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“Plucked from a holy book”: Ashkenazim on the margins”

by Hanna King

“And my life, a page plucked from a holy book the first line torn?” -Kadya Molodovsky, 1927

This line, from the first of Kadya Molodovsky’s Women-Poems, published in Vilna, Lithuania in 1927, ends the first poem I ever read in Yiddish, and serves as the impetus for this collection. In the poem, Molodovsky speaks to the women who came before her, using religious symbols to speak of the challenging relationship between modernity and traditional Judaism, and their respective gendered expectations and cultural roles. My collection, inspired by the tensions present in the work of Molodovsky and other women writing in Eastern Europe during the early 20th century, explores the conversations that marginalized Ashkenazi Jews have had with a tradition that does not fully embrace them.

In exploring this tension, I have turned to the work of later Ashkenazi woman writers, poets, theologians and musicians, as well as a couple of male Yiddish writers writing against the dominant cultures of their day. I have collected some work of genderqueer and transgender Ashkenazim, further exploring the boundaries of Jewish gender expression. Many of the writers are queer.

That said, the so-called “edges” of Ashkenazi culture are debatable at best. Ashkenazi culture as a whole could be considered marginal to European cultures of the past or American culture of the present. At the same time, modern Ashkenazim are the dominant voices in Jewish culture, privileged over Sephardic (rooted in the Spanish diaspora) and Mizrahi (rooted in the Middle East and North Africa) cultures. I’ve chosen to include authors and writings who were marginal to Ashkenazi culture, as well as larger society, at the time of their publication, or have since been neglected by the tradition. Most of the authors hold more than one marginalized identity.

Yiddish language is central to this collection. Once the dominant language of Jews living in Eastern Europe and their diaspora, it is now a dying language abandoned by modern Jewish culture in favor of Modern Hebrew. The majority of my Yiddish language originals were collected at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA during the summer of 2013, when I was a student there. Most English language books were found at thrift stores and in “free boxes” at synagogues and queer and leftist bookstores. Many are former library copies, many were gifts. Nothing in this collection was purchased new, and most of the books are out of print.

All of the books written in the 1940s and 50s reflect on the Holocaust in one way or another. Many of the later ones do as well. While this is in of itself a theme, I prefer to focus on the ways that each person and each generation crafts a new relationship to the past, to building and rebuilding, to the personal and political questions raised by the aftermath of the Holocaust. Pertinent questions include: What is a modern Jewish culture? What is the appropriate relationship between cultural preservation and assimilation? What is Jewish sovereignty and should it exist?

In addition to ideological diversity, the geographic diversity of this collection reflects the diaspora that occurred during and after the Second World War — the books were originally published in at least 4 original languages (Yiddish, English, Liturgical and Modern Hebrew, Spanish), on approximately 4 continents. Even this diversity fails to capture the lengthy paths followed by authors like Rokhl Korn, who fled from Ukraine to Uzbekistan after the war, or Kadya Molodovsky, who published books in Vilna, Warsaw, Chicago, New York, Buenos Aires, and Tel Aviv during her lifetime. Essentially all of the Yiddish language originals I own, as well as a number of the more recent English language works, were printed by either community presses, small presses, coalitions of folk schools, or in the case of Kadya Molodovsky’s “Farlag Papirene Brik [Paper Bridge Press],” the author herself.

I have found it extremely challenging to categorize these books, because many of them are topically diverse. This reflects the difficulty of publishing work about women, about Yiddish, about queer and trans people — it is most often relegated to the anthology. Thus, many of the works are temporally and thematically broad. In an attempt to separate, I draw a blurry line between writers born in late 1800s and early 1900s, most (but not all) of whom were native Yiddish speakers born in Eastern Europe, and Ashkenazim born during and after the Holocaust, primarily in diaspora from Eastern Europe, English, Spanish and Modern Hebrew speakers. Rather than engage in the messy proposition of sorting further by identity, I have grouped by form of publication. Within the first group, this is original copies and reprints and compilations. In the latter group, there are academic texts, fiction, poetry, etc. Two other groups (liturgical texts and musical recordings) are listed separately, in order to enable comparison within the form.

