The Name in the Poem: Women Yiddish Poets

By Hellerstein, Kathryn | Shofar, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

The Name in the Poem: Women Yiddish Poets

Hellerstein, Kathryn, Shofar

A poet's name appearing in a poem signals the question: To what degree does the individual writer speak for her/himself and to what degree for the community? In Old Yiddish poems, no modern idea of the individual writer is present. When the poet signs her name -- Rivke Tiktiner in an acrostic, Royzl Fishls and Toybe Pan in a rhymed stanza -- she carves her name into her prayer or proem according to the convention of signature established by medieval Hebrew liturgical poems. She names herself as a woman linked to Jewish learning through male ancestors and as a voice for the Jewish people awaiting messianic redemption. Such a poet signs her name to claim the distinction of an authorship predicated on the author's place within the Jewish community and its conventions, both literary and religious. But when modern women poets -- Anna Margolin, Kadya Molodowsky, Rokhl Korn -- place their names in a Yiddish poem, they inscribe a vexed individuality. The pull away from traditional Jewish life produces a literary tension between the poet's responsibilities to voice the will of the Jewish people and her own desires. The lyric poem becomes an analogue for the individual person, yet vestiges of communal responsibility and traditional writings linger in its Yiddish language, culture, and historical context.

In Jewish literary tradition, the presence of the poet's name in a poem begins in the classical period of Hebrew liturgical poems, or piyyutim, between the mid-sixth and the late eighth centuries CE. In the earliest liturgical poems, poets, following biblical examples, as in Psalm 119,(2) often determined the length and order of their poems by employing alphabetical or "abecedarian"(3) acrostics, that is, in its simplest form, starting the first line of a poem with an -- the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet -- and then each subsequent line with the next letter, until all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet were used, and a reader, looking down the page, would see the lines of the poem in alphabetical order.(4) In the classical period, as the major genres and devices of liturgical poems became far more complex, "the acrostics became highly intricate, sometimes spelling out not only the name of the author,...but also his father's name, his place of residence, his occupation, and even concluding formulas such as hazak, `be strong!'"(5) This spelling out of the author's name, his lineage, his location, and an epithet weaves the composer into his composition, writing a message to the reader that is independent of the content of the poem, challenging the reader to read in two ways at once, and to think simultaneously of both the poem's official story and the person whose hand and mind moved in synchrony to shape the poem.

For example, one Amittai Ben Shephatiah, of late-ninth century Italy, writes a poem, titled by its translator T. Carmi as "Moses' Journey Through Heaven," in which the poet narrates how Moses, ascending to Paradise, scared off the mighty angels guarding Heaven with his humbleness and then "walked around on the firmament as a man walks in his own neighborhood."(6) While the poem proceeds to tell how Moses encounters the inhabitants of Heaven, each angel more terrifyingly holy than the previous one, it also tells another story, beginning each of the first four stanzas with the letters -- Amittai -- and the first three lines of the fifth and final stanza with hazak (be strong!). The spelling out of the poet's first name keeps the poem anchored to the earth, and the formulaic imperative hazak reminds the reader and the writer both of the strength and fortitude required to make a poem, and seems to encourage at once the poet, the reader of the densely allusive Hebrew, and even the character Moses to continue striving. It seems, then, that by inserting his name into his poem, the poet links the earthly endeavor of writing a poem with the poem's divine content.

Long after the golden age of the piyyutim, we find a poem written in Yiddish during the first half of the fifteenth century by one Reb Zelmelin, a Hebrew and Yiddish poet who lived and was active in Erfurth, in what is now Germany. …

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