Feb 28, 2020
The cartoon below was created as a final project for Justin Cammy’s 2019 course on Yiddish Literature and Culture at Smith College. The survey course was designed to provide a survey of major texts and the cultural moments they interpret.
For the final project, students were asked to produce original work pursuing a text, series of texts, or author in more detail. Although most students used the assignment as an opportunity to delve deeper into a text they had read during the course by presenting their thoughts alongside secondary sources, Cammy suggested that students might also consider unconventional and creative approaches to the assignment.
He writes: “I explained to students that I would welcome other suggestions for several reasons. First, the standard academic paper is by no means the only way to show off one’s reading and learning, nor is it necessarily the most accessible to broader audiences. Second, at the end of the semester I wanted students who are pursuing other majors to have the opportunity to apply their disciplinary skills there to their understanding of Yiddish literature. Third, I wanted to allow students to pursue a creative option given what we know about learning differences. I felt that since they had already written more than fifteen pages of analytic writing over the course of the semester, a more open final assignment could be helpful to some students. Out of a class of 23 students, three students choose to do creative assignments — one student did a series of paintings of Yiddish foods, Michaela created the comic featured in this piece, and another student went to New York and took pictures of Hasidic streetlife. All the creative assignments also required an artist statement essay that framed their final product, its motivations, and the process.”
What follows is Michaela Foster’s artist statement and final project, in which she thinks through how male authors depict female characters and reimagines these characters through her comics in a way that affords them a voice. Michaela Foster produced this project in the first semester of her first year.
When selecting courses for my first semester of college, I wanted to take a class that was unlike anything I had taken in high school, one that would allow me to learn a subject out of pure interest. Scrolling through the German Department course selections, I came across a cross-listed course on Yiddish literature and culture by Professor Justin Cammy. I am not Jewish and had no prior knowledge of Yiddish, but because of the language’s close relation to German and the course description I found it compelling.
The class was a general survey of Yiddish prose, poetry, and drama, designed to draw students into the subject. (Students who successfully complete the course are eligible to enroll in Cammy’s seminar on Yiddishlands offered next year that brings students to Warsaw and Vilna, two interwar capitals of Yiddish.) Our course started with conversations about the origins of pre-modern Yiddish literature and the ways in which several of its most popular texts developed the reading habits of Jewish women and the broader social desire for Yiddish literature. We then transitioned to Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman. It was like nothing I had ever read. It provided entry points to discussions of gender roles, change and tradition, class conflict, relations between Jews and non-Jews, and much more, all through the perspective of Tevye and his relationship with his wife and daughters. With each class I discovered the vast potential of Yiddish literature and learned more about Jewish culture. At the same time, it seemed as though many of the women in the stories we read were used as devices for the character development of their fathers and husbands. Tevye’s repeated insistence that “Tevye is not a woman” was clearly not only about this character but expressed a broader anxiety about gender roles and hierarchies.
As we continued to read, I began to notice a trend of male authors writing about the wives and daughters of their male protagonists in ways that stripped these characters of agency. In some cases, the texts we read were directly about the way men controlled (or imagined controlling) women’s bodies, from An-sky and Bashevis Singer imagining a male dybbuk possessing a woman’s body to Sholem Asch’s drama about a brothel owner and queer desire. Of course, we also read texts authored by women, from poets Anna Margolin, Celia Dropkin, and Kadya Molodowsky to stories by Chava Rosenfarb and Yente Mash, but I remained particularly interested in the ways male authors deployed their female characters.
At the end of the semester, our professor invited students to use the opportunity of our final assignment to return to a question or problem we had noticed in a text or series of texts. I was particularly excited when he welcomed suggestions for creative projects that would allow us to best showcase our learning. I was motivated by the invitation (and by the opportunity to undertake a more creative project during my first semester of final exams and papers!) and I determined that I would use my interest in comics and graphic novels to show how I imagined several women characters in Yiddish literature. It was a fulfilling way to think over our semester reading and consider the function of women characters in classic texts of Yiddish literature written by well-known male authors. The project was informed by work I had previously done in my analytical papers for the class, several of which concerned issues relating to gender. I wanted to weave these women characters together, to have them meet, both to highlight their commonalities and to give each woman a chance to tell her story in her own voice. It also allowed me to do some light research to include a few texts that had not appeared on our syllabus.