Each of the writers in this collection negotiates a marked, challenged relationship to Ashkenazi culture. I believe that it is from the margins that we might better perceive the whole.


The reality of a diaspora made by migration and expulsion means that many Jews trace their national lineage through many different countries. While it is tempting to map onto them identity categories common to an American or Western context such as race/ethnicity, national identity, location of origin or even native language, these categories fall short of encapsulating “Ashkenazi” identity. For the purposes of this collection, I have included writers who have either self-identified some part of their ethnic/cultural/religious identity as Ashkenazi, or have a significant connection to Ashkenazi culture, including the usage of Yiddish language, connection to Jewish culture rooted in Eastern Europe, the experience of the Holocaust. I am aware that the boundaries are, and will continue to be messy.

Language and Orthography

This book collection includes approximately four languages, at least two of which are written in the Hebrew alphabet, which is read from left to right. I have tried to make the bibliography as accessible as possible to an English speaking audience, while preserving an accurate record of the books’ original titles and authors. Thus, Yiddish and Hebrew language titles appear first in their original language, followed by a complete citation in English. A couple of the English language and bilingual books on this list include a Hebrew or Yiddish language translation of the title on the cover, and I have reproduced that faithfully.

The Yiddish language was only standardized in the last hundred years, and major dialectical differences in orthography, pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar remain. The transliterations of book titles and publisher names in this bibliography adhere to the YIVO transcription system. The translations of titles, included in brackets after the transliterated titles, are technically my own, though I consider them to be relatively standard. When a source itself uses a transliterated word, I have preserved the original orthography.

Many of the Yiddish language authors in this collection were known by multiple versions of their name in different contexts. This stems from the multiple pronunciations often inherent to Hebrew/Yiddish language names. For example, #/3-&5/’s first name, in English, Rachel, is pronounced Rakhehl in Modern Hebrew, and Rukhl in Yiddish. On the English language side of the bibliography, I have used the name and spelling by which the author is most commonly known in English, most often some variant of a Yiddish pronunciation.

I. Yiddish Language Originals

Before (1921 - 1944)

Dropkin, Celia. In Heysn Vint [In hot wind]. New York, 1935.

Celia Dropkin’s only collection of poetry is most often remembered for the eroticism that imbues so much of the text. Even as she discusses topics like depression, sadomasochism, and the beauty of the natural world, there is an underlying sensuality, vibrant and grotesque, that pervades the text. Though she originally wrote in Russian, Dropkin became involved with Yiddish literary circles in the United States after she and her husband, a Bundist (secular Jewish socialist), fled Russia under political pressures in the early 1910s. Unlike many of her male counterparts, Dropkin’s work contains few Biblical or Talmudic references, relying more on natural symbolism, classical and Christian references. Some have framed this as an explicit rejection of the male-dominated cultural landscape of traditional Jewish learning, while others argue that it simply reflects her own assimilated Russian-Jewish background.

Leyvik, H. Der goylem: A dramatishe poeme in akht bilder [The Golem: A dramatic poem in eight scenes]. New York: Farlag Amerikane, 1921.

Leyvik’s The Golem is a play ostensibly retelling the traditional Jewish legend of the humanoid form made out of mud and brought to life through ritual. In the most common version of the story, a Golem is created to protect the Jews of Prague from anti-Semitic attacks in the sixteenth century. Leyvik, a Bundist Labor activist who participated in the Russian Revolution of 1905, uses the Golem to make a veiled critique of the Bolshevik Revolution. This edition, an original, features beautiful woodblock illustration handprinted into each copy.

The 1963 Lexicon of Yiddish Literature said of the book, “People read and re-read it, debated and wrote about the problems of the book: World liberation and Jewish redemption, the role of matter and the role of the spirit in the process of redemption, the Jewish Messiah and the Christian Savior, Maharal and the Golem of Prague, the masses and the individual, creator and creation, realism and symbolism — all this was stirred up in the 1920s by Leyvik’s Golem.”

Loy, Mina. The Last Lunar Baedeker, Edited by Roger L. Conover. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Girous, 1997.

