezangen (My Songs) (1924) and the poem “Mit pasn goldenem…” (“With golden rays…”), which speaks of traditional restrictions regarding the audibility of a “woman’s voice” (kol ishe), can also serve as a clarification of the title of Lisek’s monograph. The creation of poetry, historically a genre connected to voice (Yakubovitsh calls her poems “songs,” gezangen), is a space of restriction and transgression.

The traditional connections between women’s poetry and themes of prayer, love, and motherhood, as well as the importance of biology and bodily experiences in these texts, are by no means limited to Yiddish literature. Similar themes, from prayer to love, have also appeared in Polish poetry by women, and the scholar Anna Legeżynska approached these Polish materials in a similar manner, often acknowledging, but also revaluing, their popularity rather than their formal innovativeness. 6 6 Anna Legeżyńska, Od kochanki do psalmistki… Sylwetki, tematy i konwencje liryki kobiecej (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Poznańskie, 2009). Lisek’s book calls our attention to other parallels between Polish and Yiddish literary histories, as in the chronology of the first poetic texts and prayers written by women in Yiddish, which come mostly from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, much like the first known Polish poems written by women. And just as the Tsenerene, known as the “women’s Bible,” was published in the sixteenth century, so was the Catholic Bible translated into Polish in the fifteenth century at the request of a Polish queen. Nevertheless, the dynamics between Latin and Polish, and Hebrew and Yiddish, are by no means analogous, and neither Polish nor Latin was strongly associated with any gender the way Yiddish and Hebrew were.

The connection between Yiddish and womanhood is therefore unique, and had consequences that were absent from the Polish literary tradition. Lisek underlines the fact that the marginalized and disregarded positions of both the Yiddish language and of women actually allowed for greater freedoms in certain respects, since Yiddish texts were not always subject to rabbinic approval. Moreover, women who were not allowed to study Hebrew or Aramaic gradually started to gain secular educations instead; they also were more likely to learn other languages. Additionally, at an event promoting My Wild She-Goat, one of the editors, Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota, pointed out that Jewish religious laws concerning the female body made certain aspects of sexuality less taboo than they were in Polish culture.

These factors could explain why Yiddish poetry by women treats the body in a far more explicit manner than its Polish counterpart, both when it comes to sexuality and love poems and in describing the experience of motherhood. In this respect, various 1928 poems by Rokhl Korn are an especially good example because they raise issues about the suffering of women, in particular in the non-Jewish peasant world that Korn knew: children’s ruthless treatment of their aging mothers; the desires of young mothers; poverty, suffering, and domestic violence; and childbirth. It seems to me that these texts have no counterpart in contemporaneous Polish poetry; they were probably matched only by the poems by Anna Świrszczyńska, written more than forty years later. Yet Korn’s poems can make us think also of other Polish texts, such as the short stories about peasant women written by the nineteenth-century author Maria Konopnicka. Korn’s work reminds us that the dynamics between poetry and prose were uneven for Yiddish and Polish female authors. Polish women of letters, unlike those writing in Yiddish, were better known and respected as prose writers rather than as poets in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Some of the most interesting features of Lisek’s book are these intersections between Yiddish and Polish cultures, like Korn’s poems about non-Jewish village life. Another example is Aaron Zeitlin’s 1931 article on Jewish women, in which he speaks of the New Rachels, referring to the figure of Rachel from Stanisław Wyspiański’s 1901 Symbolist play Wesele (The Wedding). In the play, Rachel is a well-read, charming, and poetic woman, a guest at the wedding of a Polish poet. According to Zeitlin, the New Rachels, just like Wyspiański’s Rachel, were well educated, were well connected, and knew Polish literature, but unlike her, they remained in or returned to Yiddishkeit. Lisek reminds us that Jewish women were indeed some of the most devoted readers of fin-de-siècle and modernist Polish literature, especially the writings of Stanisław Przybyszewski. Consequently, motifs from these works transferred to Yiddish poetry as well, as evidenced for instance in love poems by Roza Yakubovitsh.

