Updated: Feb 18
February 19, 2023 3:00-4:30 pm Pacific Time
For many of you, I need not say more. But I will gladly put together a few words about poet and political activist Irena Klepfisz. On February 19 she joins the Yiddish Shmoozers for a Pop-up Event to celebrate the recent publication of her oeuvre in a beautiful edition by Wesleyan University Press. May she continue in good health to write and publish.
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The new book we are celebrating, Her Birth and Later Years: New and Collected Poems, 1971-2021, includes writings in English and bilingual English-Yiddish by the Polish-born, New York-based Klepfisz. Here is how author and critic Zohar Weiman-Kelman (Queer Expectations: A Genealogy of Jewish Women's Poetry) begins her entry about Irena Klepfisz in the Jewish Women's Archive:
Poet Irena Klepfisz was born in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941. She survived the war hiding in an orphanage and later in the Polish countryside with her mother. After the war they lived in Łódź and Sweden before settling in New York in 1949. Klepfisz’s poetry broke new ground in its brazen lesbian voice, while also finding new ways to poetically investigate the trauma of the Holocaust. Klepfisz played a key role in the emergent Jewish lesbian movement starting in the 1970s. She has been dedicated to the recovery and transmission of women’s writing in Yiddish, as an active scholar, translator, and teacher. Her own poetry engages the Yiddish language, writing bilingually to create a Jewish feminist poetics for the past and present . . . . jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/klepfisz-irena
While this JWA entry on Irena Klepfisz's life and work presents the outline of her life story, Klepfisz investigates this story boldly and from many points of entry in her collected poems. Not paradoxically to her boldness and even the brazenness attributed to her by Weiman-Kelman, she does so with much vulnerability and nuanced feeling. The first poem in the new collection, "Searching for my Father's Body" (p. 3), published in 1971, explores the poet's anguish and longing to know what became of her father Michal Klepfisz's body after his heroic death in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
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The poet describes herself searching endlessly through every account of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, looking for information about the disposition of her father's body, for clues to its location, some kind of grave marker. Twenty-eight years after his death, she writes about the significance of finding nothing:
The shock of not finding his name
is always the same. Unused to his
anonymity, I close the book angry
that his body is not discovered
and remains buried in an unmarked grave.
It is more painful
when there is no index.
The poet excerpts and imports fragments from eyewitness accounts into the poem. One states: "On the fifth day of battle. . . two comrades managed to get close enough to the main body of Nazis to throw a hand grenade [at the machine gunners firing at the Jewish fighters]. At that precise moment, Michel [sic] hurled himself on the machine gun. It stopped firing." Such accounts do not question the events and cannot fill the void for the poet who writes "I want more details/to fill up my emptiness." Dissatisfied and angry, she writes, "I would have liked more life/in this description." Did anyone stop to examine her father's body to see if he had any life left in him? She will continue to search the accounts and indices.
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Another of Klepfisz's best known poems, "Bashert" (the Yiddish word for "fate," "the inevitable," the "predestined"), explores the contingency of survival. This extensive prose poem begins with two dedications that challenge the human conceit to credit or blame individuals themselves (and ourselves) for life or death outcomes. The first dedication (p. 144), subtitled "These words are dedicated to those who died," begins:
These words are dedicated to those who died
because they had no love and felt alone in the world
because they were afraid to be alone and tried to stick it out
because they could not ask
because they were shunned
because they were sick and their bodies could not resist the
because they played it safe
because they had no connections
because they had no faith
because they felt they did not belong and wanted to die
The second dedication (p. 146), subtitled "These words are dedicated to those who survived," begins:
These words are dedicated to those who survived
because their second grade teacher gave them books
because they did not draw attention to themselves and got lost
in the shuffle
because they knew someone who knew someone else who could
help them and bumped into them on a corner on a Thursday
because they played it safe
because they were lucky
Each part concludes with the pronouncement: Bashert. Bashert
takes the place that might have been conventionally occupied by an "Amen." Written with Holocaust resonance, the text offsets itself from the Jewish tradition that accords a religious meaning to the contingencies of surviving or failing to survive. We can mourn the circumstances of death and rejoice in those that support life, but God is not a player in these scenarios. God is nowhere on the scene. There is an expansive sad wisdom here, I sense, of solidarity with all of humanity.