Mina Loy, a British Christian Scientist, wrote somewhat extensively about the impact of her Jewish background — she believed it to be the source of her artistic impulse. Born to a Hungarian Jewish father and English Protestant mother, Loy was affiliated with the Italian Futurist movement, leaving when it turned towards Fascism. This book, a curated collection of her work from her work from 1914-1940, includes some of her most striking modernist poetry, as well as a profound feminist manifesto aimed at the misogyny of F. T. Marienetti, the founder of Italian Futurism.

Aftermath (1945 - 1957)

Korn, Rokhl. Heym un heymlozkeyt [Home and homelessness]. Buenos Aires: Central Committee of Polish Jews in Argentina, 1948.

Rokhl Korn’s first post-Holocaust book of poetry, Home and Homelessness is suffused with a deep sense of tragedy, loss and wandering. Korn and her daughter were the only members of her extended family to survive the Holocaust, fleeing from Kiev, Ukraine to Uzbekistan in 1941. They later travelled to Moscow, returned to Poland in 1946, and sought refugee status in Stockholm later that year. In 1949, after receiving confirmation that her entire family was murdered, Korn immigrated to Montreal, where she lived for the rest of her life. Korn referred to this period of her life as a time of “navenad,” wandering, and the poetry reflects that.

Korn, Rokhl. 9 Dertzeylungen [9 stories]. Montreal, 1957.

The first short story I ever read completely in Yiddish, “dem letzten veyg [the End of the Road],” is found in this collection of stories — it depicts a family living in a ghetto in 1942, given two hours to select a member of their family for deportation to a death camp. The book also includes stories written by Korn before the war, allowing the reader to absorb her shifting experience and consciousness as conditions in Eastern Europe intensified. My copy is inscribed by the author, and was found in the stacks of the Yiddish Book Center with a handwritten letter inside.

Molodovsky, Kadya. Yiddishe kinder (mayselekh) [Jewish children (stories)]. New York: Tsentral-Komitet fun di Yiddishe Folks-Shuln in di Fareynikte Shtatn un Kanade fun Yiddish Natzionaln Arbeter Farband un Poalei-tzion [Central Committee of the Jewish Folk Schools in the United States and Canada of the Jewish National Workers Alliance and Poalei Zion], 1945.

This book contains a series of Yiddish rhyming poems for children, accompanied by illustrations drawn by Molodovsky herself. It concludes a single poem in Modern Hebrew, reflecting Molodovsky’s enthusiasm for Jewish nationalism and its language. Molodovsky, a children’s teacher, likely wrote these poems for her own students. My copy, originally part of a children’s library in Montreal, is very much falling apart.

Molodovsky, Kadya. Der melekh dovid aleyn iz geblibn [Only King David remained]. New York: Farlag “Papirene brik” [“Paper Bridge” Publishing], 1946.

This was Molodovsky’s first publication after the Holocaust, and it contains her most famous poem, “G-d of Mercy,” in which she asks God to “Choose another people; we have nothing left to give.” While Molodovsky’s work always engaged with the Jewish tradition, her work after the war takes up Jewish symbols and themes with a new fervor. She is less introspective, often writing in the collective voice of the Jewish people.

Molodovsky, Kadya. A shtub mit zibn fentzter [A house with seven windows]. New York: Farlag Matones, 1957.

Molodovsky’s only collection of short stories are meditations on the everyday experiences of Jewish life in Eastern Europe and the United States. Found in the stacks at the Yiddish Book Center, my copy is autographed by Molodovsky herself. It also features an exposed binding, revealing the layered paper beneath. The paper that was used is covered in Rashi script, a form of the Hebrew alphabet used primarily for religious commentaries. Unfortunately, the paper is garbled enough that I haven’t been able to determine the source.

Sutzkever, Avrom. Lider fun geto [Poems from the Ghetto]. New York: Ikuf, 1946.

Like Molodovsky’s Only King David remained and Korn’s Home and homelessness, this is Sutzkever’s first publication following his experiences during the Holocaust, a 35 page pamphlet. Sutzkever was imprisoned in the Vilna Ghetto, where his mother and one day old son were murdered. He later escaped from the Ghetto with his wife and fought the Nazis as a Partisan in the forests of Lithuania, going on to become the most beloved Yiddish poet of the 20th century. This pamphlet, of which 2000 copies were originally printed, contains many of his most famous and arresting poems about his experiences during the Holocaust.

