Apr 28, 2022
“I didn’t know it [when I was a child], but so many pioneering scholars and activists were…busily building the futures in which I now find myself… What a proud golden chain to have joined,” In geveb editor-in-chief Jessica Kirzane wrote on Facebook alongside a selfie with a booklet. Her post introduced me to the fabled booklet Di Froyen Women and Yiddish: Tribute to the Past, Directions for the Future: Conference Proceedings, published in 1997, which records the Di froyen conference held October 28-29, 1995.
Kirzane’s mention of the golden chain references a motif within Yiddish culture that symbolizes its continuity. Historically, however, women have been denied recognition for their roles in creating and sustaining Yiddish culture. As the booklet’s foreword explains, Di froyen was the “first comprehensive conference on women’s roles in shaping, contributing to, and continuing both traditional and secular yidishkayt.” Speakers discussed historical and contemporary Yiddish-speaking women: writers, readers, singers, teachers, actors, prayer leaders, mothers, scholars, and more. At the Di froyen conference, attendees claimed women’s links in the golden chain, and forged a vision for an egalitarian Yiddish future.
Yiddishists swooned over the booklet in the comments of Kirzane’s post. Attendees of the conference reminisced, and younger Yiddishists described how they first learned about its existence. Sonia Gollance wrote, “I remember when I discovered the conference proceedings as a grad student feeling like I had struck gold.” Echoing others’ laments about the booklet’s scarcity, Australian Yiddishist Hinde Ena Burstein commented, “I have been trying to get a copy…for about 20 years!”
This discussion inspired Yiddish Book Center bibliographer David Mazower to secure permission from the National Council of Jewish Women, New York Section to add this booklet to the Yiddish Book Center’s Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library. When I began my fellowship at the Yiddish Book Center this fall, I was finally able to read the booklet and felt honored to scan it for the digital library.
“Women’s history is too often written on water,” conference organizer Irena Klepfisz declares in her introduction to the written proceedings. “[We aim to] ensure that our sisters living a hundred years from now…will not be forced once again to re-invent the wheel of Jewish women’s history” (3). It is essential for younger feminist Yiddishists to learn from the materials that older feminists handed down to us. Now that it is uploaded, anyone with an internet connection can access, enjoy, and learn from this trailblazing document. I wanted to share some highlights on In geveb’s blog to meet Klepfisz’s call for a robust archive of Jewish women’s history and ensure that future emerging Yiddishists don’t need to rely on Facebook happenstance or a lucky search on the Yiddish Book Center’s website to learn about this remarkable document.
The booklet reminds us of the conference’s legacy as a turning point for women in Yiddish, but more than that, it underscores participants’ visionary goals and uphill work to achieve them. It also raises questions of gender, language, and power that continue to animate contemporary feminist Yiddishist debates: Can – and should – feminist Yiddishists embrace secularism, religious Judaism, or both? How can we be “vigilantly inclusive” of Hasidic, Sephardi, Mizrahi, and LBGTQ+ people? What are feminist Yiddishists fighting for – to include women in a Yiddish literary canon, or to reject patriarchal ideas of lineage and prestige altogether? More than twenty-five years later, this booklet pushes us to keep asking these vital questions.
The Di froyen conference was the brainchild of distinguished Yiddishist and feminist Irena Klepfisz. As she herself explained on Kirzane’s Facebook post, the booklet cover depicts the working group that devoted two years to organizing the conference. And what a cover! A band of women and girls squeeze together, all with shirts bearing the word “ייִדיש” [Yiddish]. Most of the older women stand as younger women crouch on the floor. The photograph seems to catch the group in the middle of several energetic conversations. As a fellow feminist Yiddishist, I sense the warmth and dynamism radiating from this scene.
The conference brought together over 500 attendees from multiple generations and factions of Yiddish culture. They ranged from native Yiddish speakers to those who did not yet speak one word of Yiddish. Some were born in Europe; others in the United States. There were secular Jews and religious Jews, academics and activists. Since I was born after the conference occurred, I am grateful its organizers assembled and published this booklet, which records the conferences’ speeches, panels, and workshops – an undertaking that itself took nearly a year, according to Klepfisz.
