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Fiction’s Feminine Side Gets Equal Time

Alyssa Quint regularly contributes to the Forward.

Beautiful as the Moon,

Radiant as the Stars: Jewish Women in Yiddish Stories

By Sandra Bark

Warner Books, 352 pages, $14.95.

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According to Fanya Glants’s husband, the celebrated American-Yiddish poet A. Leyeles, she was a genuine artist whose bond with literature was both intimate and unaffected. “She could have written stories or poetry if only she didn’t have such high standards, and considered what she wrote something that anyone else could scratch out….‘Enough isn’t written without me? Who needs it?’” Leyeles relayed in a slender volume memorializing his wife’s career as an ardent Yiddishist, “Fanye Glants 1886-1953” (Yizker, 1954). In the book, the poetic tributes to her from luminaries of the American-Yiddish literary scene outnumber the works Glants composed in her lifetime.

Glants’s decision to opt out of a literary career may say more than most would care to admit about the awkward topic of female writers of modern Yiddish literature — awkward because, for all the psychic identification of the Yiddish language with the Jewish woman, there is remarkably little modern literature written by females. That is not to diminish the talent of women who did write Yiddish prose and poetry, the best of which translators have been introducing to English audiences in recent years. But it is as undeniable as it is curious that the pool of women Yiddish writers was such a small one.

“Beautiful as the Moon, Radiant as the Stars: Jewish Women in Yiddish Stories,” a new anthology of Yiddish short stories edited by Sandra Bark and rendered in English by an array of translators, inadvertently testifies to this meager supply. Bark’s edition arguably contributes to the two central aims that the feminist agenda brought to the world of letters: the recovery of a female canon and an examination of how women are represented by a culture’s writers, male and female. Thus, Bark sets off stories by Rachel Korn and Dvorah Baron, two prominent Jewish female writers, with selections by Yiddish literary pioneer I.L. Peretz and the Soviet author David Bergelson, both of whom drew subtle and sympathetic portraits of women.

Bark’s anthology is not the first of its kind. The weightiest collection of translated female Yiddish writing, “Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers (Second Story Press),” came out in 1994. In her “feminist” introduction to that volume, Yiddish scholar and writer Irena Klepfisz advanced two charges intended to account for the apparent dearth of available female Yiddish prose. First, she traced an anti-female bias to the first writers of Yiddish literature like Sholom Aleichem who, she claims, institutionalized a literary establishment that alienated potential female writers and reversed the centuries-old attachment between the Yiddish word and the Jewish woman. “Not only how these [early] writers viewed themselves, but also what they wrote, point to a desire to create a literature by men and for men.” Klepfisz also suggested that women who managed to publish their fiction in Yiddish newspapers have since fallen victim to a kind of “erasure,” whereby editors and scholars of modern anthologies simply neglected their work. Klepfisz’s project was aimed at redressing this neglect. And indeed, the collection of stories so dazzled with literary talent, it almost didn’t matter that her arguments were fueled more by frustration and speculation than by historical evidence.

Bark’s work is less ideologically ambitious than Klepfisz’s — inspired more by personal whimsy, it seems, than by a drive to present translations of works whose strength urgently demands an audience — and she frames her volume with a feminism that is softened by a sense of tenderness toward her subject matter. In a brief introduction to the anthology, writer Francine Prose teases out a feminist lesson from the body of stories: “It reminds us that not so very long ago and not so very far away — women had to struggle for even the smallest fraction of the autonomy and self-determination that we take for granted today.” Such an observation is less mistaken than it is unsuited to the subtle hues of these sketches. But Prose quickly surrenders to the more modest beauty and radiance of the stories.

The brevity of Prose’s introduction anticipates the abbreviated length of many of the anthologized pieces. Korn, a writer who has deservedly earned a reputation as an important Yiddish voice for her unremittingly bitter depictions of Jewish farm life, is represented in Bark’s edition by a lesser work of only nine pages. A short story by Baron resembles a poem in its description of a young girl who is robbed of the dignity of saying Kaddish for her cherished grandfather. His disembodied voice speaks to her: “‘Child, child… ,’ so lonesome, so beseeching. ‘Child, child… ,’ and only I see the light of the memorial candle by the lectern overflow into a burning ocean, engulfing me on all sides. My breath catches and sticks in my throat.” Baron’s terse story becomes the prayer that the young girl cannot utter.