Compiled, Reprinted, Translated and Bilingual Editions of Yiddish Books

Fishman, Rukhl. Azoi vil ikh faln: opgeklibene lider fun Rukhl Fishman/I want to fall like this: Selected Poems of Rukhl Fishman. Translated by Seymour Levitan. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994.

The only American-born Yiddish writer in this collection, Rukhl Fishman was born into a secular Yiddish speaking family in Philadelphia in 1935. After attending a Workman’s Circle (secular Yiddishist) elementary school and camp, Fishman became involved in the socialist Zionist Hashomer Hatsair movement, and moved to an agricultural Kibbutz in Israel with her Israeli husband in 1954. In his introduction to this book, David Roskies notes that although Fishman wrote in Yiddish, the content of her poetry contains few of the hallmarks of “Yiddish poetry” especially “Yiddish women’s poetry.” Instead, she focuses primarily on the natural world and the value of hard work. During the formation of the Israel, Yiddish language was seen to be antithetical to the project of the nation state and its language, Modern Hebrew. Fishman writes in a paradoxical defiance, expressing fervent Zionism in a language understood to be anything but.

Forman, Frieda, Ethel Raicus, Sarah Silberstein Swartz, and Margie Wolfe, eds. Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish women writers. Toronto: Second Story Press, 1994.

This collection of Yiddish short stories in translation is most notable for the translators and editors themselves — a diverse group of Jewish women in Toronto, most without literary or academic training. The first to publish a translated compilation of women writing in Yiddish, they began reading these stories for themselves, and wanted to share them in the world. The book, like many others in the collection, was published by an explicitly feminist press, not a Jewish one. The collection also includes writing in translation by a number of authors represented elsewhere in this collection: Esther Singer Kreitman, Celia Dropkin, Rokhl Korn, and Kadya Molodovsky. Also notable is the introduction written by Irena Klepfisz, whose work is noted in the next section of this bibliography.

Kreitman, Esther Singer. The Dance of the Demons. Translated by Maurice Carr. New York: Feminist Press, 2009. Originally published as Dvorah [Deborah] and Der Sheydim Tantz [The Demons Dance] (Warsaw: Brzoza, 1936).

Best known as the sister of Yiddish literary stars Isaac Bashevis Singer and Israel Joshua Singer and the real life inspiration for Bashevis’ famous short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy”, Esther Singer Kreitman is only beginning to earn recognition for her own brilliant writing. The Dance of the Demons is, debatably, a semi-autobiographical account of Esther Singer Kreitman’s life, describing early attempts to receive a formal education in Bilgoray, Poland, and the tensions of her married life in Belgium. This edition, retranslated by her son Maurice Carr, is accompanied by essays by her family members, as well as family pictures and an essay by Ashkenazi literary scholar Anita Norich.

Harshav, Benjamin and Barbara Harshav. American Yiddish Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology/ Amerikanisher yidishe poezie. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986.

The best known bilingual anthology of Yiddish poets who spent time in America, American Yiddish Poetry includes lengthy sections of work by: A. Leyeles, Yankev Glatshteyn, Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, J.L. Teller, Barysh Vaynshteyn, and Malka Heifetz Tussman and H. Leyvik, both of whom are found elsewhere in this collection. Tussman’s poetry, as well as much of Halpern’s and one of Glatshteyn’s poems are translated by Kathryn Hellerstein, and Anita Norich and Brian McHale also contributed translations. Focusing on modern verse, much of the poetry is not Jewish in content, and reflects the Yiddish writers’ encounters with American literary culture during the 1920s and 30s. The book also features visual art from the same cultural generations.

Molodowsky, Kadya. Paper Bridges: Selected Poems of Kadya Molodowsky. Translated, edited and introduced by Kathryn Hellerstein. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1999.