The table of contents is truly a “who’s who” of feminist Yiddishists. The booklet includes contributions from great Yiddishists whom we have since lost: Naomi Prawer Kadar, Adrienne Cooper, and Beyle Schaecter-Gottesman, among others of blessed memory. And it presents a snapshot of the earlier work of contemporary Yiddishists who teach and inspire me and my peers today: academics like Anita Norich and Naomi Seidman, language instructors like Paula Teitelbaum and Sheva Zucker, and scholar-translators like Goldie Morgentaler and Frieda Forman. Whether reading Norma Fein Pratt’s speech about Fradl Shtok, or Marcia Falk’s analysis of Malka Heifetz Tussman, I felt starstruck as I combed through the proceedings.
The speakers explored women’s contributions to Yiddish culture in a diverse array of mediums: music, film, theater, and written works, from bilingual poems to vegetarian cookbooks. Workshops provided opportunities to learn new songs, discuss literature in the original Yiddish and in translation, and reflect on lesbian identity and Yiddish.
From this booklet, I learned about the folk legend of Skotsl. Bina Weinreich discussed the phrase “Skotsl kumt” and its mythic origins: a group of Jewish women gathered a deputation to speak to God about how everything in the world belonged to men. They formed a human tower, with a wise woman named Skotsl on top as their spokesperson. However, a woman at the base shifted, and the entire tower of women came tumbling down—except Skotsl, who has never been found. Weinreich explained that “women have not lost their hope that one day Skotsl will come…whenever a woman comes into a house, they call out joyfully, ‘Skotsl kumt, Here comes Skotsl,’ because who knows—one day she might really be there” (78).
Until Skotsl’s return, however, Yiddishist feminists must work step-by-step to make the world of Yiddish culture less patriarchal. Several speakers relayed their tactics at the conference. Ellie Kellman discussed how College Yiddish, an adult beginners’ Yiddish textbook ubiquitous since its 1949 publication, exhibits a strong male bias. She recognized Sheva Zucker’s textbook Yiddish: An Introduction to the Language, Literature, and Culture, recently published at the time of the conference, for including women’s voices in dialogues and texts, and explained how she successfully taught an excerpt from the memoirs of Glikl of Hameln (analyzed earlier in the booklet by Dorothy Bilik). Evelyn Torton Beck and Anita Norich also voiced the call for Yiddishists to find and teach more materials in Yiddish by women and translate them into English.
The conference embraced translation as a critical tool to promote women’s contributions to Yiddish. As Klepfisz declared, “Translation keeps Yiddish alive” (4). Kathryn Hellerstein described how she and other feminist translators navigated not only questions of culture but also questions of gender, as the choice of materials to translate can challenge assumptions about Yiddish literature and its value. Many conference participants argued that translation allows new audiences to access works originally in Yiddish, and gives Yiddish women writers recognition many never received upon publication.
At the same time, the conference extolled the value of learning and speaking Yiddish. It included reflections from Yiddish teachers of adult students, and Paula Teitelbaum and Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath each spoke about raising their children in Yiddish. In this way, the conference embraced both English translation of Yiddish works and Yiddish language acquisition and usage.
At the Di froyen conference, feminist Yiddishists laid out visionary goals. In the twenty-seven years since, the attendees themselves, along with others, have made remarkable progress in the areas of translation, pedagogy, and scholarship. The conference was held three years after the publication of Found Treasures, a foundational work of English translation of women’s Yiddish short stories. Since the conference, many more Yiddish novels and short stories by women have been translated (often by women translators). Contemporary teaching materials like the Yiddish Book Center’s In eynem: The New Yiddish Textbook take an egalitarian approach to Yiddish learning, with female characters of different ages and backgrounds. And the recently released Undzer Mishpokhe supplement offers lessons to include nonbinary and queer characters. Furthermore, groundbreaking historical research has illuminated Yiddish-speaking women’s lives, on subjects from theater to midwifery.
I have studied Yiddish language and culture with many feminist resources at my fingertips, and I cannot imagine learning Yiddish in the era of Di froyen when that was not possible. I hope the conference attendees today feel a sense of accomplishment hearing that young Yiddishists like me have never experienced such a a severe lack of feminist resources. And we young feminists should view their example as a call to action, to continue their work, and fight for our own generation’s values.
