Nov 02, 2021
When we began to write a list of #MeToo moments in Yiddish literary texts we had read, we found a lot of them.
Several years ago, we, like so many others, suddenly found our social media feeds and inboxes inundated with #MeToo stories of sexual harassment and the brave women who were bringing public attention to the problem. We initially felt despair and helplessness, but we found comfort in talking about it with each other, and in doing so discovered that we could use our training as academics to cope with the situation. We are scholars of Yiddish literature who write about gender in European and American society. Our list of #MeToo moments in modern Yiddish literature helped us understand how such objectification of women’s bodies and devaluation of women as full people has been represented in the literature we study. When we crowdsourced on social media, our friends and colleagues pointed us to even more examples. 1 1 We would like to thank the people who responded to our crowdsourcing requests and shared their expertise (and pdfs) with us, including Noah Barrera, Zachary Sholem Berger, Sandra Chiritescu, Julie Dawson, Maia Evrona, Rachel Harris, Faith Jones, Tamar Lea Hazout, Daniel Kennedy, Arturo Kerbel-Shein, Josh Lambert, Shachar Pinsker, Melissa Weininger, and David Zakalik. The fact that we have not been able to incorporate all of their suggestions of #MeToo moments in Yiddish and Jewish literature further underscores the prevalence of this motif. In the meantime, we were teaching Yiddish literature to students who had also become more aware of workplace harassment, and their observations about cringeworthy moments in the texts we discussed in class further informed our thinking about this topic.
Some of the items on our collective list were moments of harassment used for dramatic effect. Some were moments in which the harassment seemed incidental or was presented as not particularly problematic. Others were moments in which the problem of sexual harassment was the subject under scrutiny.
Although the #MeToo hashtag has faded from news headlines, discussions of sexual harassment are, unfortunately, always timely. As Jewish Studies and Jewish organizations deal with a whack-a-mole game of harassers who keep returning, so too must we keep returning time and again to our own focus on these issues. Yiddish literature, a tradition that has included many politically radical writers who have championed disenfranchised workers, offers valuable insights into these concerns.
As we searched for these moments in Yiddish literature, we kept in mind Irena Klepfisz’s important reminder, in her introduction to the anthology Found Treasures, that “it is unlikely that critiques which implicated progressive political allies and fellow writers would have been welcomed or popular.” 2 2 Irena Klepfisz, “Queens of Contradiction: A Feminist Introduction to Yiddish Women Writers,” in Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers, ed. Frieda Forman et al (Toronto: Second Story Press, 1994), 52. The male-dominated Yiddish literary marketplace marginalized issues of gender-based harassment. Even when writing on the topic, nineteenth and twentieth century male writers often struggled to develop three-dimensional female characters or to treat female colleagues with the same respect as male writers. It is therefore remarkable the extent to which Yiddish literary texts raise uncomfortable questions about how bosses, employers, teachers, and other people in positions of authority –– who in these texts are typically Jewish men –– treat the women who work for them. These women usually work in domestic service or factories, unlike the high-profile Hollywood celebrities whose abuse by Harvey Weinstein brought widespread attention to the #MeToo movement. Victims of abuse in Yiddish literature typically endure workplace harassment without the perpetrators facing any consequences beyond literary infamy. Within these confines, authors offer a variety of troubling scenarios, set both in the Old Country and the New World. They depict bosses who assault Russian peasant women more freely than they might Jewish women; women who consider whether to abort a pregnancy as a result of sexual relations with an employer; and newspaper editors who try to guide new immigrants through American life at a time when all the old rules seem to be changing.
We decided to focus on the incidents that spoke most directly to our present American moment. Therefore, we have omitted certain plot elements important to Yiddish literature. Yiddish literary texts since the Enlightenment criticize arranged marriages as a way of encouraging Jews to modernize. In her book The Marriage Plot, Naomi Seidman has illustrated that such a critique is the very basis of modern Jewish literature. In Aaron Halle Wolfssohn’s 1796 play Laykhtzin un fremelay (Silliness and Sanctimony), which has been called a Jewish version of Moliere’s Tartuffe, Reb Yoysefkhe persuades his patron Reb Henokh to let him marry his daughter, Yetkhen. When we teach this text in 2021, our students cannot help but notice with some discomfort how Reb Yoysefkhe violates Yetkhen’s boundaries by invading her personal space and then insisting she will be married to him against her will. Other texts, like Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story “Di shvarts-khasene” (The Black Wedding, 1963) or his sister Esther Kreitman’s novel Der sheydim-tants (The Dance of Demons, 1936) depict the suffering of young people who feel compelled by their parents to enter into an unwanted marriage. Yet although arranged marriages are still practiced today, the #MeToo movement tends not to center on them.