Although I have always had an interest in Jewish poetry, I remained unaware of a women’s Yiddish literary canon until my sophomore year of college, when, searching for any traces of queer Jewish writers, I came upon Irena Klepfisz, who has written occasionally in English and Yiddish together, in the style of Gloria Anzaldúa. She noted that Kadya Molodovsky was a major influence on her work, and thus I was introduced to Yiddish poetry. This bilingual compilation of the selected works of Kadya Molodovsky contains within it the first words I ever read in Yiddish. It is the definitive collection of Molodovsky’s work in English translation. The book was curated, translated and introduced by my Professor and mentor, Kathryn Hellerstein of the department of Germanic Languages at the University of Pennsylvania, and she has been kind enough to inscribe it bilingually. Thus, it is the only book in my collection actually inscribed to me.

Tussman, Malka Heifetz. With Teeth in the Earth: Selected Poems of Malka Heifetz Tussman. Translated and introduced by Marcia Falk. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1992.

One of the last great Yiddish poets, Malka Heifetz Tussman began publishing her poetry in 1918. Between 1949 and 1977, she published six books of poetry, and was widely anthologized. Though she wasn’t traditionally religious, Tussman’s poetry often addresses God. Her work is imbued with a feminine sensuality and relationship to the natural world.

In addition to her own writing, Tussman mentored others, including Rokhl Fishman, Kathryn Hellerstein, and Marcia Falk, the translator of this work. In her article about Tussman in Paula Hyman’s Jewish Women in America, Hellerstein writes that Tussman “served as a bridge between the generations of Yiddish poets who emigrated from Eastern Europe and of those American-born Jewish poets who have taken up the task of making Yiddish poetry known to a readership that knows little Yiddish”.

Tregebov, Rhea, ed. Arguing with the Storm: Stories by yiddish women writers. New York: Feminist Press, 2009.

A second anthology of translated Yiddish short stories written by women. Produced in a process similar to that of Found Treasures, the book is a collaboration between the Winnipeg Yiddish Women’s Reading Circle and the Winnipeg Jewish Public Library. Kathryn Hellerstein wrote the introduction to this collection.

Klepfisz, Irena. A Few Words in the Mother Tongue: Poems Selected and New (1971-1990). Portland, OR: The Eighth Mountain Press, 1990.

Irena Klepfisz is a lesbian, feminist poet living in New York City. She is also a native Yiddish speaker born in Poland, who lived through the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and fled Europe with her mother. Her poetry speaks to both worlds, most notably in works like “Etlekhe verter in di mame loshn/A few words in the mother tongue,” where she moves between words in English and Yiddish without translating either, discussing the words that each language is missing. My copy, found at a used bookstore in Seattle, is autographed by the author.

Klepfisz was a young girl when she left Warsaw, but her poetry is deeply informed by her experiences during the Holocaust and her father’s death during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. At the same time, she is rooted in the politically radical circles in New York that many of the poets in the second half of this collection travel in. In many ways, Klepfisz is the “bridge” of this collection. In her poem, Bashert, Klepfisz states “I am almost equidistant from two continents.”

II. Liturgical and Religious Texts

Herz, Beth and Leora Abelson, eds. Queer Shabbos. Middletown, CN: Wesleyan University Hillel, 2007.

Compiled for use by the Wesleyan University Hillel’s queer group, this is a photocopied prayer book intended for use during Friday night, shabbos, prayers. It features a combination of traditional liturgical pieces in Hebrew, some of them modified to be more gender and sexuality inclusive and English language poetry, including Adrienne Rich. Although making a queer inclusive prayerbook is a thoroughly modern project, there are resonances with the modified and parodied prayers and supplications written by the Yiddish women poets. The pamphlet was a gift from a member of the Wesleyan University Hillel.

Silverman, Dara and Micah Bazant. Love + Justice in times of war haggadah. 2003.

The Love + Justice in times of war haggadah describes itself as a “politically progressive, anti-racist haggadah that includes beautiful writing, ritual, humor and reflection…in solidarity with Palestinian liberation, and also rich with multicultural Jewish traditions and history.” It also includes writing by Marge Piercy, found below. Intended for use at a Passover Seder, the haggadah is lovingly compiled and beautifully illustrated. I received this copy as a take-home gift at a Passover Seder a number of years ago.

iddur Sfas Emes. New York: Hebrew Publishing Company.