Choosing the characters for my comic was not hard. I knew I wanted to include some of Tevye’s daughters, so I chose the ones I felt needed the most rehabilitation: Hodl, Chava, and Bielke. Hodl, Tevye’s second daughter, married a revolutionary named Pertchik whom she followed to Siberia. Chava left the faith and was cut off by her father, but returned to him in the end. Bielke married a wealthy but culturally illiterate man who was embarrassed by Tevye and ended up moving to America. I did not write individual speaking parts for Tevye’s daughters because their stories are the most popular of all the characters I depicted and many readers familiar with Yiddish literature would know their stories.
The fourth woman pictured is Leah from Ansky’s The Dybbuk. She is possessed by the dybbuk of the man she loved. When her father arranges a match for her with someone else, her love dies and possesses her. Is this a way for the young couple to be close to one another? What is Leah’s agency, if any, in her own possession? And what can we make of the fact that she is put through an exorcism conducted entirely by men and ultimately dies?
The next woman is Gilkele. She appears in Avrom Sutzkever’s “The Cleaver’s Daughter.” Her story is not as dramatically sad as those of other women who appear in my comic, but at the end of the text she is abruptly put into the background and referred to only as the cleaver’s daughter. I wanted to foreground her and give her more of a story.
Then there are Rivkele and Manke from Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance. Rivkele is the daughter of a brothel owner who is intent on marrying her off to a good man so that she can be free of the life he leads. But she falls in love and runs away with one of the young prostitutes. I wanted to show Rivkele and Manke happy together while acknowledging the guilt I imagine Rivkele would have felt given her historical context.
Shown with her husband, Shmerl, Tsipke is the horribly abused servant of a butcher and his wife in the short story “Tsipke” by the little-known turn-of-the-century woman writer Salomea Perl (this is the only story referred to in my comic penned by a woman). Unable to cry, she clucks when she feels helpless. At the end of the story a yeshiva bachelor proposes. I imagine that this would not cure her of her sadness. She needed more than just a husband; she needed rehabilitation from the trauma of having been mistreated by members of her own community.
The last participant is Reyzele from Avrom Reyzen’s short story “Reyzele” about a young girl who helps her sick mother sell apples. At the end of the story she is sent away from her mother to work for a woman who treats her poorly. The last line of the story is heartbreaking: “Her weeping, however, woke no one. Everyone slept soundly.” I wanted to imagine a better life for her.
The last character of the comic is its group facilitator, Anshel, inspired by Bashevis Singer’s “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy.” We spent a lively class discussion arguing about whether this was a feminist text, a queer text, both, or neither (or whether it mattered; after all, it’s a great story!). In my reading of “Yentl” I see Anshel as someone who identifies as a man and so I illustrated him that way, and refer to him that way here. When we first meet Anshel, then Yentl, he is the child of a man who sees value in his studying as a daughter in a time and place where access to advanced Jewish learning was restricted to men. After his father’s death, he is intent on continuing to learn, so he dresses as a man and takes the name Anshel in order to attend Yeshiva, a male-only environment. Anshel’s first priority is learning and knowledge, and he seemed like the perfect character to facilitate a conversation among characters in Yiddish literature about their lives and ambitions.
As a student at Smith, a women’s college, so far I tend to gravitate towards writing about women, their presence in various literary traditions, and the literature they write. Given our course’s lengthy discussions of women in Yiddish literature and a burst of newly translated Yiddish literature by women, I was delighted to learn that my professor is developing a new course focused exclusively on Yiddish women writers and their work, which I hope will further encourage students to explore this fascinating literary tradition.