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Left-wing women writing their poetry in Yiddish

I had always thought my mother-in-law was called “Little Lefty,” because (1) he was short, and (2) she had been a lefthanded seamstress in the garment industry. But in the Yiddish-speaking left-wing family I married into, I learned the story was more complicated. Until the day she died, when speaking of the communist newspaper Frayhayt, she whispered its name.

Dovid Katz’s excellent introduction to Proletpen: America’s Rebel Yiddish Poets (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005, $45.00) would have made sense to her, as it explains the differences between rekhte (right) and linke (left) between World Wars I and II, pointing out, however, that the main newspapers representing each—the Forverts and the Frayhayt— “both were so very proudly socialist and far to the left of the American center.” Katz paints a vivid picture of the times when these rivalrous factions were much more than matters for textbooks and university courses.

Proletpen, the name of the leftist writers’ union, is an appropriate title for this book, divided into thematic sections, such as Urban Landscape, Speaking of Scottsboro, United in Struggle, and Wars to End All Wars. Some of the 39 poets are better known than others, and some names remain lost to us. For example, A. Shtriker is probably a pseudonym (“shtriker” means “knitter”), and in the section Songs of the Shop, in which his (her?) “Figaro” appears, one can hear the rhythm of the factory: “Figaro here, Figaro there./Red knickers up to his knees,/back and forth,/.. .louder than rushing machines…” Particularly affecting are Betsalel Friedman’s words to the mothers of the “Scottsboro boys”: “Mothers of boys in death-cells,/mothers shudder at the dead./For you and for us, the enemy soaks/in blood our daily bread.”

Dana Craft’s illustrations include a drawing of the railroad tracks leading to Birkenau with Yiddish manuscript pages scattered between the rails, followed by Zishe Vaynper’s “Word, I haven’t got room/any more/for you.” The book yields unexpected treasures. Unhappily, however, only seven women are represented: Sarah Barkan, Sarah Fel-Yelin, Sarah Kindman, Malka Lee, Esther Shumyatsher, Dora Teitelboim, Shifre Vays.

Vays, an avid defender of workers’ and women’s rights, didn’t spend time on regrets: “Ikh vel zikh shiva nit zitsn/nokh mayne yarn, mayne nekhtns” (“I won’t be sitting shiva/for my years, my yesterdays”). Sarah Barkan wrote for adults and children, as did Sarah Fel-Yelin, organizer of self-defense exercises for women and children in World War I and chronicler of her beloved shtetl, Krinik. In “My New York Street Sings,” Esther Shumyatsher depicts a vision of how “Want sang and sang on my street today,/a torn cry on its lips, hunger on its knee,” finally warning: “You will pay…for your slaves’ hunger and sunkenness.” We cannot help asking: where are the rest of the women?

Julia Wolf Mazow, student of Yiddish language and literature, complied and edited The Woman Who Lost Her Names: Selected Writings of American Jewish Women