Texts & Translation

מײדלעך, פֿרױען, װײַבער—ייִדישע דיכטערינס

Girls, Women, Ladies–Yiddish Poetesses

Melekh Ravitch

Translation by Anita Norich, Faith Jones and David Mazower

INTRODUCTION

Melekh Rav­itch (18931976), the pen name of Zechari­ah-Khone Bergn­er, was renowned as an essay­ist and poet. Born in east­ern Gali­cia, he moved to War­saw and became a lead­ing fig­ure of the mod­ernist lit­er­ary group, Di khalyas­tre (The Gang) and, lat­er, one of the founders of and main con­trib­u­tors to the jour­nal Lit­er­ar­ishe bleter. By 1927, when this essay appeared, he was an inter­na­tion­al­ly-rec­og­nized writer of and about Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture. Here, he stakes men’s claim to lit­er­ary supe­ri­or­i­ty in an effort to stem the tide of women’s entry into poet­ry. In spite of the claims made below, only a hand­ful of Yid­dish women’s books of poet­ry had appeared at the time the arti­cle appeared: Rashel Veprin­s­ki, Rosa Gut­man, Sore Reyzn, Leye Hof­man, Bat-She­va Mast­boym, Miri­am Uli­nover, Yudi­ka, Pessie Hir­sh­feld Pomer­ants (lat­er Pessie Pomer­antz-Honig­baum), Ida Glaz­er. Kadya Molodowsky’s first book came out in 1927, but as she notes in her reply, that book had not yet appeared at the time of this article.

This piece appeared as Mey­dlekh, froyen, vay­ber — yidishe dikhterins,” in Lit­er­ar­ishe bleter vol. 4, no. 21 (27 May 1927), pp. 395 – 6. It was trans­lat­ed by Faith Jones with Ani­ta Norich and David Mazower.

Fur­ther Read­ing:
On Melekh Ravitch

Recently, several Yiddish poetesses have sent me collections of poetry extravagantly published on fantastically white paper, as pure as the whitest linens.

Should I name names? Why? It is, after all, a private matter. Those who sent me these books know who I’m talking about.

I am not so old that I have lost all feeling. Books of dainty poems by men make the same impression on me as a woman’s dainty dress on a hairy man’s body. But books of dainty poems by authors with names like Bessie or Rashel affect me as they should: sentimentally. 1 1 After claiming he was not going to name names, Ravitch can’t restrain himself. “Bessie” likely refers to Pessie Pomerantz-Honigbaum; Rashel is Rashel Veprinski. They touch the very last bit of sentimentality, somewhere in the depths of your soul, that might never disappear. It is as if someone suddenly led you at night to a window through which you were shown the brightly lit room in which you spent your childhood. Your childhood, which will never return. There’s no alternative than to look at such books with tears in your eyes. What else can you do? Nothing.

And with an excess of chivalry, in your mind you kneel, you kiss the hands of the poetesses, and with closed eyes and a rare smile of contentment on your lips you think: “Be the one, be the angel in the house of our literature.” Our house, our home, the home built of words like rocks, by the shore of the sea of eternity. It has three windows, and in each window there is a different sky showing our future: a dark and stormy one, a cloudy one, a clear one. And every minute the scene in each window changes. And, as one, we all press forward toward each window, pulling hair and scratching out eyes. Be the one, poetess, be the one who will tame us with a glance, and if you cannot bring us to a shared ideal, you will at least awaken in us the belief in a shared ideal. Be the one, be the one for whom we are waiting.

And then, opening the book, you read…

And you read, and read, and while reading you think very unchivalrous thoughts about yourself and about the world in which you can be such a fool. There is no resolution, no dream, no sign, no shadow, not even a shadow of a shadow.

And then you sink again into thought and you see a picture that hung on the eastern wall in your parent’s home. And on it the words: Ha-anusim be-Sefarad [Spanish Conversos]. A seder is being held in a deep medieval cellar. Suddenly a heavy iron door swings open and there stands the army of the Inquisition in full armour. The men are frozen with fear, nailed to the spot, but one woman grabs a three-armed candelabra from the table, faces the soldiers, her face full of pride and sorrow, her body shielding the children who cling to her. The lamp she holds flickers on the faces of the soldiers of the Inquisition. The men are nailed to the spot in fear, the three-armed candelabra flickers in the upraised right hand of the woman. 2 2 Moshe Maimon’s 1893 painting “The Marranos,” widely reproduced and cheaply available in Eastern Europe, may have been the source for this memory. If so, Ravitch’s memory of it was somewhat inaccurate (see reproduction of this image above).