Likewise, Fradel Schtok’s “Winter Berries” and “At the Mill” are each five pages long. Both stories are tightly packed vignettes of shtetl life filtered through the consciousness of a girl acutely aware of her budding sexuality. Many of the selections in this anthology, especially those penned by the female authors, share the archetype of a Jewish girl coming of age. Teenage readers might best savor these stories of young women whose relationships with their parents and the adult world have begun to shift, and who try to make sense of their first romantic encounters.

An exception to this trend is Shira Gorshman’s “Bubbe Malka,” which might resemble the prose of Isaac Babel had he dipped his pen in Yiddish. In it, Bubbe Malka, an aged midwife orphaned by violence too dizzying for her to remember, finds herself a servant to Vlades, a young town governor appointed by the Germans during World War I. He terrorizes the local townspeople, kills anyone he suspects of being a partisan, and greedily amasses their possessions on the grounds of his barricaded estate. A victim of an identical brutishness if not an identical brute, Malka quietly plots her revenge against him.

Malka gains her master’s respect by delivering his wife’s baby after a drawn-out labor vividly relayed in Gorshman’s clenched prose. And she matches his brutishness with an authority that stems, in part, from her failure to fear anything, especially death: “You think your wife had this baby? I had it for her. And now its time to go to sleep, because you’re beginning to say foolish things. Go, lie down, and I’ll sit by the mother.” Inflected with distinctly Yiddish diction (nicely captured in the English translation), and spare in its detail of Jewish suffering, Gorshman’s prose is, nonetheless, the prose of affliction. Her words are not leavened by the sentimentality, comedy or chattiness of the most familiar Yiddish literature.

Notwithstanding Gorshman’s piece, the editor’s selections by men tend to outclass the female writers. Among less seasoned works by Rochel Faygenberg and Yente Serdatzky are ripened classics like I.B. Singer’s “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” and Sholom Aleichem’s “Hodel,” a chapter from his novel “Tevye’s Daughters.” The juxtapositions make for an uneven read and make one wonder whether a scarcity of female Yiddish writing forced Bark to pad her inventory with male-penned works. The anthology would be more compelling, I suspect, if it were devoted exclusively to the task of bringing to light previously unpublished women’s writing. But such a preference requires the existence of female Yiddish prose worthy of republication. In general, one wonders how Bark went about retrieving the particular works she included and why she chose them. She is not forthcoming about her methodology and gives no more than thumbnail sketches of her authors’ lives.

The field of Yiddish awaits the scholar who can make sense of the diminished number of women Yiddish writers. It is said of Hebrew poetry — fallow of women before 1920 and abloom with them thereafter — that 1920 marked the changing of the guard in the literary establishment: The then-aging poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, who had grown conservative with time, was replaced by a younger generation that encouraged female creativity. Try as Klepfisz might to find one, no such identifiable factor in the Yiddish literary establishment can persuasively unlock the mystery of the muted female voice.

Perhaps the answer lies with the social historians of Eastern European Jewish women: We know, for instance, that Jewish women followed their own patterns of modernization, acquiring non-Jewish languages like Russian or Polish more swiftly than their male counterparts. Perhaps it has to do with engrained patterns of home-life that placed the burden of family on women. Or maybe the reasons are psychological. With the absence of uninterrupted institutional support and obstacles of every kind that crowd the truncated history of modern Yiddish letters, the failure of would-be women writers to raise their voices is a reasonable consequence, the accomplishments of successful Yiddish writers the more astonishing outcome. But, of course, such a consideration does not attend to issues of gender.

In one of Bark’s selections, a short story by David Bergelson titled “Spring,” a male artist explains to a female admirer named Mura how he shut himself up in his garret for 18 months and emerged with a full exhibit’s worth of paintings. Bergelson writes that “in response Mura had said, ‘I couldn’t have done that,’ but then she’d thought for a moment and added: ‘And yet, perhaps I might’ve been able to do it.’” These lines might come closest to summarizing the possibilities, those followed through on and those, sadly, left unrealized, of female Yiddish writing. Or maybe that’s just his opinion.

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