Last of the Great Yiddish Women Poets
"We spent a lot of time in the home of Bertha Kling and her husband, where all the writers used to gather. We had some wonderful times there, very good conversations, lovely evenings."
—Hinde Zaretsky, 1984
Our decision to structure the Bronx Bohemians blog around the literary salon of Bertha and Yekhiel Kling stems from their extraordinary influence on the lives and writing of their Yiddish contemporaries. This influence is epitomized in the poem "A dembener tish" ("An Oaken Table"), penned by Hinde Zaretsky, one of the younger writers at the salon. Dedicated to the memory of Bertha Kling, it was published in Zaretsky’s 1989 collection Ershter kunst-kritiker (The First Art Critic).
Evoking the long table that was a hallmark of the Klings' literary gatherings, Zaretsky imagines Bertha Kling presiding over a festive ('yontevdik') table with a 'gentle hand.' The writers who would flock to the Klings' welcoming home after long shifts in a hat or shoe workshop are the hungry eagles soaring overhead with Bertha as their generous, inspirational, and, now, sorely missed host.
An Oaken Table
In memory of Bertha Kling
Somewhere, someone chopped down forests,
Cherry trees, oaks and cedars, —
Someone laid down foundations,
And carved out a penholder and a feather.
Someone sketched and someone planned,
And now a table stands, sturdy and strong,
Shades covering glittering lamps,
Eagles circle above — a hungry throng.
Here’s one from Siberia, gulping in the warm air,
His blond head gleams — a field full of wheat;
Through “Polish Woods” strides the master,
From “Kentucky” comes another with a musical wreath.
“Murmuring Waters” did the traveler sing,
“Green Fields” are still blooming today, —
“Around the mill” water bubbles up like a spring,
The serenity of the corn fields pulls you away —
“Freydke” brings her heavy burden to the fore, —
The singer—her melodies delight;
Avrom-Moyshe's fortunes flutter in the wind
The sun eternally melts its gold before the fall of night —
And here stands a table on glowing foundations,
A gentle hand protects its yontevdike splendor;
Every woven pattern tells of the soaring eagles,
Her eyes immersed in that magical wonder.
אַ דעמבענער טיש
לזכר בערטע קלינג
ערגעץ האָט מען װעלדער אױסגעהאַקט,
קאַרשן־בײמער, דעמבענע און צעדער, —
האָט מען פֿונדאַמענטן אױסגעלײגט
און געשניצט אַ הענטל מיט אַ פֿעדער.
געצײכנט האָט מען פּלענער און געצײכנט,
אָט שטײט אַ טיש אױף ליכטיקע יסודות, —
דעקן איבער לאָמפּן צעצונדן,
אָדלער טוען דאָ קרײַזן—הונגעריקע עדהס.
פֿון סיביר קומט אײנער, אין אָטעם אין הײסן,
בליט זײַן בלאָנדער קאָפּ—אַ פֿעלד מיט זאַנגען;
דורך "פּױלישע װעלדער" שפּאַנט דער מײַסטער,
פֿון "קענטאַקי" ברענגט אײנער אַ קראַנץ געזאַנגען.
"ימים רױשן" האָט דער רײזנדער אַלײן געזונגען,
"גרינע פֿעלדער" טוען ביז הײַנט דאָ בליִען, —
אין דער מיר "אַרום מיל" שטילע װאַסערן צעזונגען,
שלװה פֿון די קאָרן־פֿעלדער טוט אַהער זיך ציִען
"פֿרײדקע" האָט אַפֿיר געברענגט איר שװערן יאָך, —
די זינגערין—איר צושטײער האָט דערפֿרײט;
אברהם משה, מיט זײַן עשירות האָט געפֿלאַטערט.
פֿון אײביק־אָן שמעלצט די זון איר גאָלד און פֿאַרגײט —
אָט שטײט אַ טיש אױף ליכטיקע יסודות,
אַ צאַרטע האַנט פֿאַרהיט יום־טובֿדיקן זױבער;
יעדער געװעב דערצײלט פֿון שװעבנדיקע אָדלער,
אױגן טובֿלען זיך אין יענעם װוּנדערלעכן צױבער.
