The Yiddish Bard of Modernist Nigunim

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly photo feature in which we sift 116 years of Forward history to find snapshots of women’s lives.

On Saturday night December 14, 1929, the Forverts announced, Malke Locker was scheduled to give a performance of Yiddish, Hebrew, Italian and German folk songs—plus a few Hasidic nigunim.

Born in 1887 in Kuty, to a Hasidic family in the Carpathian mountain range of Galicia (currently Ukraine), Malke’s formal education ended at 12, but having an innate interest in languages, and a talent for music and literary studies, Locker continued to read German and Yiddish literature on her own. She was to become a published Yiddish poet, multi-lingual essayist and writer who though committed to Zionist ideals, chose to remain rooted in Yiddish.

Attending local Socialist-Zionist circles while still in Kuty, she deepened her knowledge of political and social science and met her future husband, fellow Galician native and cousin, Berl Locker. He was a Yiddish journalist, noted Zionist leader and future head of the Zionist Labor Party. They married in 1910 began journeying between various capital cities, moving from Lvov/Lemberg to Vienna, the Hague, Bern, Stockholm,Tel Aviv and eventually New York City. They were sent by Israel’s provisional government to live out the Nazi blitz of World War II in London—and returned to the newly founded State of Israel only in 1948.

Locker began publishing poetry in 1929 and by 1931 had her first volume published entitled Velt un Mentsh [World And Mankind] which shortly came to be considered a foundational work of women’s Yiddish poetry. A modernist, she published monographs on the work of French poets Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Verlain—in Yiddish—all of which were subsequently translated into Hebrew. Fluent in Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Polish, Ukrainian, French and English, Locker, who in her shtetl was nicknamed “Schiller’s sister” would come to be known as “the poet of capital cities.”

A sense of the Yiddish poet herself as bard, witnessing all manner of war and chaos and set to wandering on a lost road is expressed in the introduction to her 1947 volume of poems written after the Holocaust, entitled Di Velt Is On a Hiter [The World Has No Caretaker]:

Traveler on a dirt road faded into oblivion, rising at dawn having been swept away from where first they lay down to sleep, accompanied only by the wind—a bitter companion.

Settling in the Talbiye neighborhood of Jerusalem where she resided until her death at 103 in 1990 she was surrounded by art and thousands of books. Alone perhaps in the echo chamber that was Yiddish artistic expression in Israel, Locker was officially lauded for her work by France for her Yiddish publications on French literature, as well as, later, by the city of Jerusalem.

Earlier though, the Lockers made their diasporic route through Europe’s grandest cities, holding artistic salons where Malke sang Arias and Hasidic nigunim to attendees that included Israel’s future Prime Minister, and sometime Yiddish poet, Zalman Shazar. Encouraged to shift from musical expression to writing by Israeli intellectual and translator Yehuda Even Shmuel, Locker started keeping a journal when the couple moved to New York City in 1928. Some say it was her encounter with this city and its endless permutations of the modern that was the muse for her creative shift to poetry. 


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The Yiddish Bard of Modernist Nigunim

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