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How to Suppress Tea Arciszewska’s Writing: A Case Study

Sonia Gollance

I first decided to translate Tea Arciszewska’s dramatic cycle Miryeml because it was highly regarded by the Yiddish literary establishment of its time. 1 1 I would like to thank David Mazower for first introducing me to Arciszewska and her work, and Marta Orzeszyna for sharing her article and biographical information about Arciszewska. All translations mine unless otherwise noted. I was embarking on a project to uncover the contributions of women who wrote plays in Yiddish, and I wanted to do a translation of a work that could avoid the question that so frequently pesters recovery projects: but is it good?

Miryeml is not merely good, but extraordinary. This haunting, sophisticated drama by a fascinating yet much-neglected writer was like nothing I had seen before, despite editing a database of synopses of the Yiddish dramatic repertoire. 2 2 ​​Most recent scholarship on Arciszewska has appeared in Polish publications. There have been two articles written about Arciszewska in the context of the Warsaw artistic milieu, by Renata Piątkowska and Aviv Livnat respectively, and an article by Marta Orzeszyna (who is writing a book about Arciszewska and her sisters) about the Lipska sisters. See: Renata Piątkowska, “Artystki i miłośniczki sztuki – kobiety w żydowskim życiu artystycznym międzywojennej Warszawy. W kręgu Żydowskiego Towarzystwa Krzewienia Sztuk Pięknych” [Artists and Art Lovers: Women in the Jewish Artistic Life of Interwar Warsaw. In the Circle of The Jewish Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts], Studia Judaica 47, nr. 1 (2021): 175–211; Marta Orzeszyna, “Siostry Lipskie” [The Lipska Sisters], L’Officiel Polska 10 (2019): 152–163; Aviv Livnat, “Far undzere kinstler (For Our Artists). Tea Arciszewska and the Jewish artists,” in Jerzy Malinowski, Renata Piątkowska, Małgorzata Stolarska-Fronia, Tamara Sztyma, eds., Art in Jewish Society (Warsaw-Toruń: Polish Institute of World Art Studies & Tako Publishing House, 2016), 25–36. For more about my ongoing project on Arciszewska, see Sonia Gollance, “Tea Arciszewska: Remembering the Modernist Playwright on her Sixtieth Yortsayt.” Digital Yiddish Theatre Project (January 2022): Accessed May 10, 2022. https://web.uwm.edu/yiddish-stage/tea-arciszewska-remembering-the-modernist-playwright-on-her-seventieth-yortsayt I thank Karolina Szymaniak and Orzeszyna for making me aware of these publications. Miryeml is a modernist play about the Holocaust that deftly integrates twentieth-century history and Jewish folklore into a narrative about children’s response to trauma. Arciszewska’s play won the 1954 Alexander Shapiro Prize for best Yiddish drama from the Jewish Culture Congress and was published in 1958 by Melekh Grafshteyn in London, Ontario with an introduction comprised of three letters by Arciszewska’s celebrated landsman Joseph Opatoshu. A second edition was published in Paris the following year.

At first glance, Arciszewska is not a suppressed writer. And yet Faith Jones’ analysis of the strategies used to suppress Yiddish women’s writing (based on Joanna Russ’s 1983 essay) help us understand the ways that Arciszewska’s male contemporaries all too often belittled and dismissed her contributions.

Arciszewska (1890–1962) was involved in Yiddish cultural activities from about age eighteen, when she attended I. L. Peretz’s Warsaw literary salon with her first husband, the artist Szymon Kratka, until her death in Paris over half a century later. 3 3 Arciszewska, née Lipska, married Kratka when she was 16. She remarried Joachim Arciszewski in 1923, and exclusively published under the name Arciszewska. She performed under the name Miryem Izraels in Peretz’s art theatre, and she was a founder of the avant-garde Azazel theatre troupe. Arciszewska herself recalled in 1954, “Peretz bestowed a lot of his time and artistic effort on me, since he maintained that I was the one who was capable of creating and embodying his female characters on stage.” 4 4 Tea Arciszewska, “Y. L. Peretz mont zayn teater,” in Melekh Ravitch, ed., Dos amolike yidishe Varshe: biz der shvel fun dritn khurbn, 1414–1939 (Montreal: Farband fun varshever yidn in Montreal, 1966), 100. Literary luminaries including Y. Y. Trunk, Alexander Mukdoyni, and Efraim Kaganovsky (her partner in the twilight of her life) wrote about her in their accounts of the Yiddish cultural milieu in prewar Warsaw, which I plan to include in translation in an appendix to my English edition of the play.

Writings about Arciszewska by her male Yiddish literary contemporaries covered a variety of topics, including praise of Miryeml, fascination with Arciszewska’s illustrious Hasidic lineage and eccentric sense of style, and dismay about Communist participation in her funeral. Yet I soon found that many of these texts — particularly those written before Miryeml’s completion in the 1950s — followed certain patterns, often damning Arciszewska’s contributions with faint praise and evaluating her work with respect to her gender. In fact, the misogynist strategies that both Faith Jones and Joanna Russ identify appear repeatedly in writings about Arciszewska.

