Mother Nature and Human Nature: The poetry of “Malka Heifetz Tussman”

Malka Heifetz Tussman claims a special place in the world of Yiddish literature. Her poetry— frank and exploring in subject matter, innovative in language—crossed previously established boundaries of convention; critics called her the most modern poet in Yiddish.

Born on a farm in the Ukraine, Malka Heifetz was raised in a Yiddishspeaking home where Hebrew texts and culture were ever-present. The daughter of a mystic who studied Kabbalah, Malka was, from a young age, keenly sensitive to the life of the spirit. No less keen was her appreciation of the natural world, whose voices and rhythms provided her with her first poetic models. Later she would find models and inspiration in the poems of Pushkin, Lermontov, Akhmatova, Whitman, Poe, Rimbaud, Tagore, Bialik, and her Yiddish contemporaries.

In the early stages of her career as a poet, Malka Heifetz Tussman (then—as throughout her career— she was adamant about keeping the “Heifetz” in her name) taught herself to write in strict verse forms. Later, she experimented with both structure and style, exploiting the flexibility of the Yiddish language to create a unique voice, rich with verbal and syntactic invention.

The one traditional form she never abandoned was the triolet—a tricky, eight-line poem containing multiple repetitions and rhymes—which she molded to express a wide variety of themes.

Over the years, Malka Heifetz Tussman published consistently in the Yiddish journals, while also raising a family—she had two sons, Yossele and Yudele—and teaching Yiddish to children and adults. Between 1949 and 1977, she produced six books of poems and m 1981, she was awarded the prestigious Manger Prize for Yiddish Literature. In the last decade of her life she continued to write prolifically, and was finally deterred only by failing eyesight and what she called her “sick hands.” Tussman died March 30,1987 in her Berkeley home; she was 91.

This, of course, is only the barest outline of Malka Heifetz Tussman’s life as a poet. To it, I would like to add a personal remembrance.

I met Malka for the first time in the spring of 1973, when we shared the platform of a poetry reading at a Jewish arts festival in Berkeley, California. Malka had moved to Berkeley the previous year, after spending a year in Israel following the death of her husband; most of her adult life prior to that had been spent in Los Angeles. I was living at this time in Palo Alto, where I was finishing up a doctorate at Stanford.

I was struck immediately by Malka’s demeanor, the intensity of her expressions, the dignified—one might even say proud—way that she carried herself. But what drew me to her most was an odd coincidence: at this poetry reading, each of us had read a poem entitled ‘To a Modern Kabbalist,” though hers was in Yiddish, mine in English. More than similar in title, the two poems expressed the same point of view, and this startled both of us. Although Malka’s poem had been written years before mine, I had not read or heard it, or any of her poetry, until that day. Added to this was the less odd but, for me, significant coincidence of our having the same first name—my Hebrew name is Malka. I considered our meeting to have been bashert, fated, and I went home that night, a new book in hand, and began to devour Malka’s poems.

It was not long before I found myself in the grips of a maddening, wonderful, frustrating process, trying to make these poems come alive in English. When the summer came, I decided to abandon my plans to study Yiddish literature at the YIVO in New York, in favor of spending my days with Malka and becoming intimate with her poetry, in order to translate it faithfully. I rented a room in a communal house in Berkeley, a few miles from Malka’s apartment, and settled in for a summer’s work.

Malka and I met together for almost three months—six days a week, ten, sometimes twelve, hours a day. I would arrive at her doorstep in the morning and make coffee for myself, hot water with lemon for Malka. Then we’d begin the day’s business: reading, discussing, joking, arguing. When we felt like it, we would stop to eat—simple, delicious meals that we took no less pleasure in preparing than in eating. We had a standing joke about confusing kutletn (cutlets) with kupletn (couplets), which, we maintained, were equally important to our lives.

Over the course of our many shared meals, I heard the stories of her life told and re-told with wit and poignancy and humor. One of eight children, from the start Malka had distinguished herself by her fiercely independent nature. She immigrated to America before most of her family came. In Chicago, where her family settled, she became part of the Cafe Royale circle of poets, and—she was quick to add—she eventually came to know all the important members of Yiddish literary society, even though she never lived in the center of Yiddish cultural activity, New York.