Though this book lacks an identified author or year of publication, it bears a different sort of inscription — my own grandmother’s married name, Alice Kipnis. Though I doubt she ever used it, this book of traditional Hebrew daily prayers, bound in a pearly plastic and titled “Bridal Prayers,” was given to her at her wedding to my grandfather in Brooklyn in the 1940s. A bilingual edition (Liturgical Hebrew and English), it must have been published prior to 1948 because it refers to “Mandate Palestine” in its introduction. I unearthed this copy while cleaning my grandmother’s apartment in 2011, and my own use of it led me to cover it in (now-peeling) contact paper and scotch tape. It was my primary prayerbook until recently, when I retired it from use.

khina Kulanu Khadash: b’oyses gdolos me’od [Our new supplication: in very big letters]. Brooklyn, NY: Hotzas Ateres, 1969.

This book, bound in fake alligator skin and embossed in Hebrew letters with the name “Leah Rubenshtayn”, serves to represent an entire genre of Yiddish women’s literature — tkhines. Literally a “supplication,” a tkhine is a paraliturgical devotional prayer, traditionally written in Yiddish and recited by women who did not know enough Hebrew, the holy tongue, to pray in it. The language and syntax of the tkhine is distinctive, and was later parodied and reformed by modern Yiddish poets, including Kadya Molodovsky. Although tkhines are often though of as medieval and premodern literature, they are still in use today, primarily in ultra-Orthodox communities around the world. I found this particular copy, an adaptation of the modern “Shas Techina” compilation, at a “one dollar sephorim [religious books]” sale in ultra-Orthodox Boro Park, Brooklyn, this past summer. Large piles of books discussing a wide variety of religious topics in several languages covered a few tables on the sidewalk, and one simply placed a dollar into a small slot in the adjacent building to pay for a book.

III. Later Voices

First Person

Bazant, Micah. Timtum: A trans jew zine/ Portland, OR: 1999.

One of the first zines to address the intersection of transgender and Jewish identities, Timtum is an incredible synthesis of contemporary radical politics, traditional Jewish stories, explications of queer and trans Jewish ancestors and historical figures, and personal narrative. Bazant, also co-author of the Love and justice in times of war haggadah, was one of the first trans Jews to write about relating to traditional Judaism outside of the gender binary, and relating to radical community as a Jew. The zine is available for free online, and I printed it out in McCabe.

Dzmura, Noach, ed. Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2010.

This anthology includes writing and art from transgender Jews and their friends, some of whom are Ashkenazi, It takes up the question “How can transgender people live pious Jewish lives when many of their significant life choices might be considered “un.kosher”?” Through interpretation of Jewish prayer, ritual and social life, this book explicates experiences of Jewish community for those whose bodies and genders have not been welcomed by the mainstream Jewish world. Especially notable in this volume is a lengthy traditional textual analysis about non-normative bodies in Rabbinic Judaism.

Kabakov, Miriam, ed. Keep Your Wives Away From Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2010.

This anthology features pieces from women who have relationships to Orthodox Jewish communities, who are something other than straight. The first anthology of its kind, the pieces are diverse in perspective, experience and relationship to both sexuality and Jewish life. My copy was purchased from the author, a family friend.

Kaye/Kantrowitz, Melanie and Irena Klepfisz, eds. The Tribe of Dine/.): A Jewish women’s anthology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.

Singular in the depth, breadth and honesty with which it portrays the lives of Jewish women, The Tribe of Dina includes poetry, song, translations from Yiddish, interviews and photographs of Jewish women, many of them Ashkenazi. That said, this book is notable for its inclusion of many Sephardic and Mizrahi women. Many of the contributors (including both the editors) are lesbian or queer identified, which was utterly groundbreaking at the time of publication.

The anthology also includes a memoriam for Naomi Kies ‘62, an American peace activist who immigrated to Israel and worked in solidarity with the Israeli Black Panther Party, a protest group fighting for justice for Mizrahim (Jews from Middle Eastern and North African countries) under Israel’s racial hierarchy that privileges Ashkenazim. Authors included elsewhere in this collection are also found here, including: Kadya Molodovsky, Anna Margolin, and Elana Dykewomon.


