This special issue of In geveb is a reader of primary documents that illuminate the stances and strategies accompanying the emergence of women writers in modern Yiddish literature. Women operated within a literary and critical apparatus that typically foregrounded the ideas and opinions of men, yet we found ample evidence of women’s creative expressions of agency and anger, as they staged interventions on behalf of themselves or others. In fact, we were surprised, given the relative dearth of female literary critics in Yiddish, to find women occasionally reviewing each other’s work, in ways that prefigure later feminist readings of the same writers. We have chosen, in this selection, to give preference to these voices, while including several interesting texts by men that show the range of public responses a woman writer could expect to encounter. We also chose to focus on the 1910s and ‘20s, the era when Yiddish literary activity peaked and battles over it were most fiercely fought. We have, at times, annotated some items to enable non-specialist study.
Central to the Yiddish literary debate about women writers are the 1927 articles by Melekh Ravitch, decrying the rise of the woman poet, and Kadya Molodowsky’s response. Indeed, this pair of articles is so frequently cited that it is surprising to find they have not previously been fully translated. Ravitch was a leading figure in the literary world and his critical opinions carried great weight. Molodowsky was an emerging poet, her first book due out shortly: while later a powerhouse figure, she was at the time still a new writer with less credibility than the man she opposed. Her confidence and wit in this short piece are impressive. Earlier than that central debate, we found an exchange between the short story writer Yente Serdatsky, who considers the possibilities and failings of Yiddish literature as it appeared in 1912, and a young humorist, “Der lebediker” (Khayim Gutman), who deploys sarcasm but fails to engage meaningfully with Serdatsky’s points. Writing a few years later, Efroim Leyb Volfson, under the pseudonym “A fotograf,” gives a gentler caricature of a number of women writers, sometimes praising them fulsomely, while still describing women primarily by their physical attributes.
In contrast to these documents, Celia Dropkin and Sore Reyzn defend their rights to be acknowledged as the creators of their poetry. Malka Lee’s memoir looks back on events in 1919 and 1920, in which men’s opinions of women’s writing form the backdrop for her development as a writer. Short story writer Khane Blankshteyn and essayist Rokhl Auerbach each take a serious look at another woman writer, in a manner rarely accorded women by male critics.
In choosing these documents we have had to omit many others. Therefore, we are issuing a general call to anyone who would like to translate a document that would add to this collection, whether a piece we have identified or a document they are already working with, to allow a second batch to be published. Please be in contact with Faith Jones, firstname.lastname@example.org, if you would like to be involved in this project.
We also extend our thanks to the colleagues who helped us locate some of these documents: Zachary Baker, Allison Schachter, and Karolina Szymaniak; and are grateful to In geveb and its editorial team for publishing this collection.