Jewish Studies Yiddish Women's Fiction
by
Julie Sharff
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0249

Introduction

The category “Yiddish women’s fiction” is indicative of the gender trouble inherent to Yiddish literature and literary studies. It is an imperfect category to describe women who wrote fiction and not literature intended for an audience of women. Women’s authorship and readership are separate yet overlapping categories in Yiddish literature. These categories signal differences in power and experiences that shape the content of stories and poems. In the essay “Yidish literatur un di lezerin” (cited under General Overviews), Shmuel Charney infamously extrapolates on the address contained in many early works of Yiddish literature (by men) to the readership that lumps together women and men uneducated in Torah as the intended audience. As Naomi Seidman explains in A Marriage Made in Heaven (under General Overviews), this address hints at but does not state the sexual politics of Yiddish, a language perceived as feminine compared to its “masculine” counterpart Hebrew, loshn koydesh. Nevertheless, we know that the readership of Yiddish literary works was not exclusively women or men who could not read Hebrew. It was anyone who picked up a Yiddish newspaper, journal, or book anywhere across the globe. Additionally, parsing apart the symbolic weight of the word “woman” in Yiddish-speaking spaces reveals a category contingent on factors such as age, marital status, and communal politics. In this bibliography, “woman” refers to those assigned female at birth and who continue to live their lives as women. For the future of Yiddish literature, this definition will need amending. Beyond the imperfections of the term “Yiddish women’s fiction,” the efforts to translate women’s fiction into English reveal new possibilities for understanding the short-lived rise and fall of Yiddish literature broadly. This bibliography focuses on English and Yiddish resources, including anthologies and the conference proceedings from Di Froyen Women and Yiddish: Tribute to the Past Directions for the Future (under General Overviews), and the fiction itself. Due to the political nature of reading women’s literature, some resources exist for the purpose of historical recovery, such as the Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women (under Bibliographies), making available information about these authors that may otherwise be challenging to collect. Multiple anthologies from the 1990s, literary and scholastic, pulled together women’s voices as an explicitly feminist action amid the rising prominence of identity politics in North America. Research today on Yiddish women’s literature is undoubtedly connected to this uptick in the translation of Yiddish women’s literature and provides an optimistic future for the field. Queer Expectations: A Genealogy of Jewish Women’s Poetry (under Literary Studies) demonstrates that the interrogation of a Yiddish women’s literary tradition rests upon a queer chronology that seeks a future from this fragmented and precarious past.

General Overviews

There are few places to look for works that interrogate the somewhat boundless category of Yiddish women’s fiction. Charney 1959 is only partially about the category of Yiddish woman writers and is an early and noncomprehensive attempt. Nevertheless, the essay is essential for engaging with Yiddish women’s fiction, and gives insight into the inhospitable milieu into which Yiddish women’s fiction arrives. Seidman 1997 intentionally takes up where Charney left off, or rather, with what he left out, which is the relationship between Hebrew, loshn koydesh, and Yiddish, di mame-loshn. Klepfisz 1994 first made strides as the work of a feminist scholar to provide historical and literary context for Yiddish women writers. This piece provides the most targeted overview of Yiddish women writers and their writing. Between these entries, one will find the conference proceedings Di Froyen Women and Yiddish: Tribute to the Past Directions for the Future, which brings together more about Yiddish women’s fiction, history, and identity than any other individual source, making it a new essential resource for this area of study, thanks to its recent recovery. However, since it is a conference proceeding, the articles are not peer-reviewed, but stand in for the voices of the scholars, activists, authors, artists, and community members who contributed to the conference for the sake of creating a feminist yerushe, “inheritance.” Finally, the most recent work in this section, Horowitz 2015, brings together literary criticism of Yiddish women’s fiction for the first time. It provides one possible blueprint for how the study of Yiddish women’s fiction may build upon the recovery of women’s voices.

  • Charney, Shmuel. “Yidish literatur un di lezerin.” In Bleter geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur. By Shmuel Charney, 35–107. Edited by H. Leivik. New York: N. Book Committee, 1959.

    This article is an essential read to understand the relationship between women and Yiddish literature and the literary stage that the woman author entered. Charney also elaborates on the complex relationship that women had to Hebrew. He continues to describe women writers only within the context of tkines, Yiddish prayers often written by women for women, and memoirs. An English translation and abridgment of this article is printed in Judith Baskin’s Women of the Word (cited under Literary Studies).

  • Di Froyen Women and Yiddish: Tribute to the Past Directions for the Future. Conference proceedings. New York: National Council of Jewish Women, New York Section, Jewish Women’s Resource Center, 1997.

    While the entire conference is of interest for those researching Yiddish women’s fiction, in the conference proceedings there are critical essays by Irena Klepfisz, Dorothy Biliki, Naomi Seidman, Paula Hyman, Anita Norich, Ethel Raicus, and Norma Fain Pratt. The contents span literary criticism, history, genre, and pedagogy. Chava Rosenfarb gives an English translation of an excerpt from Briv tsu Abrashn (cited under Novels in Yiddish) titled “In the Boxcar.”

  • Horowitz, Rosemary, ed. Women Writers of Yiddish Literature: Critical Essays. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015.

    This is the first collection of critical essays dedicated entirely to Yiddish women’s literature. Building on the attention that Yiddish women’s literature received as a result of translations to English, Women Writers of Yiddish Literature seeks to provide an academic space for discussion of this literature. The contributors include Faith Jones, Sheva Zucker, Rebecca Margolis, and others.

  • Klepfisz, Irena. “Queens of Contradiction: A Feminist Introduction to Yiddish Women Writers.” In Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers. Edited by Frieda Forman, Ethel Raicus, Sarah Silberstein Swartz, and Margie Wolfe, 21–62. Toronto: Second Story Press, 1994.

    Klepfisz’s landmark essay that introduces the translations in Found Treasures (cited under Literary Anthologies) thoroughly grounds Yiddish women’s writing historically and discusses obstacles to their publication. This historical context even grounds Yiddish women’s writing in the gendered history of Yiddish as a language. She concludes by weaving together the themes and ideas from all the short stories in the collection while providing a selected bibliography at the end for anyone who wishes to read more.

  • Seidman, Naomi. A Marriage Made in Heaven: The Sexual Politics of Yiddish and Hebrew. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520311800

    Naomi Seidman, in her debut monograph, describes the relationship between Hebrew and Yiddish as a sexual-linguistic system. Chapter 3, “Baron ‘in the Closet’” gives a closer look at the dynamic between these two languages and the ghettoization of women and Yiddish into the “women’s section” through the Hebrew-Yiddish language author Dvora Baron.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.

Article

Up

Down