The multilingual competence of Yiddish poets (who often wrote in other languages) as well as intersections between Polish and Yiddish cultures are especially clear in the case of Bronia (Breyndl) Baum. Lisek analyzes her unpublished Polish, Yiddish, and Russian manuscripts from a private archive—the one time Lisek also discusses non-Yiddish texts. Lisek analyzes Baum’s diary, written in Russian, which documents years of hunger during World War I and thus pays more attention to the horrors of that war than usual in Polish discourse, where they tend to be overshadowed by Poland’s regained independence in 1918, after more than a century of being partitioned among three empires. It is only recently that various books, conferences, and exhibitions have started to reshape this cultural memory.

Lisek’s analysis goes even further in its treatment of this historical moment: in her discussion of Baum’s writings, she also reminds us that late 1918, when the independent state was announced, was a time of anti-Jewish violence and pogroms in Poland—a fact that has long been absent from public Polish discourse. It remains unaccounted for in the Polish school curriculum, and only recently have newspapers started discussing the topic, to the consternation of many readers and intellectuals. 7 7 On the pogrom in Lvov and the silence around it see Grzegorz Gauden, “Zrozumiałem, co się stało – 22 listopada 1918 r. we Lwowie Pan Tadeusz zabił Jankiela,” interview by Jarosław Kurski, Gazeta WyborczaNov. 24, 2018,124059,24206235,grzegorz-gauden-zrozumialem-co-sie-stalo-22-listopada-1918.html (accessed 9/14/2019); Grzegorz Gauden, “Póki ukraińskie oddziały były we Lwowie, Żydzi byli bezpieczni. Potem Polacy urządzili pogrom,” interview by Paweł Smoleński, Gazeta WyborczaJune 24, 2019,,121681,24918737,grzegorz-gauden-poki-ukrainskie-oddzialy-byly-we-lwowie.html (accessed 9/14/2019); see also Andrzej Romanowski, “Polacy wobec Żydów. O antologii Przeciw antysemityzmowi 1936-2009,” Gazeta Wyborcza Feb. 7, 2011,,124059,9057332,Polacy_wobec_Zydow__O_antologii__Przeciw_antysemityzmowi.html (accessed 9/14/2019). In Baum’s poems quoted by Lisek, we read about fear, blood, and hunts for Jews. It was at this point that Baum started to consider Palestine, where she had never been, as her homeland, and subsequently moved there. The personal feeling of disappointment and sadness, which Baum expresses in her Polish poems, is perhaps one of the most moving moments in Lisek’s book (which stops at 1939). Yiddish poems written in reaction to pogroms are also included in My Wild She-Goat. In this respect, both the monograph and the anthology make an intervention in Polish cultural memory: they not only recall the darker side of Poland’s pre-WWII history, but they also allow us to look at it through the eyes of worried Jewish women.

The editors of the anthology are right to suggest that Yiddish poems of different eras can speak to us today—not only when they openly discuss the struggles and joys associated with gender and sexuality, but also when they offer poetic insights into what it means to speak from a marginalized position more generally, as in Roza Nevadovska’s poem “Far a pogrom” (“Before a pogrom”), in which people singing Catholic songs start to throw stones at a Jewish window while a frightened mother hides her child. Yiddish women poets remain uncannily relevant, not only as they inspire us to revise the Polish past, but also as they illustrate the mechanisms of exclusion that reappear in the strongly divided social landscape of today’s Poland. We should be grateful to the translators and scholars behind these two volumes that now these Yiddish poets can speak to us in Polish, too. Although the books present numerous Yiddish authors from different countries, translation to Polish makes Poland-related texts especially relevant. While scholars and teachers generally agree that one cannot understand Polish history without the history of Jews, the new volumes encourage us to ask once again about the relation between Polish and Yiddish literatures—a question that I continue to ask myself, as a non-Yiddish speaker and a professor of Polish.

Kremer, Aleksandra. “Women’s Voices from Yiddish to Polish.” In geveb, November 2019:
Kremer, Aleksandra. “Women’s Voices from Yiddish to Polish.” In geveb (November 2019): Accessed Dec 05, 2019.


Aleksandra Kremer

Aleksandra Kremer is an assistant professor of Polish literature and culture in the Slavic Department of Harvard University.