By Malka Lee, translated by Carole Renard and Christa P. Whitney
Malka Lee was best known for her Yiddish poetry. Born in Monastrishtsh in 1904, she spent her youth in Vienna, to which her family had fled during World War I. She immigrated to New York City in 1921, where she attended Hunter College and the Jewish Teachers Seminary. Lee and her husband, Yiddish writer Aaron Rappoport, created the Lee Ra bungalow colony in upstate New York, where many Yiddish writers gathered each summer. She died in New York in 1976. As Yiddish women writers have been celebrated in recent years, translations of Lee’s work have been published in several anthologies.
This poem comes from a cycle called “Lider fun geburt” (“Birth Songs”) in the volume Gezangen (Songs), published in 1940.
We first heard the poem during an interview, for the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project, with Malka Lee’s daughter Yvette (Chave) Marrin; Chave read a couple of her mother’s poems about conceiving and being pregnant with her. We were enamored with the poem and with Lee’s use of natural imagery and metaphor to describe her physical and spiritual experience of pregnancy.
You dawn in every one of my limbs, my child;
I’m drenched with you, like a tree with wind.
I grow with you, down to the roots of my body;
you stir within my flesh, like the world awakening from slumber.
Your voice whispers through every nook, through every trail;
you sing in me, wherever I go, and wherever I am.
Your dawn sunbeams through me;
you wind through me with your every fiber.
I am filled with you, like the sun with light—
so dawns a child through my lustrous glow.
Carole Renard holds an MA in Jewish studies from University College London and a BA in anthropology and Jewish studies from Smith College. Her master’s thesis, which was published in the Jewish Historical Society of England’s journal, examined Jewish involvement in the British suffrage movement. Carole lives in western Massachusetts, where she is the NEH oral history project manager at the Yiddish Book Center.
Christa P. Whitney is the director of the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project and the producer and codirector of several documentary films about Yiddish language and culture, including BEYLE: The Artist and Her Legacy (2019) and the award-winning Ver Vet Blaybn? (Who Will Remain?) (2020). Originally from Northern California, she has traveled far and wide from her home in Northampton, Massachusetts, in search of Yiddish stories and natural beauty.