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The Yiddish Queen and her “Menersher Kop”

Paper Bridges: Selected Poems of Kadya Molodowsky
translated, edited and introduced by Kathryn Hellerstein
Wayne State University Press, $49.95

Kadya Molodowsky (1894-1975) is generally considered the greatest female writer in modern Yiddish literature, an assessment that would not entirely have pleased her. Living and creating among male writers who in calling her “der menersher kop” (the masculine head) believed they were bestowing on her their greatest praise, it is perhaps not surprising that she bristled at evaluations of writers based on gender rather than ability. In an article entitled “A Few Words about Women Poets,” published in the Yiddish journal Signal in 1935, she asserted that terms like “female poetry” or “male poetry” that unnecessarily emphasized the sex of the writer were senseless, for writing was much more an expression of spirit than of sex.

I think Kadya, (as she is affectionately called in Yiddish literary circles), would have been pleased with Kathryn Hellerstein’s Paper Bridges: Selected Poems of Kadya Molodowsky, the first comprehensive English translation of her work, in terms of the selections, the quality of the translations, and Hellerstein’s assessment of her. The volume is bilingual, comprising some 150 poems, numerous photos, an introduction and abundant footnotes. Its pages reveal “a poet of the first rank in the history of Yiddish poetry,” as Hellerstein writes, who explores a broad range of topics but writes with particular urgency and intimate knowledge about the experiences and struggles of the emerging modem Jewish woman.

Hellersteln is an accomplished translator and critic, best known for her work on the poet Moyshe-Leyb Halperin and her numerous articles on Yiddish female poets. These accomplishments plus a unique combination of poetic, popular and scholarly sensibilities make Hellerstein ideally suited to bring a very important poet to Yiddish and English readers. On occasion, her translations do not capture the idiom and cadence of the Yiddish. At times, by not rhyming, the English loses some of the playfulness, euphony, and irony of the original. At other times, Hellerstein’s effort to be faithful to the Yiddish causes the English to be labored. But her translations are always careful and often beautiful, and her introduction and notes greatly help the reader understand Molodowsky’s poetry in the context of her life and times.

The title Paper Bridges is inspired by several poems about the legendary bridge of paper that the Jews will cross to enter Paradise when the Messiah comes. It is well chosen, for the bridge represents the aspirations of the poet and her people, often dashed, yet constantly shaped afresh, by personal and national creativity, into new dreams and achievements.

As Hellerstein shows in her introduction, Kadya bridged many spheres: religious-secular, Hebrew-Yiddish, male-female, Europe-America, Diaspora-Israel. She was born in White Russia into an educated mercantile family in whose home a portrait of the staunchly secular Zionist leader Theodor Herzl hung side by side with a talmudic scholar, the Vilna Gaon. Kadya began life already rooted in several Jewish worlds. Although girls generally were not given access to Hebrew or Jewish texts, Kadya studied chumash (Pentateuch) with her father, and later both Talmud and Russian with private tutors. Moving to Warsaw in the ’20’s, she worked by day as a teacher in a socialist Yiddishist Tsisho school, and in the evenings in the Zionist Hebraist community school, again, navigating two separate streams of Jewish life. Her religious and Hebrew training, evident in countless allusions in her writing, make her an exception among Yiddish female writers. Herself a fervent Zionist, she married a communist, the historian and literary critic Simkhe Lev, and they lived, from 1935 on, for the most part, in America, with a three year interval in Israel. Conflicts, contradictions, and surprising harmonies!

In her personal and poetic life, Kadya forged new paths for Jewish women, who, like herself, were striving to reconcile the opposing forces of religion and modernity that vied for their souls. Her early volume Kheshvndike nekht (Nights of Heshvan), published in Vilna in 1927, portrays this struggle. Hellerstein’s translation of the poem “Opgeshite bleter” (“Fallen Leaves”) beautifully captures the inherent tension between freedom and faith. Looking at an old siddur, the poet reflects,

Before me – an old prayerbook
With yellowed leaves bent at the corners,

Marking women’s prayers about dew and rain.

Aware, however, that her fingers will not be “darkening those lines” through constant use, the poet muses, “Who will turn the yellowed leaves?” By imagining that she will perhaps kiss the siddur with her “burning lips” when “a drought falls upon [her] heart,” she connects, not through prayer but through the memory of those who prayed, to the tradition and to those who drew sustenance from it. It is a link, but a tenuous one.

In Dzshike gas (Dzshike Street, Warsaw, 1933, 1936), named for the very humble street in Jewish Warsaw on which she and Lev lived, Molodowsky passionately attempts to work out “the struggle between the aesthetic and the political responsibilities of the Yiddish poet in times of economic, social, and political hardship.” In the title poem, Kadya imagines the street’s inhabitants discussing her contemptuously, saying,

“There she is – the lady singer,
The devil take her mother, –
She hangs around here all the time
And braids our misery into rhymes.”

These wonderful lines epitomize the writer’s dilemma: The abstract beauty she creates by describing the lives on Dzshike Street is powerless to transform the grim reality of those lives. Dzshike Street needs political activists, not poets.