While attendees shared goals, they did not agree on every issue. For example, the booklet presents a fascinating divide between secularism and religiosity within feminist Yiddishism. Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, an early employee of the Yiddish Book Center, urged feminist Yiddishists to study the religious tradition, Hebrew, and Aramaic to fully appreciate Yiddish culture. Irena Klepfisz asserted, however, that virtually all women writers themselves lacked a religious education. Their writing did not include Aramaic/Hebraic linguistic elements or other traditional markers of what was seen as sophisticated and intellectual in Yiddish culture. “I realize that in pointing to this linguistic characteristic of Yiddish women’s writing that some people will say it is impoverished,” Klepfisz added. “But is it? Or is it just different? Does women’s creative output lack something? Or does it have a different starting point and perspective?” (94). Kleinbaum encouraged attendees to pursue and reform the religious education and practices historically denied to Jewish women. On the other hand, Klepfisz proclaimed that Jewish secularism requires its own body of knowledge and enriches the breadth of Jewish literature and culture.
I find both these perspectives compelling. Two and a half decades later, contemporary efforts to recognize the history of Yiddish-speaking women’s spirituality offer a new way to bridge this divide. Through projects such as Rabbi Noam Lerman’s Tekhines Proyekt or Annabel Cohen’s feldmesterin rituals, feminist Yiddishists today honor women’s contributions to Judaism and draw on them to inspire both new religious prayers and secular intellectual or artistic production.
Many of the Di froyen speakers pushed against the image of a monolithic Jewish women’s history or culture, and called for greater dialogue within the Yiddish world. Shifra Epstein pointed to the conspicuous absence of Hasidic women from the conference: she showed clips and provided analysis of a Purim shpil performed by Bobover Hasidic women in 1978, and declared pointedly, “I hope that in the future, at other conferences on Jewish women, Chasidic women can participate more fully and their own voices be heard (other than on the screen).” (17). Eve Jochnowitz’s analysis of Hasidic women’s cookbooks was the only other moment in which the voices of Hasidic women entered this conference on Yiddish-speaking women. More recent work about or from women who are or were Hasidic has since enriched the contemporary feminist Yiddishist sphere, from Yiddish content by Libby Pollack and Abby Stein, to scholarship by Ayala Fader and Naomi Seidman.
Schmooze and song with Libby and Riki Rose.
Evelyn Torton Beck declared that Jewish women’s studies must not only work to include Yiddish-speaking women but also needs to become “vigilantly” inclusive of Sephardi, Mizrahi, and queer and trans women–a goal that still needs to be realized. The conference was led by prominent lesbian activists like Torton Beck herself and included queer content such as Eve Sicular’s “Good Girls, Bad Girls: Crossdessing and Misogyny in Yiddish Film.” But Torton Beck’s challenge to attendees spoke to the marginalization of these perspectives, particularly as younger activists at the time sought to bridge generational divides. Today, we have much work left to do to heed Torton Beck’s call: in particular, feminist Yiddishism today must include and affirm Yiddishists who are trans, non-binary, and/or gender minorities. Building upon the queer Yiddishkayt at Di froyen, Yiddish cultural activitists today have created spaces centered on queerness, like the upcoming Queer Yiddish online summer camp and Queer Yiddish Café. Mainstream Yiddish organizations should support these projects as allies, and make their own spaces affirming to LGBTQ+ participants. Meanwhile, Jewish women’s studies continues to marginalize Sephardi and Mizrahi women; taking inspiration from Torton Beck, feminist Yiddishists must see this as our problem and continue to challenge this exclusion. Recent efforts such as the Jewish Languages Project directed by Yiddishist Sarah Bunin Benor and the Yiddish Meets Ladino concerts of Sarah Aroeste and Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell set an inspiring example.
While the conference welcomed those who did not speak Yiddish in addition to Yiddish speakers from a variety of backgrounds, the question of who “owns” Yiddish hovered. For example, Yiddish professor and language instructor Ellie Kellman discussed the balance of making Yiddish a comfortable language for her students while also honoring and teaching them historical linguistic and cultural norms. For example, she cited the neologism “yidishe froy” as a positive, feminist intervention against the common Yiddish words for women that can be derogatory (such as yidene [married woman, often perjorative]) or belittling (such as yidishe tokhter [Jewish daughter]). While Kellman explained that change is possible, she emphasized that neologisms only gain legitimacy when they are adopted and used by Yiddish speakers in daily life. We could read Kellman’s warning as gatekeeping, but we can also hear it as an invitation for students to become daily Yiddish speakers and pursue these changes.