For that same reason, we also do not focus on texts that show sexual assault in the context of pogroms or the Holocaust. These violent degradations are a horrifying component of texts such as Lamed Shapiro’s “Der tselem” (The Cross, 1909), in which a Jewish political radical witnesses his mother’s brutal assault during a pogrom (and is mutiliated himself) and responds by raping and murdering one of his female, non-Jewish comrades – or Tea Arciszewska’s play Miryeml (1958), in which the assault of the character Blimele, a rabbi’s daughter, takes place offstage during a pogrom in the Holocaust but leaves her dealing with a pregnancy during subsequent scenes. After the narrator of Chava Rosenfarb’s novella “Edgehs nekome” (Edgia’s Revenge, 1989) is raped and then carries on an affair with the supervisor of her barracks in a concentration camp, she is scarred by lifelong self-loathing for the fact of her survival. While sexual assaults are all too common in wartime and genocide, discussions of #MeToo typically invoke the daily degradations and calculations about safety that women experience in more mundane circumstances.
Even within these constraints, we were struck by the sheer pervasiveness of representations of sexual exploitation and misconduct across Yiddish literature. If our list, which is by no means complete or exhaustive, uncovered so many troubling scenes, how many more of these scenes unsettle Yiddish literature as a whole? And what does the proliferation of such scenes tell us about the role these dynamics played in the lives of Yiddish speakers –– what they expected from, feared, or experienced in the workplace?
The boisterous and beloved song “Rumenye, Rumenye” includes the easy-to-miss lyrics “Un zi vil nisht, nor zi lozt zikh” (She doesn’t want it but she allows it). In our search, it sometimes felt like all of Yiddish literature dealt with some form of abuse. We hope this discussion will lead to further enumerations and conversations in our field of study and beyond, and will help us better understand where these themes emerge in Yiddish literature and what these scenes say about the ways that writers thought about power, propriety, sexuality, and gender.
1. Domestic Service
Servants are frequently fair game for the sexual advances of their employers (and their sons), especially in works of literature set in Europe. Scandalous liaisons of this sort are so common that, in Soviet writer Der Nister’s novel Di mishpokhe Mashber (The Family Mashber, 1939), a couple literally goes into business hushing up these affairs: threatening the women into silence, getting rid of the resulting babies, and hiring out the mothers as wet nurses and prostitutes. Der Nister only mentions this exploitative treatment as an aside; he focuses much more attention on how Gnessye the kitchen maid becomes the focus of the sexual fascination of her employer’s sickly, socially awkward brother, who leers at her, finds excuses to brush up against her breasts, and gropes her while she sleeps. The family decides to solve the problem by marrying them off, so that he will have scandal-free access to Gnessye’s body. In Chaim Grade’s Tsemakh atlas (The Yeshiva, 1967), wastrel Lolla Stupel “sniffs around the Jewish maids” in his parent’s wealthy household; as a result, his mother hires Stasya, a simple, submissive woman whom she thinks will follow her exacting instructions without exciting her son’s desire. 3 3 Chaim Grade, The Yeshiva, trans. Curt Leviant (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1967), 75. Yet Lolla takes advantage of Stasya’s childlike nature to buy her affection with sweets and ultimately impregnates her—something his family regards as abuse of a poor orphan and a stain on the family honor.
While Grade and Der Nister pay more attention to how wealthy families try to hide the misbehavior of their men, Yehoshue Perle’s novel Yidn fun a gants yor (Everyday Jews, 1935) follows a young woman impregnated by her employer after she returns home to her family. Women in domestic service contended with many unwanted touches, even if they did not result in a publicly visible (and career-ending) pregnancy. A maid in Hersh Dovid Nomberg’s short story “Briv” (Letters, 1907) was “used to young men that she had to push away as they chased after her, trying to kiss and grab her.” 4 4 Hersh Dovid Nomberg, “Letters,” in Warsaw Stories, trans. Daniel Kennedy (Amherst, MA: White Goat Press, 2019), 118.
