A Genealogy of Yiddish Women Writers
Jones, Faith, Midstream
Mendele Mokher Sforim begat Sholem Aleichem, who begat I. L. Peretz. So runs the genealogy of Yiddish writers. Mendele the grandfather, Sholem Aleichem the father, and Peretz, by default, the son. Every culture needs its foundational myths, and this is the foundational myth of modern Yiddish literature. And just as in Genesis 10, where the sons of Noah beget this son and that son, there is no mention of women, certainly not as daughters (who needs daughters?); not even as mothers to the sons. People who know nothing else about the history of Yiddish literature do sometimes know the Mendele-Sholem Aleichem-Peretz genealogy. But it's all wrong. Just as we can infer that Noah's sons didn't get their sons out of thin air, we can also conclude that there must have been women in Yiddish literature. And with only a few generations separating us from them, and a published record of their work, it is possible, with some digging, to ferret them out.
Of course the genealogy is wrong in other ways too: Mendele, Sholem Aleichem and Peretz were actually roughly contemporaries, and there were numerous others writing simultaneously, from the 1860s through the 1910s. Together these writers formed the first wave of secular, modern writers in Yiddish; and because they were modern, they wrote about concerns that resonated with women as well as men; and because of this, women as well as men also chose to write in Yiddish.
In addition to this influence, there was also the discovery and publication of the memoirs of Ghuckel of Hameln. This 17th to 18th century figure kept a private diary intended for her children in the years 1690 to 1699, and again in 1715 to 1719. These memoirs were first published in Germany in 1896, in their original Yiddish. In many ways, Gluckel represented more fully established tradition than the newly-sprung Yiddish belles lettres of Mendele and his cohort. While her writing was intended for a private audience, in it she discusses contemporaneous events of importance to Jews in central Europe during those years. It falls into the category of instructional writing, intended to guide her children in how to live, and includes her ethical will. Yet it is also an accomplished work in its own right, not simply a family document. If male writers rushed to create an instant tradition with the naming of three male "ancestors," women writers found in Gluckel a tradition already in place.
Dvora Baron is one of the most interesting women to begin publishing her work in the years that followed. In 1902, when she was fifteen, Baron's first Hebrew stories appeared; her first Yiddish stories, in 1904. Not only did she write in both languages, she also sometimes wrote versions of the same story in each language. Herself the daughter of a rabbi, several stories are told from the point of view of a child watching the interactions in her father's rabbinical court--a framing device later made famous by I.B. Singer's In My Father's Court. After she made aliyah in 1910, she worked almost exclusively in Hebrew, but continued to set her stories in the Eastern European shtetl. Her stories show a dynamic awareness of women's particular burdens in rabbinically-moderated culture, but are not all straightforwardly critical of it. At times traditional laws are shown to be of assistance to women: in one story, a woman is able to receive a divorce from an unhappy marriage, an option not then available to Christian women, for example. In other stories, though, divorce is forced upon women who have done nothing wrong except fail to produce a male heir.
Baron married and had a daughter, and in 1919 took to her bed, from which, for 37 years, she edited Tel Aviv literary magazines and wrote the vast majority of her work. She produced a total of 13 books of stories. Baron's daughter acted as her editorial assistant, and became herself a literary editor held in high esteem; but this daughter also was reclusive and eventually died of self-starvation. …