Although Malka often alluded to her many male admirers and suitors in her stories about the Yiddish Literary world, the female personalities came across as livelier and more impressive than their male counterparts. Each of the Yiddish women poets sounded, in the anecdotes Malka would tell, more flamboyant than the next; each had fought in her own way for recognition by the male dominated critical circles. Although Malka resented being labeled a “woman poet”—like many women of her generation, she was sensitive to the insult traditionally implied by the qualifier vaibisher, womanly, and she preferred to think that poetry knew no gender—it was clear that she identified with this group of gifted women who were unafraid to tell then- truths in their work. And it was equally clear that she had pursued her own career and life with a willful autonomy—a proud, proto-feminist iconoclasm. Throughout, she never lost her passion for eros and her intense sensuality; and she scorned the belief that age diminished these capacities. She enjoyed providing living demonstration that it did not.

While working together on her poems, Malka and I often disagreed, and sometimes vehemently fought about how a Yiddish phrase or line should be rendered in English—each one basing her claim to being right on the particular linguistic expertise that she possessed and the other lacked. Still, we both enjoyed—even loved—our collaborative process. Both of us opinionated and passionate, we nevertheless ended up changing our minds—and each other’s— often. Sometimes, in response to my questioning a word or a line in one of her poems, Malka would decide to adjust the finished and already published original. Equally often, I would revise one of my own poems after hearing Malka’s comments about it.

At the end of the summer of 1973, I left California and Malka for Israel, to study on a Fulbright Grant before beginning my career as an assistant professor in upstate New York. I had completed a manuscript of eighty translations of Malka’s poems, a small portion of which was subsequently published by Tree Books in 1977 as a limited-edition chapbook entitled Am I Also You? (now out-of-print).

Working on poetry with Malka had been an unpredictably stimulating, rich experience. She was eager to share the tricks of her trade, and had even nagged me until I had finally produced a (very silly) triolet of my own. Once, I asked her to teach me the secret of writing a crown of sonnets—that impossible-seeming sequence in which the last line of one poem becomes the first line of the next, until fourteen poems have been written, and then a fifteenth is composed out of the opening lines of the first fourteen. Malka eyed me as though I were an idiot. “It’s easy,” she said, “you write the last one first.” 

Marcia Falk teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Judaism, in Los Angeles. She is the author of a translation of the biblical Song of Songs; a chapbook of poems, This Year in Jerusalem (State Street Press, 1986); and a volume of translations from, the Hebrew, The Spectacular Difference: Selected Poems of Zelda (forthcoming from the Jewish Publication Society). She is currently writing The Book of Blessings, a feminist- Jewish reconstruction of prayer (forthcoming from. Harper & Row). Her newly-revised manuscript of translations, Selected Poems of Malka Heifetz Tussman, is in search of a publisher.

I am Woman

I am the exalted Rachel
whose love lit the way for Rabbi Akiba.

I am the small, bashful village girl
who grew up among the tall poplars
and blushed at the “good morning”
of her brother’s tutor.

I am the pious girl
who paled as her mother raised her
hands to her eyes
for the blessing over the Sabbath

I am the obedient bride
who humbly bent her head beneath
the shears
the night before the wedding.

I am the rabbi’s daughter
who offered her chaste body to save
a Jewish town
and afterwards set fire to herself.

I am the woman of valor
who bore and fed children
to earn herself a little place in paradise.

I am the mother
who, in great hardship,
raised sons to be righteous men,

I am the Hasid’s daughter,
infused with her father’s fervor,
who went out defiant, with her hair
to educate the people.

I am the barrier-breaker
who distributed Bread and Freedom
and freed love from the wedding

I am the pampered girl
who set herself behind a plow
to force the gray desert into green life.

I am the one whose fingers
tightened around the hoe,
on guard for the steps of the enemy.

I am the one who stubbornly
carries around a strange alphabet
to implant in children’s ears.

I am all these and many more.

And everywhere, always, I am woman.

This is an edited version of a letter by Malka Heifetz Tussman to Marcia Falk.

It first appeared in 1977 in Am I Also You, a chapbook published by Tree Books.
Berkeley, California, March 4, 1975

My dear Marcia,

After you have read all my books and translated so many of my poems, you still want to know more about me. And I thought that my poetry is me! You want to know when I began writing, who influenced my poetry, why I write the way I do. This may not be what you want, but I will tell you what I know.

From, the very beginning of my existence I had mare problems than anyone I know. The second of eight children—the next youngest was prettier, more clever, and sickly. Everyone loved her and pampered her. I was left to grow like a wild weed. I started to believe that I did not even belong to this family. I thought they found me somewhere and let me eat at their table.

I didn’t want to talk or act like the rest of them. I wanted to be a bird— so I swooped and jumped instead of walking. I spoke the language of the one that made its nest above our roof. I would hide in the tall stalks of wheat and listen as they made words … My mother would talk to me and I would answer in my own tongue. And I would quietly giggle, “They’re so dumb. They don’t understand real words.”