Dykewomon, Elana. Beyond the Pale. Vancouver, BC: Raincoast, 1997.

Beyond the Pale is a story written under the assumption that queer women lived in the shtetls [Jewish villages] of 19th and 20th century Ashkenazi Eastern Europe, and the tenements of the early 20th century Lower East Side, but much of that history has been lost and silenced. In what is perhaps the only book of its kind, Elana Dykewomon imagines how queer and same-gender desire and relationships might have played out in those historical contexts, thereby representing herself and her identities in the bodies and souls of her ancestors. This book was a loan from a dear friend, who urged me to never give it back.

Feinberg, Leslie. Stone Butch Blues. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1994.

Leslie Feinberg is often thought of primarily as a queer and transmasculine elder and a prominent communist organizer. However, Feinberg was raised secular Ashkenazi family, and the main character of Stone Butch Blues, Jess Goldberg, is also of Ashkenazi ancestry. The story follows the life of a young person exploring masculine gender expression and sexuality in the years before the Stonewall Rebellion. Though it’s not the focus of the novel, Feinberg portrays the experience of a working class Jewish family living in the Midwest during the 1960s.

Ozick, Cynthia. The Puttermesser Papers. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.

Ozick, Cynthia. Heir to the Glimmering World. Mariner Books: 2005.

Cynthia Ozick has publicly discussed her distaste for the label of “woman writer,” and acceptance of “Jewish writer.” She explained in a May 1997 interview with the Atlantic, saying ““Jewish” is a category of civilization, culture, and intellect, and “woman” is acategory of anatomy and physiology. It’s rough thinking to confuse vast cultural and intellectual movements with the capacity to bear children.” These historical novels feature Jewish women as protagonists, reflecting on their own identities after experiences of trauma, migration, and poverty. They are unfailingly smart, capable, and deeply human.


Agosín, Marjorie, ed. Miriam’s Daughters: Jewish Latin American women poets. Santa Fe, NM: Sherman Asher Publishing, 2001.

The first and likely only book of its kind, Miriam’s Daughters is a compilation of poetry written by women living in Latin America. Many are Holocaust refugees whose families settled in Central and South America, while others trace their ancestors to the Iberian Peninsula or are of mixed parentage. This is a bilingual edition featuring Spanish originals and English translations. Themes in the book include the specificity of a Latin American context for Jewish practice, experiences of migration and acculturation, and a section devoted exclusively to poems about Jerusalem.

Ellis, Elaina M. Write About an Empty Birdcage. Long Beach, CA: Write Bloody, 2011.

This is queer spoken word poet Elaina Ellis’ first book of written poetry. Much of the book focuses on experiences of love and loss. In her most explicitly Jewish poem, she repeats the refrain, “I’m queer because I’m a poet, and I’m a poet because I’m a Jew,” calling the Rabbis of the Talmud the “first spoken word poets”. Elaina was my writing teacher in Seattle, and this book was received as a birthday gift.

Kaufman, Shirley, Galit Hasan-Rokem, and Tamar S. Hess. The Defiant Muse: Hebrew feminist poems from antiquity to the present. New York: Feminist Press, 1999.

This book contains poetry written in Hebrew by feminist writers of all backgrounds — some Ashkenazi, some not. Alicia Suskin Ostriker, whose manuscript the volcano sequence is also represented in this section, wrote the introduction.

Mishol, Agi. Look There: New and selected poems. Translated by Lisa Katz. Saint Paul, MN: Grey Wolf Press, 2006.

Originally published in Modern Hebrew, Agi Mishol’s poetry reflects on the instability of life in modern day Israel. Born in Hungry in 1947, Mishol migrated to Israel as a young child, speaking mainly Hungarian at home. The author of 18 books of poetry, this is her first appearance in translation.

Ostriker, Alicia Suskin. the volcano sequence. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002.

Like Molodovsky and others, Alicia Suskin Ostriker turns to traditional Jewish liturgy for both inspiration and challenge. In this book, she engages in debate with Martin Buber, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, numerous contributors to the Talmud, and most often, God. My copy, purchased from a used book store online for three dollars, arrived autographed by the author.

