Pedagogy

Support Group for Yiddish Daughters

Michaela Foster

INTRODUCTION

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.

MLA STYLE
Foster, Michaela. “Support Group for Yiddish Daughters.” In geveb, February 2020: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/support-group-for-yiddish-daughters.
CHICAGO STYLE
Foster, Michaela. “Support Group for Yiddish Daughters.” In geveb (February 2020): Accessed Nov 26, 2020.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michaela Foster

Michaela Foster is a first year undergraduate student at Smith college originally from Springfield Massachusetts.