לויט די לייענערס | Readers Respond: Malka Lee

Diana Clarke

At the beginning of December we published a blog post, “Best Dressed Yiddish Women Cultural Figures,” highlighting the flamboyant and enviable styles of seven female kultur-tuerins. They looked fantastic! Who knew poet Rokhl Korn could sport a string of pearls with such gravity, or that Malka Heifetz Tussman pulled such an aesthetic one-eighty?

The post got a fantastic response from readers, who gushed over Tussman’s fro and Molly Picon’s polished nails. But as it turns out, not only were some of the styles unbelievable, their attributions were untrue.

Reader Ruth Rappaport, granddaughter of poet Malka Lee, wrote in to say “Thank you for featuring my grandmother, the poet Malka Lee, in your list of best-dressed Yiddish cultural women. My sister, nephew, and I got quite the chuckle over her being depicted as going to a seance. However, the second photo of her playing a mandolin is not her. That photo has been making the rounds over the Internet but it is an error. Believe me, she did not play the mandolin!”

After further inquiry, Ruth filled us in: “Looking through my archived e-mails, I discovered the error in 2012. I occasionally Google my grandmother’s name and found that a website attributed that false, mandolin-playing woman to Malka Lee. I wrote to the person who posted it and received a response saying they obtained several photographs of her from YIVO, including one taken of her in San Francisco, a place she never visited.

“My aunt is very involved with YIVO to preserve my grandmother’s works, so she wrote to her contact there and they promised to take the imposter’s photo down. Which they have, but somehow the picture has made its way around the Internet. So, to many, my grandmother will forever remain a mandolin-playing lady with a penetrating gaze!

The image of “Malka Lee” playing a mandolin is still the second result on a Google image search for the poet—and that photo is linked to a Pinterest page, which in turn links to a now-defunct YIVO Wordpress account. There’s still no word on how YIVO acquired and mislabeled the (extremely compelling) photo, or on who the woman playing the mandolin might be. (If only Lee could in fact lead a seance and find out the answer herself!) Please let us know if you have any information that might be helpful, and do take a peek at the very dignified photo of Malka Lee accompanying a short essay about her poems that was posted on the YIVO website earlier this year.

For more on Malka Lee, check out her encyclopedia entry at the Jewish Women’s Archive, this essay about her poems by Sheva Zucker for Lillith, her entry at Mapping Yiddish New York, or this anecdote from Kathryn Hellerstein’s book A Question of Tradition.

UPDATE 1:16 pm: It’s Malka Heifetz Tussman! Reader Ben Sadock emailed to say “The picture that isn’t Malka Lee is in fact Malka Heifetz Tussman. I’m distantly related to her by marriage and have a number of pictures of her from the era. Corroborating this is the Chicago address for the photo studio.” He also sent us a wonderful photo of Tussman and her husband Shleyme at the beach, which you can see below. And if that’s not enough Jewish geography, in the course of the investigation we also heard from a reader who’s dating Malka Lee’s great-grandson. As they say, Nisht mayn tsirk, nisht mayn Malkes!

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Clarke, Diana. “לויט די לייענערס | Readers Respond: Malka Lee.” In geveb, December 2015:לויט-די-לייענערס-readers-respond-malka-lee.
Clarke, Diana. “לויט די לייענערס | Readers Respond: Malka Lee.” In geveb (December 2015): Accessed May 06, 2021.


Diana Clarke

Diana Clarke is a former managing editor at In geveb, and a doctoral student in the History Department at the University of Pittsburgh. They research the intersections of Jewish racialization, trauma, and whiteness in rural America, and are especially interested in discourses of assimilation related to sexuality and gender. Diana is also a 2018 Translation Fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, and their writing and translation has appeared in the Village Voice, Dissent, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and World Literature Today .