Questions about how language can be changed, and who can change it, remain controversial today. Recent projects such as Sasha Berenstein’s A List of Yiddish Transgender/Nonbinary Terms and a Black Lives Matter Yiddish vocabulary Google Doc by Anthony Russell, Jonah Boyarin, Arun Viswanath, Chloë Piazza, and Pammy Brenner have found a successful balance. They have drawn upon precedents in the language while working to make space for daily Yiddish speakers, and Yiddish students, of minority identities. In 1995 Yiddish teachers could offer the word “yidishe froy” to their women students; these more recent lists have thoughtfully compiled min-flisik [gender-fluid], yidn far afroamerikaner lebns [Jews for Black Lives], and more for use in classrooms and in daily life.
After all, cultural change is in fact essential to cultural continuity. By bringing together old and young Yiddishists, and by publishing a booklet for future Yiddishists like me to enjoy, the conference pushed Yiddish culture further toward diversity, inclusivity, and egalitarianism. While each element of the booklet represents an impressive contribution by an individual, their collective power is even greater. Speakers referenced and discussed each other’s work, illuminating the connections between different aspects and eras of women’s history. Beyond the webs of intellectual exchange, the booklet reflects a sense of community. Irena Klepfisz recently described the behind-the-scenes mentorship between her own generation and an older generation of Yiddishist women, such as Bina Weinreich, Dorothy Billik, and Dina Abramowicz. “Dina hadn’t answered any of my calls, but just showed up [at the conference],” Klepfisz recalled. “I was so shocked and so moved when I saw her. She was always helpful to me and very generous about supporting my work.”
This conference epitomized intergenerational exchange, an essential aspect of feminist studies — and one that reminds us that our own burning questions have probably been asked before. For example, one might look at the Di Froyen conference and ask, why group women together at all in the first place? Is this encouraging our own marginality? In her conference presentation, Kathryn Hellerstein recounted how Malka Heifetz Tussman refused to be included in Ezra Korman’s famous 1927 anthology of women poets, later explaining to Hellerstein that she disliked the idea of being grouped with only women poets (32). But the Di Froyen participants answered this question differently than Tussman did. The fruitfulness of this conference and its resonance twenty-seven years later demonstrates the importance of designating time and attention for women specifically.
Beyond representation, the conference discussed restructuring. Anita Norich provided a revolutionary framework to not just include women, but reject patriarchal ideas of lineage and prestige altogether. She explained that a “Yiddish canon” has not been empirically established, nor should one be. She posited: “Instead of adding women’s names to a list that may have little resonance in any case, can we engage in literary study as a noncanonical quest, one that asks questions about the interplay between varied texts and that examines various reading publics?” (69). According to Norich, working to include women in the “Yiddish literary tradition” legitimizes this sexist hierarchy.
While I celebrate certain Yiddish women writers receiving their due in recent years thanks to new translations, I do worry that Yiddishists are building a literary canon with a few women’s names, instead of heeding a more radical call to fight against canonization. Particularly given the remarkable accessibility of Yiddish literature thanks to the Yiddish Book Center’s digital library, feminist scholars have the opportunity to accept Norich’s challenge to reject literary hierarchy.
Applying feminist values to Yiddish is not limiting but rather liberating for the entire culture. The Di Froyen conference strove to build a better world for Yiddishist women and provided powerful momentum for Yiddish feminism. Many of its attendees carried on its mission and became teachers and mentors for young feminist Yiddishists like me. We Yiddish feminists believe in the relevance of history, and the rich potential for a better future. As the legend goes, one day Skotsl may come back with divine insight.… In the meantime, I’m glad this booklet is now on the Internet for all to read, and I’m trying to learn as much as I can from Jessica Kirzane, Irena Klepfisz, and all the women forging links in golden chain, who have Yiddish on their minds—and on their shirts.