Writers of "The Oaken Table"
Zaretsky’s Yiddish readers would have needed little explanation for many of these references—the writers and texts were well-known in Yiddish literary circles. The “blonde head” emerging from Siberia is likely a reference to H. Leivick, whose youthful Siberian exile was the stuff of legend, and about whom Zaretsky wrote a poem titled “Leyvik antloyft fun sibir,” or “Leivick Escapes from Siberia” (p. 69). In poylishe velder or In Polish Woods is a celebrated novel by Joseph Opatoshu, and “Arum a mil” or “Around a Mill” is one of Opatoshu’s short stories. "Kentoki" ("Kentucky") is an epic poem by I. J. Schwartz. Grine felder or Green Fields is a trilogy of plays by Peretz Hirshbein, and “Yamim royshn” (“Murmuring Seas”) most likely refers to a song also written by Hirshbein. In trying to track down the lyrics, we found a reference to the song in the anthology published in honor of Hirshbein’s 60th birthday. “Freydke” may be a reference to the poetry collection of that name by Kadya Molodowsky, and “Avrom-Moyshe” likely refers to Avrom-Moyshe Dillon, another prominent Yiddish poet and a friend of both Zaretsky and Kling. The "singer" is Kling herself; better known as a song recitalist than a poet in her early years, she regularly set her friends’ verse to song.
Hinde Zaretsky, also known as Anna Zaretsky, was born in 1899 in Belorussia and immigrated to America in 1914. Many decades later, in conversation with the literary historian Norma Fain Pratt, Zaretsky recalled the searing experience of arriving in her new homeland:
When I came to America, I carried a notebook . . . wide . . . and long. With rhymed verses and small poems, inspired by—I do not know myself. The customs official took it from me. I cried, but nothing could be done. He thought I wrote revolutionary things. And I wasn’t yet sixteen.
In the 1930s, Zaretsky and her husband moved to Crotona Park North in the Bronx, where they lived a few blocks away from Bertha and Yekhiel Kling. According to Norma Fain Pratt, Zaretksky “experimented with English but failed to make the linguistic transition.” Instead, she published steadily in Yiddish periodicals worldwide for over half a century, beginning in 1931. She also produced at least seven volumes of stand-alone work, an impressive achievement for any Yiddish poet. She was deservingly well-known in her time, often mentioned in the same breath as other celebrated Yiddish women writers of the early- to mid-twentieth century, including Celia Dropkin, Miriam Karpilove, Malka Lee, Fradel Shtok, Malka Heifetz Tussman, Ida Glazer, and Anna Margolin.
“A dembener tish” was originally published in 1960, eighteen years before Bertha Kling’s death, in an earlier anthology titled Der ferter nign, or The Fourth Melody. That Zaretsky felt compelled to add a dedication to Bertha Kling on the poem’s second publication in 1989 points to a bittersweet aspect of her biography: she outlived nearly all other members of the Bronx’s Yiddish literary scene. Many of the poems in her later anthologies are dedicated to writers such as H. Leivick and Mani Leib, whom, like Bertha Kling, Zaretsky knew well, and who, like Kling, lived on only in memories.
Further evidence of Zaretsky’s wide circle of literary friends and colleagues may be found among the many copies of her books donated over the years to the Yiddish Book Center. The majority of them include handwritten inscriptions by the author, ranging from the prosaic to the deeply personal and poetic.
In meetings [women writers] were always treated badly. They let ten men speak before they gave one woman a chance. Why? Do men have a monopoly on knowledge?
—Hinde Zaretsky, 1984
As we researched this post, we learned that Yiddish scholar Itzik Gottesman had interviewed Zaretsky in 1984 as part of a series of interviews he conducted with major American Yiddish writers. The interview is the perfect complement to "The Oaken Table" and we are grateful to him for enthusiastically agreeing to let us include it here. Then in her mid-eighties, Zaretsky was as productive as at any time in her career—at one point sharing that she will soon be completing another collection of poetry, referring to Der karavan: lider (The Caravan: Poems), which she eventually published in 1987. Zaretsky cuts an austere figure: confident in her judgments, eloquent in her language, and proud of the life she has led.
In this newly translated excerpt from the interview, Zaretsky recalls the Yiddish literary community in the Bronx—including Bertha Kling’s salon—and highlights some of her experiences as a woman writer at that time. Many of the authors she mentions are also referenced in “A dembener tish”—Zaretsky’s world was truly a web of Yiddish creativity.
One final note: Despite our best efforts, we have been unable to definitively identify all of Zaretsky’s references in “A dembener tish.” If you think you can clarify any of these, or have feedback on this post, please email us at [email protected].
—Sophia Shoulson, the 2019-2020 Richard S. Herman Fellow
We are grateful to Itzik Gottesman for making his interview with Hinde Zaretsky available to us, and for helping with the translation. Our thanks also to Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub for advice on translating the poem.
Norma Fain Pratt quotes from her interview with Zaretsky in her article ‘Culture and Radical Politics: Yiddish Women Writers, 1890–1940.’ It appeared in American Jewish History, Vol. 70, No. 1 (September 1980) and may be accessed via JSTOR.