While most of these instances concern Jewish women, Leon Kobrin gives a disturbing account in his novella Yankl Boyle (1898) about how Reb Hersh Ber, the leader of a group of fisherman, looks for his “missing” tobacco pouch in the bosom of the fishermen’s servant, Natasha. Throughout the novella, the Jewish fishermen repeatedly demonstrate their lack of respect for Natasha because she is a Christian peasant woman –– demonstrating how intersectional identities position women in Yiddish literature to further disadvantage.
2. Rental Arrangements
The potential for misconduct in a domestic space extended to the landlord/tenant relationship, one likewise fraught with economic as well as gender disparity. In Ephraim Kaganovsky’s “Lokatur numer 88” (Tenant Number 88, 1923), a young mother who hasn’t been able to pay the rent in three months leads her landlord up the stairs and offers to sleep with him as inducement to repair her leaky roof. Likewise, in Esther Kreitman’s “Gevorn a tramp” (Becoming a Tramp, 1950), a woman whose husband is unable to find work is forced to sleep with her landlord in order to avoid eviction.
In the working-class, immigrant neighborhood of the Lower East Side, where families often took in boarders to make ends meet, a landlady could also be subjected to unwanted sexual advances. In Jane Rose’s play Engshaft (Narrowness, 1918), Helen tries to discourage her boarder’s advances, but when her husband catches wind of the boarder’s sexual intentions, he storms out of their home, presumably abandoning his wife for good. Girls and women were not the only targets of abuse; the Polish Jewish boy who narrates Perle’s Everyday Jews (discussed above) is assaulted by his family’s female boarder on a shabes morning when his parents are out of the house.
Tavern-keeping blurs the lines between the workplace and the home, since tavern-keeping families often lived where they worked. Tavern-keeping was a frequent Jewish occupation in central and eastern Europe up through the nineteenth century–and the consumption of alcohol frequently led to flirtation and sexual advances. In Fradel Shtok’s short story “Mandeln” (Almonds, 1919), Hinde the barmaid gets hit on by her customers, but she deals with it by waltzing out of their grasp.
Although Hinde does not seem to be intimidated by her customers, other women were not as lucky. In Sholem Asch’s novel Der tehilim yid (Salvation, 1934), a Jewish innkeeper’s daughter barely escapes rape by noble customers. Assaults on waitstaff were not limited to rural settings: waitresses in urban cafés also contended with amorous patrons, as in Lamed Shapiro’s short stories “Berte” (Bertha, 1906) and “Nuyorkish” (New Yorkish, 1931).
Underpaid factory workers experienced pressure to acquiesce to the sexual desires of their bosses, both in Europe and in the United States. In a searing sequence in his novel Di brider Ashkenazi (The Brothers Ashkenazi, 1936), Israel Joshua Singer describes how the Huntze family repeatedly cuts workers’ pay at their Lodz textile factory in order to afford lavish balls. Desperate women workers then sell sexual acts to Melchior the factory attendant who, ironically, serves them wine left over from the Huntze balls.
In Sholem Asch’s Onkl Mozes (Uncle Moses, 1918), a wealthy sweatshop owner falls in love with his employee’s child and grooms her for marriage, leveraging his financial power over the impoverished family to force the daughter into a relationship she finds repulsive. Abraham Cahan’s English-language story “A Sweatshop Romance” (1898), set in a Yiddish environment, features Beile, a docile shop girl, whose boss’s attentions are an “open secret.”
In Rose Gollup Cohen’s English language memoir Out of the Shadow (1918), she describes a boss who would come near her table on the pretence of borrowing scissors and try to pinch girls’ cheeks or hold their hands. “Keep your hands off, please” was the first sentence Cohen learned to speak in English. Cohen also describes her embarrassment and discomfort with working in close proximity to men who made sexual jokes at her expense: her critique extends beyond physical harassment to include a broader criticism of a hostile work environment. Such works, whether in English or Yiddish, convey the broad literary milieu in which Yiddish writers operated, and express the everyday norms that New York Yiddish writers — many of whom worked in factories themselves — encountered on an everyday basis.