Piercy, Marge. The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish theme. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

Piercy, Marge. Pesach for the Rest of Us: Making the Passover Seder your own. New York: Schochken, 2007.

Marge Piercy, raised in a secular Jewish home, began exploring Jewish religious practice in her fifties. Uncomfortable in Hebrew, Piercy wrote interpretations of many of the core Jewish prayers, evolving the tradition for her own context.

Rich, Adrienne. The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978.

Rich, Adrienne. The Fact of a Doorframe: Selected poems 1950-2001. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.

Rich, Adrienne. Your Native Land, Your Life: Poems. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986.

Following the publication of her first essay on her Jewish identity, “Split at the Root” in 1982, Rich published somewhat frequently on Jewish themes, including her own racial and cultural identity and her opposition to the occupation of Palestine. Rich also worked with other Jewish lesbian women, including Irena Klepfiz, to found Bridges, the Jewish Feminist Journal, of which she served as editor.

Renowned as a lesbian, feminist and perhaps Jewish poet, Adrienne Rich is less well known as one of the earliest translators of Kadya Molodovsky, Anna Margolin and Celia Dropkin’s poetry, a project she undertook during her years at Radcliffe.

Taub, Yermiyahu Ahron. The Insatiable Psalm: Poems. Hershey, PA: Wind River Press, 2005.

Raised in Ultra-Orthdox Baltimore in a Yiddish speaking home, Yermiyahu Taub blends the religious symbols of his past with the context of his present as a gay man and a librarian at the Library of Congress. Most poems are written in English, and feature Yiddish expressions and phrasings. One poem, “preparing to dance,” is published in both English and Yiddish.

Academic Texts

Glenn, Susan A. Daughters of the Shtetl: Life and labor in the immigrant generation. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1990.

In this academic work, Susan Glenn explores the lives of Jewish immigrant women working in factories, sweatshops and the like. She argues that Jewish women were integral in the reformation of the garment industry through labor union activity.

Katz, Dovid. Words on Fire: The unfinished story of Yiddish. New York: Basic Books, 2007.

Leading linguist and Yiddishist Dovid Katz charts a history of the Yiddish language from inception to present, explaining the evolving relationships between Jewish culture and Yiddish language. Katz provides particular insight in the way that women contributed to the promulgation of written Yiddish, because they were not taught to write Hebrew.

Rabinovitch, Lara, Shiri Goren, and Hannah S. Pressman, eds. Choosing Yiddish: New frontiers of language and culture. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2013.

This book is a series of essays written by Yiddish speakers, scholars, and academics, about the study and usage of Yiddish in an era when it is no longer a commonly spoken language. All of the editors and many of the contributors are women, and some of them speak directly to the historical conception of Yiddish as a “women’s language” — because men learned Hebrew for religious practice and most women did not, Yiddish carries with it a feminine resonance. This copy was a gift from the Yiddish Book Center.

IV. Music

Rubin, Ruth, ed. Jewish Life: The Old Country. Folkways Records, 1958.

Originally issued on a record, this is a CD copy of Ruth Rubin’s field recordings of elderly Jews singing folksongs in Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, and Russia. It is accompanied by a lengthy liner notes listing the words for each song, and a brief notation about the origin of the singer. The contents of the songs themselves are diverse, ranging from traditional wordless melodies to schoolyard chants, tragic love songs, and songs about the coming of the Messiah.

Schechter, Basya. Songs of Wonder. Tzaddik, 2011.

Basya Schechter’s Songs of Wonder features musical interpretations of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Yiddish language poetry. Heschel is perhaps best remembered for his friendship with and public, vocal support of Martin Luther King Jr, as well as his leadership of the American Jewish community throughout the mid 20th century. Schechter, raised in an ultra-Orthodox home in Boro Park, composed original music for 10 poems from Heschel’s The Ineffable Name of God: Man, published in Warsaw in 1933 during his doctoral studies. The CD case contains bilingual Yiddish/English liner notes, autographed by Schechter at her December 2012 album release. It was a gift from a dear friend who was present that night.

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