I’m no moralizer: far from it. I believe in everything that is free (including free love). I even believe in free speech, which is so unpopular in this 20th century. Simply put, if death is free and everyone partakes in it, then life must also be free and everyone should be able to partake in that as well.

I don’t find morality lacking in the Yiddish poetesses. Indeed, quite the opposite. I find them too moralistic, too petit bourgeois, and yet not ethical enough. They are moralistic even when they are singing songs to men, even to men who might not be their own husbands.

What’s missing is gusto. What’s missing is womanly forcefulness. Simply put, what’s missing is “The Call of the Wings.” (It’s not missing in the title, but in and between the lines). 3 3 “The Call of the Wings” is the title of a poem and book by Rashel Veprinski.

My thoughts wander through the entire gallery of the poetesses we have. (I am chivalrous enough not to mention names). Who can show me a worthy work from among the works of all these poetesses? Everything they write is just words: words, and words, and more words. Some poems are better and some are worse. But there is not one real work, only songs and ditties.

We had a poetess from Galicia. A woman with fantastic talent. She took herself off to America and wrote to rapturous applause. Then suddenly, due to some minor incident, she fell completely silent. Hysteria overcame her; she was probably more woman than writer. I will never forgive her for her silence—although I know that the blame lies not with her, but with our unfortunate lack of a true poetess. 4 4 This appears to be a reference to Fradl Shtok, who was generally acclaimed as a poet but found several deeply negative reviews of her book of short stories too painful and withdrew from writing (see Rokhl Auerbach’s review of Shtok’s short stories).

A large body of Yiddish writing is developing in Russia. The destruction of family life there has brought forth new women with new feelings. And yet there isn’t a single “female Comrade” who can take up a pen and write the soul of the new woman.

But, alas, the Yiddish poetess has produced so many excuses, that it would be unchivalrous not to describe them here:

“I have never in the history of humanity been the creator of new ideals. With my entire body and soul, I have only—and even this only rarely—copied the ideals of men. I have carried them and raised them in my very being and I have stood before the world as an exemplar of strength and sacrifice. But the seeds of these ideals were sown by men. And in today’s Yiddish poetry, where is Man? Where is the man for me, the Yiddish female poetess?”

This article is actually a collective review of a long line of unnamed books of poetry by women, un-named due to the above mentioned motives—but only un-named in this review. Both the poetesses and I know perfectly well who is meant here…

And I also know this: a month will pass, and nine months, and even nine times nine months, yet poetry by a woman—by a woman to whom we should all kneel—still will not have been born.

They should at least know this and not delude themselves.

And if one of them should lift from her face the veil that I have so tenderly thrown over her, and will fight me tooth and nail (spiritual teeth and spiritual nails), I will even be grateful. Because the gentleness and the sweetness and the stillness and the modesty and the quiet — above all the modesty, the modesty of Yiddish poetesses — has become totally boring.

MLA STYLE
Melekh Ravitch. “Girls, Women, Ladies–Yiddish Poetesses.” In geveb, December 2023: Trans. Anita Norich, Faith Jones, and David Mazower. https://ingeveb.org/texts-and-translations/girls-women-ladies-yiddish-poetesses.
CHICAGO STYLE
Melekh Ravitch. “Girls, Women, Ladies–Yiddish Poetesses.” Translated by Anita Norich, Faith Jones, and David Mazower. In geveb (December 2023): Accessed Feb 26, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Melekh Ravitch

ABOUT THE TRANSLATORS

Anita Norich

Anita Norich is Tikva Frymer-Kensky Collegiate Professor Emerita of English and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan.

Faith Jones

Faith Jones is a librarian and translator in Vancouver, Canada.

David Mazower

David Mazower is chief curator and writer of Yiddish: A Global Culture, the major new permanent exhibition at the Yiddish Book Center, where he is Research Bibliographer and Editorial Director.