5. Show Business
As in today’s entertainment industry, women in show business in Yiddish literature often find themselves targets of harassment. In The Brothers Ashkenazi (discussed above), a Hungarian dancer becomes a popular sensation – and the Lodz men competitively try to convince her to become their mistress. Her lack of interest in expensive gifts and refusal to appear in public without her husband and mother only increase their enthusiasm for outdoing the other men by “winning” her as a prize: since they cannot gain her consent with gifts, they attempt to grope her nonconsensually instead.
Even a woman who enjoys banter and friendly flirtation might suffer from the sexualized expectations placed on women performers. In Rose Shomer Bachelis and Miriam Shomer Zunser’s unpublished play Der liebes tants (The Dance of Love, 1929), dancer Florence is unable to meet her supervisor for dinner without getting propositioned by him. Her jealous boyfriend threatens to break up with her because she would rather pursue fun and her career instead of settling down with him immediately.
6. In the Classroom
As we unfortunately know too well, sexual misconduct can take place in an educational setting. Joseph Opatoshu acknowledges such incidents in both Europe and the United States, affecting both students and teachers. In his 1912 novella of the Polish-Jewish underworld Roman fun a ferd-ganef (Romance of a Horse Thief), he casually mentions that the protagonist’s sister Khane was fondled by her teacher as he held her on his lap. After the teacher’s wife caught on, the girl was sent home and her formal education ended; as a result, she never learned to read more than her prayers.
In Opatoshu’s short story “Shmelts-top” (The Melting Pot, 1922) a young Jewish woman, Miss Caplan, who teaches English in a night school in New York to a group of Italian immigrant men, feels vulnerable despite her position of authority in the classroom as a young woman alone in a room of strange men. She feels as though “forty pairs of hungry eyes tucked into her, and she was embarrassed, for the first time considering that she found herself alone among men, Italian men, no less.” 5 5 See Jessica Kirzane, “Interethnic Romance in Jewish American Fiction in the Early Twentieth Century,” PhD. Dissertation, Columbia University, 2017, 224-225. Her prejudiced conception of Italian men as potentially violent and sexually rapacious contributes to her own feelings of insecurity. Later, Miss Caplan finds that her supervisors expect her to use her sexuality as a tool in the assimilatory project of the night school, when they urge her to dance with a student at a social gathering in order to “make [the students] feel at home.” Miss Caplan is thrust into a role as a potential love interest against her wishes, for the sake of educating new immigrants toward American social norms.
7. State and Medical Authority
Finally, we noted scenes that describe abuse by police and doctors, both situations in which the perpetrator controls the victim’s future life prospects. In Rosa Palatnik’s “Shmuglerin” (The Smuggler, 1966), for example, when a young woman from a starving family is caught stealing across the Polish/German border to exchange flour for tobacco, border agents subject her to a humiliating strip search and near rape as they exercise power without consequence. The night watchman charged with keeping order on the steamship on which Malka Lee travels to America in her memoir Durkh kindershe oygn (Through the Eyes of Childhood, 1955) similarly leverages political control to make sexual threats. He claims that he will send her back to Russia for writing revolutionary secrets in a notebook in which she is in fact composing poetry. Lee evades his political and sexual threats when a sympathetic male passenger successfully petitions to have her moved to another section of the boat.
In Chava Rosenfarb’s Botshani (1983), when a woman is raped by the abortionist she has reservedly entrusted with her care, the abortionist, a serial rapist, reminds her that there are police nearby who could arrest her if they knew she was seeking an abortion. He wields the threat of state violence as a weapon in his routine sexual assaults. These scenarios remind us that proximity to state power is a particularly insidious weapon in the hands of an abuser.
What do we take away from this long, damning list? First of all, scenes of sexual harassment and assault appear with great frequency in Yiddish literature. They appear across genres. Unlike abortion and childbirth, which are largely (but not exclusively) a concern for women writers, we found numerous chilling references to sexual misconduct in works by men. They often appear as asides -- brief references that do not make a tremendous difference to the overall plot and could easily be missed by readers. They do not necessarily explore the perspective of the victim in great detail. They may pay more attention to the men involved. They might appear as a form of awful local color, to inject a work with social realism and seedy atmosphere. We might not consider these accounts progressive today, but it is clear that these writers – many of whom were politically leftist – use workplace sexual mistreatment as a crucial sign of how workers were being economically exploited both financially and in the most physically intimate ways by their supervisors.