Irena Klepfisz’s multifaceted career includes far more than having written a substantial body of poetry. She is author of a number of groundbreaking essays. The topics include Jewish women's writing, the recovery of women writers in Yiddish, the contested place of Jewish women in multiculturalist feminism, and critiques of the ambivalence toward and exclusion of lesbians by late 20th century mainstream feminists. As I heard Klepfisz discuss in a recorded interview posted by the Yiddish Book Center, her lesbian feminist, anti-fascist, anti-racist politics were formed and remain informed by the secular socialism of the Bund (General Union of Jewish Workers in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia).
Not irrelevant is the fact that Klepfisz grew up in New York's International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union Amalgamated Housing, a socialist stronghold in the borough of the Bronx. Irena Klepfisz’s activism in support of Palestinian rights was among the earliest by prominent Jews in America. She was a founder of the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Her global anti-colonialist and anti-fascist perspectives are also evident in how she reads and teaches contemporary world poets, as I learned as a participant in a course taught by Irena online at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research www.yivo.org.
The Yiddish Shmoozers in Translation project began, for me, with a desire to understand through first-person literature the lives and cultural contexts of Ashkenazi Jewish women. This is a literature that was largely overlooked in its own time and that, despite today's robust Yiddish renaissance among new learners and "heritage learners," remains fragile. There are at least two reasons. First, idiomatic native Yiddish speakers with a direct linguistic and cultural inheritance from Eastern Europe are dwindling. Second, even the current accelerated translation of women's writing in Yiddish into the world's dominant languages does not guarantee that this literature will be as widely published, read, critiqued, taught and absorbed in its new cultural settings as it deserves.
We are indebted to Klepfisz, then, for her dedicated and passionate translation of women's fiction by the transitional generation(s) of Eastern European-born emigrants. She has translated short stories by Blume Lempel (1907-1999), born in Galicia, who migrated to Paris and then Montreal jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/lempel-blume; Kadya Molodowsky (1894-1975), born in Russia (today Belarus), who migrated to Warsaw and then to New York jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/molodowsky-kadya; Fradel Shtok (1888-1952), born in Galicia but migrated to New York at an age early enough to be counted as a American-Jewish writer jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/shtok-fradel; and Yente Serdatsky (1877-1962), born in Russia (today Lithuania), who migrated to Chicago jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/serdatzky-yente.
Please join us on Sunday, February 19, at 3 pm Pacific. Don't miss this opportunity to hear and talk with lesbian feminist poet and activist Irena Klepfisz.
A Note to (and about) the Yiddish Shmoozers in Translation
The Shmoozers began meeting online in spring 2018 to discuss Yiddish books in translation. The co-founders--and Head Shmoozers--are Haim Beliak, rabbi and activist, and Gelya Frank, anthropologist and writer.
Our regularly scheduled events are public. You are welcome to drop in. They are open to anyone who is interested, has read the book, and would like to be part of a thoughtful and friendly conversation. We also welcome "auditors."
In 2023, we are focusing on books by authors from or on topics related to Ukraine, Russia, and the Jewish presence/absence in Eastern Europe. We have also begun a series of pop-up events with writers, translators, and culture-makers.
As we prepare for Irena Klepfisz's pop-up event, we call attention to a discussion with Anita Norich on her translation of Kadya Molodowsky's novel, retitled in English, A Jewish Refugee in New York: Rivka Zilberg's Journal.
We also note the problem of audiences for women's work in Yiddish raised by Goldie Morgentaler regarding her mother Chava Rosenfarb's stories and novels. Excerpts from Blume Lempel's correspondence with Chava Rosenfarb address this concern.
Thanks to Morgentaler, Norich, Klepfisz and so many others who are making this literature available to readers like us. Join the mailing list. Be a Shmoozer!
--Gelya Frank, January 23, 2022
Copyright Gelya Frank and Yiddish Shmoozers in Translation