For instance, Melekh Ravitch’s chapter on Arciszewska in Mayn leksikon (My Lexicon), originally written in 1936, contains the most negative treatment of Arciszewska I have found to date (Ravitch was more generous after Miryeml was published). The title of this chapter, “Totshe Artsishevka – a frayndin fun Y. L. Perets” [Tocia Arciszewska – A Friend of I. L. Peretz], is in itself revealing. First of all, Arciszewska is referred to by the diminutive “Tocia,” rather than the name “Tea” under which she later published her own work. Ravitch consistently refers to men in Arciszewska’s circle, like her first husband, by their last names. Secondly, she is described as a “frayndin” of the more established writer Peretz, a feminine form of the word friend or acquaintance (fraynd). This and similar descriptions of Arciszewska as a muse or an intimate of Peretz endow her relationship with the much-older “klasiker” with a hint of sexual intrigue, which the men who knew Arciszewska seemed to view as enhancing the drama of her biography. 5 5 Numerous examples of how male Yiddish writers depicted Arciszewska’s relationship with Peretz are quoted in Zalmen Zylbercweig, Leksikon fun yidishn teater, vol. 6 (Mexico City: Elisheva, 1969), 4882-88. For instance, Melekh Grafshteyn comments: “Like an old father loves his clever youngest daughter, Peretz loved and was in love with Tea Arciszewska.” (pp. 4882-83)

Ravitch’s chapter title alone hints at the way Arciszewska’s reception offers a case study of the techniques used to undermine women who wrote in Yiddish. What follows is a list of the most pertinent techniques for suppressing Yiddish women writers from the Jones/Russ rubrics, along with a discussion of how each applies to Arciszewska’s reception. The purpose of this accounting is to demonstrate the perniciousness of these ways of talking about women even in the case of a cultural figure who received recognition and respect from her peers (particularly postwar).

“Tocia did not claim to have talent as a writer”: Russ 3 - Denial of Agency

Arciszewska’s contemporaries were fascinated by her relationship with Peretz, who was in his fifties when he met the teenaged Arciszewska. Ravitch writes condescendingly about an early version of Arciszewska’s dramatic cycle Miryeml, as if it were a work of feminine delicacy that could also be credited to Peretz. To add insult to injury, he accuses Arciszewska (who grew up in a pious Hasidic family in central Poland and was a member of Peretz’s literary salon) of not knowing Yiddish. There is even an element of Jones 2 - The Inclusion/Exclusion Whiplash, since Ravitch lauds Arciszewska in between his dismissive comments.

[…] Tocia also wrote a drama in Yiddish with Latin characters, which was as tender as if it were written with the downy end of a quill on spiderwebs. [...] The drama was not published and that is a shame. She has in her a real, Peretz-like mysticism, like in his play Nokh kvure (After Burial). Tocia did not claim to have talent as a writer. 6 6 Melekh Ravitch, Mayn leksikon: yidishe dikhter, dertseyler, dramaturgn in poyln tsvishn di tsvey groyse velt-milkhomes (Montreal: Aroysgegebn fun a komitet, 1945), 186–87.

Ladies, carry yourselves with the confidence of a male Yiddish writer who compares a play about pogroms to something penned with the fluffy end of a feather on spiderwebs because it was written by a woman — who, of course, did not have literary ambitions.

“She was no actress”: Russ 4 - Pollution of Agency

Arciszewska was undeniably an eccentric and captivating figure in the Warsaw Yiddish culture scene. Given her portrayals of the archetypal Queen Esther (or Esterka) as an artist’s model and of Peretz’s Hasidic women characters in plays like Di goldene keyt (The Golden Chain), not to mention her penchant for antique accessories, it is not surprising that writers would view this “daughter of old Jewish pedigree” (Kaganovsky) as a paragon of Polish Jewish womanhood. 7 7 Quoted in: Zalmen Zylbercweig, Leksikon fun yidishn teater, vol. 6 (Mexico City: Elisheva, 1969), 4886. The most critical statements about Arciszewska are about her acting abilities, which are closely linked to her body, since these writers judged her voice too weak and her stage presence too slight (Peretz and others did not agree with these harsh characterizations). Mukdoyni describes Arciszewska’s physicality on stage in particularly dismissive terms:

But she was no actress. She simply lacked the most basic qualities of an actress. Her vocalization was very poor. Her mimicry was so “thin” that it could not even be seen with a microscope. On stage, her tiny stature was truly disastrous; she would simply disappear. The stage gobbled her up. 8 8 ​​A.[lexander] Mukdoyni, Yitshak Leybush Perets un dos yidishe teater (Nyu-York: Ikuf, 1949), 29.