In an intensely personal poem, “A lid tsu mayn kleydershank” (“A Poem to My Clothes Closet”), the poet lies awake at night, thinking about what to do with her “broyne katsaveyke” (jacket of brown quilt). Here Hellerstein takes a permissible, and even enhancing, liberty in her translation of the twice-repeated refrain, “Lig ikh azoy in dveykes,” as “Then I lie in devout, ecstatic guilt.” According to Uriel Weinreich’s modern English-Yiddish dictionary, “dveykes ” literally means “religious ecstasy, attained by banishing all profane thoughts and communing with God.” Kadya is acutely aware that in thinking about her jacket she has not banished, but rather indulged in, extremely profane and frivolous thoughts. Hellerstein’s addition of “guilt” to rhyme with “brown quilt,” underscores the self-mocking irony conveyed by that word and artfully links “A Poem to My Clothes Closet” to many other poems in Dzshike Street in which the poet juggles personal and political concerns.

In In land fun mayn gebeyn (In the Country of My Bones, Chicago, 1937), the first of her books written in America, Kadya grapples with yet another tension, that between home and exile. Although the New York Yiddish literary establishment received her well, Kadya nevertheless felt foreign and fragmented, sensing despairingly that there was little place for the Yiddish poet in a country where the language was “no more than a small corner” of the Jewish scene. Even the title reflects this alienation by implicitly posing the question of where the “country of my bones” is located: in the land of her birth, the country where she will be buried, or her own body, which remains with her throughout her wanderings?

Der meylekh Dovid aleyn iz geblibn (Only King David Remained), written during the war years and published in New York in 1946, is Molodowsky’s response to the Holocaust and expresses an even greater sense of alienation and isolation. Hellerstein’s new translation of the much anthologized “Eyl khanun” (“Merciful God”) captures the mood of weariness, anger and profound despair that makes this one of the most powerful poems in Holocaust literature. In this sacred parody, the poet subverts the traditional relationship between the “merciful God” and His “chosen people,” pleading with Him to “Choose another people,/Elect another./We are tired of death and dying,/We have no more prayers.” Here, she is not only an angry prophet railing at a God who is far from merciful but also a bereft survivor confronting unspeakable grief. Kadya is somewhat more optimistic in her final volume, Likht fun dornboym (Light of the Thorn Bush), published in 1965 in Buenos Aires. As the title suggests, the bush in the wilderness continues to burn as the poet reexamines and strengthens her tenuous connection to God. In the poem “And What Will Happen” Kadya broaches the issue of faith in the modern scientific era, and this time at least affirms its possibility. She poses the question,

And what will happen
When the fliers return
And say there’s no heaven out there?

Ultimately, she refuses to “believe the fliers.” If heaven is not visible to skeptics intent only on considering rational evidence, it is visible to those who “stride across stairways of wonders,” and turn their “eyes upward and higher.”

In “A polet” (A Refugee), the final poem of the volume, Molodowsky seamlessly and even jauntily weaves together many of her passionate concerns—the Holocaust, messianic redemption, faith and Zionist activism. For Kadya, the birth of the Jewish state somewhat counterbalanced the tragedy of the Holocaust. In this poem, one of her many later poems on Israel, a young refugee, “Hollowed by hunger, without a shirt/Barefoot and frostbitten,” makes his way to Jerusalem. Although the refugee meets the Messiah and Elijah the Prophet, ultimately it is a kholets (settler) who will guide him and Elijah into the Holy Land. “It’s a long way to Jerusalem” but for the young refugee who has both faith and the desire to build the land with his own hands “the road is easy.” There are miracles, Kadya seems to be saying, but ultimately, although perhaps inspired by God, they are wrought by man.

In Paper Bridges, Kadya emerges as a complex and diverse poet. Recognizing the constraints of being a Jewish woman, she refused in her literary and personal life to be limited by them. Eschewing most ideological solutions to Jewish problems, she forged her own path. Her poetry reveals a realist who longed for miracles, a philosophic thinker who tempered tragedy with irony and humor, and a spiritual seeker who despaired in God and humanity. Yet she could still be, as she says in “Dzshike Street,” “in love with life.” Her intellectual complexity was matched by technical virtuosity. Kadya’s verse ranged from highly lyrical to quasi-conversational; with seemingly effortless grace she penned delicate rhymes and with daring she created others jarring or disarming.

It is no wonder that Hellerstein, who began with the more modest task of translating Molodowsky’s first book Nights of Heshvan, soon found herself in love with her “cranky, tough, indulgent, gorgeous poems” and taking on her whole poetic oeuvre. This fortunate decision enables the English reader to appreciate the broad scope of Kadya’s work and the extent of her poetic gifts. (The project of translating Kadya’s memoirs, prose fiction, and journalism still remains.) Through her labor of love, Hellerstein has constructed another wonderful paper bridge, one over which the English reader can travel, if not into a messianic paradise, then, at least, into the world of a poet so central to a vanished era and yet so remarkably relevant today.

Sheva Zucker teaches Jewish literature and Yiddish at Duke University and is the author of a Yiddish textbook. She translates and writes about women in Yiddish literature.