Dec 07, 2023
Chana Blankshteyn (1860?-1939) is best known for her political activism and essays and short stories written in the interwar period. First with the Folkspartey and later with Poaley Tsiyon, she worked against the trafficking of women and on behalf of women’s causes and vocational training, defending women’s rights to social, sexual, and political equality. Just weeks before her death and the beginning of World War II, a collection of her stories—Noveles—was published in Vilna. (English translation: Fear and Other Stories, translated by Anita Norich)
Sore Reyzn was a poet, prose writer, and translator. Given the complaint voiced by Blankshteyn in the following essay, it is particularly ironic that critics often referred to Reyzn as the sister of Avrom and Zalmen Reyzn.
This piece appeared as “A por sho in froyen-velt,” in Der tog, 8 March 1927, p. 3. It was translated by Anita Norich with David Mazower and Faith Jones.
The historical fate of the Jewish woman.
Biblical figures of women pass before our eyes: the heroic, devoted, strong, and gentle daughters of an ancient people.
The Middle Ages. Europe is engulfed in burning stakes. The Inquisition rages in Spain.
But Jewish daughters—young, blooming girls and happy, distinguished women—give up their futures. Proudly, heads held high, they go to their deaths in the name of their truth. There are no traitors among Jewish women: history has not recorded a single name of a female traitor. Better death in ocean waves than dishonor. The trustworthy wife drowns before the eyes of her husband and those who want to defile her. For the Jewish woman, modesty was always a debt she owed her people.
The woman of today. It sounds like an old fable, like lovely legends we have long forgotten in the tumult of daily life. But unwittingly, swimming to the surface of our consciousness, there comes the significance that women had in our past. We wonder: “Where did our great-great-grandmothers get that precious moral strength, so that behind the terrible walls of the ghetto they might instill in their sons enormous Jewish optimism, the powerful love of life? From what wells did Jewish women draw the fierce will that strengthened their men, drawing light and warmth, beauty and joy in threatened Jewish homes?”
A few words about the Haskalah and we come to today.
The modern woman. Those active in the realm of literature--Rokhl Faygenberg, Miriam Ulinover, Ida Glazer, and more. The voice of the speaker quivers, almost imperceptibly. A shadow hovers over her rather sad eyes. The fate of the Yiddish poet or prose writer is difficult, but much more difficult is the lonely path of the female Yiddish poet. Sometimes—very seldom—her lines appear: the book is printed! Tomorrow, the lonely woman will no longer be lonely. The lines will be read, they’ll make an impression. But the reviewers who direct the reader—the almighty reviewers—will ignore the book.
The critics are silent, passing over her lines in silence. The woman who walks the stony path of Yiddish literature is once again lonely, without support on the path she has just recently begun to tread. Oh, that awful, masculine silence!
At the end of the gathering, Sore Reyzn reads her own poems, although unfortunately only a few of them. They carry the stamp of modesty and purity that characterizes her poetry: an unpretentious calm, without screaming pathos, clear heartfelt mood-flowers that have grown in the ground of people’s daily lives, out of quiet joy, trampled ideals. Her poems sing of the hard work of seamstresses, of farewells. They reveal a woman’s warmth, steeped in the eternal yearning of a woman’s soul for “the little blue flower,” for a bit of happiness and beauty. Sore Reyzn’s poetry comes to us without blaring headlines. She is no “aesthete.” She gives us true, pure lyric, creates moods, calms, calls forth a pensive smile in her readers that reflects her own. Hearing her unassuming lines, one recalls what the great French lyricist Alfred de Musset said about himself: “My glass is not large, but I drink from my own glass.”
In one of her most successful poems, Sore Reyzn says, “I love you, Vilna.”
One wants to respond: And Vilna loves Sore Reyzn.
A few pleasant hours were spent on Saturday night in the Women’s Union.