Likewise, readers accustomed to reading socialist-oriented writing would have been primed to recognize class dimensions even in texts not directly depicting industrial capitalism. Even where male writers do not prioritize developing women as full-fledged characters, the abuse these characters experience serves a vital token of how capitalism victimizes vulnerable laborers, and how when power becomes concentrated it can lead to abuse. Writers use these scenes of physical force and structural power imbalance as a form of solidarity and perhaps even a cry for action. The recent focus on specific, high-profile offenders in the #MeToo movement and the media attention to lurid sexual details masks the capitalist systems that would force workers into desperate situations. Yiddish literature deepens our understanding of sexual assault with this forceful critique of its enmeshment in capitalism.
The list above is only a beginning. Yiddish writers also describe sexual assault that occurs outside of capitalism, such as when a woman is assaulted by a fellow member of a Soviet commune in Shira Gorshman’s “Hoykhe shveln” (High Doorsteps, 1974), demonstrating that utopian endeavors were not devoid of the corrupting power relations they sought to overthrow.
Meanwhile, Miriam Karpilove’s Tage-bukh fun a elende meydel (Diary of a Lonely Girl, 1918), a novel that thematizes unwanted sexual advances and includes many scenes of sexual pressure and nonconsensual sexual experiences, posits such encounters in explicitly economic terms. The narrator accuses her suitor of emotional abuse, trying to damage her self-esteem so that she would give in to her desires: “You wanted to cheapen me in my own eyes, so that you could get me more easily.” 6 6 Miriam Karpilove, Diary of a Lonely Girl, or the Battle against Free Love, trans. Jessica Kirzane (Syracuse University Press, 2020), 142. At a time when a woman’s clearest path to financial stability was through marriage, threatening a woman’s worth on the marriage market through sexual advances was an attack on her livelihood in addition to her dignity and bodily autonomy. Patriarchal domination of women’s bodies in the workplace and in the bedroom are of a piece. Both limit women’s opportunities, threaten their physical and emotional wellbeing, and manipulate, control, and degrade victims who are harmed not just by individual men but by systems of oppression that empower those men to act as they do.
When we teach Yiddish literature today, our students often pick up on these episodes. Scenes like the one in Blume Lempel’s “Afn veg tsum get” (On Route to a Divorce, 1986), in which a woman is sexually assaulted by another woman at a crowded party, may seem quite obviously relevant to the immediate concerns of students facing alarmingly high rates of campus sexual assault. But students are also very quick to relate to, learn, and think with episodes from Yiddish literature that are more distant in time, geography, and circumstance. They find them troubling and want to discuss them. They are concerned about how Yetkhen’s boundaries are violated by Reb Yoysefkhe in “Silliness and Sanctimony.” They cringe at Khane’s sexual abuse in “Romance of a Horse Thief,” and translate their emotional response to critical reflection. The relevance of discussions about consent and the potential for date rape in Diary of a Lonely Girl make it a gripping text for them to read, discuss, and write about. Humanities classes should, at their very best, encourage students to read and think about their world, and these troubling scenes spur them to do just that.
In a famous 1907 bintl brief advice column from the Yiddish daily Forverts (Forward), a seventeen-year-old shop girl writes about her foreman’s abusive treatment. “Though my few hard-earned dollars mean a lot to my family of eight souls, I didn’t want to accept the foreman’s vulgar advances. He started to pick on me, said my work was no good, and when I proved to him he was wrong, he started to shout at me in the vilest language. He insulted me in Yiddish and then in English, so the American workers could understand too.”
Isaac Metzker, A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters from the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1971), 72.
The newspaper editors suggest, somewhat idealistically, that the shop girl should come forward about the behavior of the “scoundrel” so that he can be taught a lesson and made into an example.
Metzker, A Bintel Brief, 73.
While too many survivors of sexual misconduct have not been able to hold their abusers to account by going public with the story, writers of Yiddish literature brought attention to such stories by including these upsetting incidents across their work. Now, it is incumbent upon us to read and learn from them.