We had private tutors who lived in our house on the farm during the school semesters. They were to instruct us in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian. I was the most troublesome of the pupils, never on time for the lessons. Someone had to be sent out to find me in the fields or meadows or barns. Still, I learned to read and write Yiddish and Russian quite early. Soon I began scribbling things on walls, tablecloths, and scraps of paper…. Mother found [my first poem] and showed it to father. My father smiled and said, “Leave her alone. These are her own wards. We don’t understand.” (My father was also looking for hidden words in Kabbalah.J / ran out of the house, happy: maybe he really is my father. I headed for the orchard. I did not go through the open gate but climbed over the high fence, tore my dress, and rolled like a wild colt under the apple tree… My nickname was Senno, meaning stack of hay in Russian, because of my wild, unruly hair. Some people said, “If she’d comb her hair, she might even be pretty “.

School in the neighboring town. I may not have been pretty, but I could make rhymes about everyone. Teachers reprimanded and students bribed me not to make rhymes about them. 

Reading books. Lots of books. Certain books I’m not allowed to read yet “Too young.” Tolstoy—yes, but Dostoevsky—no. I get hold of Dostoevsky anyway. I wonder: How does this man (only a man), how does he know so much about people?! If you know so much about people, you have to tell all you know about people, so people will know people and know how to live with people. Are all good people also bad people? How many people can one little people hold? Am I a lot of people? Could I do harm to people other than I-people?

America: A new country, a new language. I am going to forget for a while about Me. I am going to learn fast about America, about English. I am going to love it all. It will never be “you,” “I. “I will make it just “we. “A great, big land of “we.” “All are equal in America.” Strange—America and God. It says so on the dollar. Someone says, “Have you got a dollar?” Oh well, this is one of the good people that is bad people. I must be careful not to talk too much.

Edgar Allan Poe. I love the rhythm of his poems. I walk by his rhythm, I chew my food by his rhythm. I learn English. I read all I can lay my hands on. I hear them say that I have a good head on my shoulders. I am pleased and smile to myself I am just a little prettier now.

Three evenings a week I see my good tutor K.M. He is pleased with me—I read it in his eyes. He likes the short verses I write for him. He says, “My child, you are a poet. You will write. You must now learn all forms of poetry. Not that you must unite in any one form, but you must know about all of them. “I love dear K.M. He is old and precious. I do as he asks me. I make progress and make him glad.

A young man gives me a gift— Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. I read, I discover a new America, a new poetry.

K.M. takes me to a group called “Poets in the Making. “I am among young poets. K.M. introduces me as “Poet Malka” and they receive me warmly. I feel good. I mention Walt Whitman. The leader of the group smiles and says, “Whitman is a no poet Poet. “I am hurt and frightened. I look to K.M. for help. He consoles me, “This man doesn ‘t know what he’s talking about.”

I show K.M. a poem I wrote for Whitman. It is something about the soul that is the body. Body is soul and soul is body. Something about love. Love is all soul. Love hurts soulfully and the whole body hurts. It is my first poem in free verse. K.M. searches my eyes and asks softly, “Are you in love, my child?”

A few weeks later, K.M. takes me to a concert. After the concert to the Cafe Royale in Chicago. He orders coffee and cake. I show him more poems— some triolets, some free verse. K.M. says, as he puts his hand over mine, “So many poets in America! So many write English. Some good, some not, but we have so few writing Yiddish. Stay with us. Write Yiddish poetry. Write your own way, even if it is hard to get into print. Even if it is not to the liking of some established literati.”

I write poetry in Yiddish. Read a great deal. Prophets, Psalms, Song of Songs, Job, Ecclesiastes. I read the old and the new. Arthur Rimbaud is now my “Beautiful Boy. ” Whitman and Rimbaud open me up to Myself, give me freedom of movement within the rhythm of my own being, my own breathing.

I am loved…
I am a wife…
I am a mother…
I am a teacher…
I want to scream…
I want to run …
I want to cry…
and I do what I have to do, and in the meantime poems break through.

K.M. becomes very sick. He lives to see my first book published: Lieder, 1949.
In 1958—my second book, mild my wild
1965—Shadows of Remembering
1972—Leaves Don’t Fall
1974—Under Your Sign
And so my poetry is still traveling the endless road of “the Self” to reach “the You. “It knows no other road.

Over the years, Schloime my husband often would say, “You ought to be happy, why are you sad?” My answer: “Don’t you know? When I am happy, I am sad. ” 

Love, Malka