“He discovered the Miryeml manuscript”: Russ 6 - False Categories

Arciszewska’s prewar contemporaries often wrote about her in relation to men, as we already saw with Ravitch’s description of her as Peretz’s “frayndin.” She is introduced as the wife of Kratka — sometimes with the diminutive Tocia, sometimes with no name at all, and sometimes as Madam Kratka. Zygmunt Turkow refers to her as “a certain Izraels, the wife of the artist Kratka.” 9 9 Quoted in: Zylbercweig, Leksikon fun yidishn teater, 4883. Mukdoyni calls her “the sculptor Kratka’s wife.” 10 10 Mukdoyni, Yitshak Leybush Perets, 29. Trunk describes “Tocia” almost as if she were an evocative accessory of her husband, who brings her to Peretz’s salon as the living embodiment of the “full exotic freshness” of Peretz’s writing. 11 11 Yehiel Yeshaia Trunk, Poyln: zikhroynes un bilder, vol. 5: Perets (New York: Farlag “unzer tsayt,” 1949), 49. These husband-centered formulations appear even in pieces that do not focus on Kratka.

At least one discussion of Arciszewska’s postwar publication of Miryeml is dominated by Opatoshu. In his obituary of Arciszewska in the Forverts, Léon Leneman describes Opatoshu and Arciszewska’s relationship in a way that gives Opatoshu credit for Arciszewska’s friendship with Peretz, for “discovering” Miryeml, and for getting it the recognition it deserved.

Joseph Opatoshu […] would always speak of Tea (Tocia) Arciszewska with great admiration and that, it seems to me, is why he introduced her to I. L. Peretz. When Opatoshu visited her in Paris in 1948, she was a much more fragile and deeply shaken person, due to the suffering she experienced in a Nazi concentration camp. He discovered the Miryeml manuscript, which was almost completed. J. Opatoshu brought the manuscript to New York and soon it was awarded the Shapiro Prize from the Jewish Culture Congress. 12 12 ​​L. Leneman, “A merkvirdike froy iz geshtorbn in Pariz,” Forverts (February 5, 1962): 2.

Amazingly, in this passage from a piece dedicated to Arciszewska’s memory, she is completely passive; Leneman attributes responsibility for “birthing” the play Arciszewska worked on for decades more to Opatoshu than to the playwright herself.

“A delicate creature”: Jones 1 – Mention Their Bodies

When Mukdoyni and Ravitch write about Arciszewska, they emphasize the delicacy of her body to a cartoonish extent. According to Mukdoyni, “She was very delicately built. She was very thin, so thin that she was bent a bit from slenderness.” 13 13 Mukdoyni, Y. L. Perets, 29. (He soon proceeds to disparage her acting abilities as a result of her small frame.) Ravitch’s description is even more extreme:

She’s a little thing and a delicate creature. She barely walks and scarcely talks. Just like a little bird that’s perpetually thrown out of the nest. She looks like a real-life version of the innumerable pictures and sculptures that countless Jewish painters and sculptors have made of her. When she speaks, each word contains a thousand grievances, complaining that she’s forced to open her mouth and speak in such a cold, harsh world. 14 14 Ravitch, Mayn leksikon, 185.

It is, of course, totally normal and respectful to compare a colleague to a bird being pushed out of the nest.

***

Jones’s and Russ’s lists of techniques are particularly useful for gender scholars because they help us recognize patterns even in cases where there is ambiguity about the historical record that could obscure the extent of the misogyny. For instance, did Arciszewska prefer to go by Tocia or did her colleagues choose to publicly call her by a more intimate form of address? Was her acting really as underwhelming as Mukdoyni claims? Are the postwar descriptions of Arciszewska’s physical frailty accurate, an extension of prewar descriptions of her delicacy, or reflective of postwar narratives about older women or Holocaust survivors? Even as we consider these nuances, we can also recognize that writings by Ravitch and other male colleagues fit in a typology of condescension and minimization that other women Yiddish cultural figures also faced.

In the end, no matter how admiringly Miryeml was received in the 1950s, the play and Arciszewska herself have been largely forgotten. Most recent scholarship on Arciszewska has taken place in Polish publications, which focus more on her engagement with interwar visual arts than on her role in Yiddish literary circles or her postwar magnum opus. As I write these words, I am only aware of one published academic article about plays written in Yiddish by a woman. 15 15 Debra Caplan, “Forgotten Playwright: Kadya Molodowsky and the Yiddish Stage,” in Rosemary Horowitz, ed., The Legacy of Yiddish Women Writers: Critical Essays (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015), 180–94. To date, I do not know of a single play by a Yiddish woman writer published in translation in its entirety. Misogynist criticism did not do Arciszewska any favors. It is incumbent on us to sift through these characterizations with a critical eye and uncover the women writers dismissed by history.

MLA STYLE
Gollance, Sonia. “How to Suppress Tea Arciszewska’s Writing: A Case Study.” In geveb, June 2022: https://ingeveb.org/blog/how-to-suppress-tea-arciszewskas-writing.
CHICAGO STYLE
Gollance, Sonia. “How to Suppress Tea Arciszewska’s Writing: A Case Study.” In geveb (June 2022): Accessed Jul 02, 2022.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sonia Gollance

Sonia Gollance is Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Yiddish at University College London.