Cribside: A Dramatization of Life in Politics

By Yenta Serdatsky, translated by Jessica Kirzane

Written by:
Yente Serdatsky
Translated by:
Jessica Kirzane
Summer 2022 / 5782
Part of issue number:
Translation 2022

“Cribside” is a short dramatization by Yente Serdatsky (1877–1962) that appeared in Yiddish in her collected works in 1913. In the scene a young mother involved in political activism becomes isolated because of her motherhood duties. Serdatsky draws attention to the limits of revolutionary politics that fail to take into account the realities of women’s lives and obligations.


MARCUS: A handsome brown-haired 25-year-old political activist
HELENA: MARCUS’s wife, a few years younger
BABY: Their daughter, 6 months old
MANIA: A young blonde woman

The setting is a small square room with an iron crib against one wall, a couch against the other. A small table sits against the only window, with two chairs on either side. There is a set of shelves, a baby carriage, and other small items. It is evening. A white glass lamp lights the room.

HELENA, dressed in a brightly colored house dress, sits at the table. An open book sits in front of her, but she isn’t reading. She glances anxiously at the clock.  

HELENA   It’s getting late and he’s not here yet. (She stands and looks impatiently at the door.) He’s busy with his lessons and with agitating. Who knows how long he’ll be out arguing with brother or sister activists. (She paces across the room and then pauses at the crib, adjusting the blankets to reveal a beautiful sleeping child.)

HELENA (Looks at the child for a while, firm and with conviction.)   That’s how it’ll have to be. I’ll leave her with the janitor for a few hours every evening. I simply don’t have the patience to sit here in this room like I’ve been buried alive, just minding the child all time!
(There’s a sound of footsteps approaching.)

HELENA (Annoyed.)   Those aren’t his footsteps. He wouldn’t be walking home so quickly. 
(A knock at the door.)

HELENA   Come in!

(MANIA enters with quick steps and approaches HELENA warmly, offering her a hand.)

MANIA   Good evening, Helentshka! (She approaches the crib and looks at the child.) Is the little one asleep? (Blushing a little.) And where’s Marcus?

HELENA (Dryly.)   Not here yet.

MANIA (Impatiently.)   But we’d agreed to go to the meeting together!

HELENA (To herself, bitterly.)   She’s more comfortable going to the meeting with him, I see. (Out loud.) Tonight I’m coming too!

MANIA (Surprised.)   You’re coming too, Helentshka? Are you bringing the child?

HELENA (Angrily, to herself.)   She thinks it’s perfectly fine for her to go with him to the meeting and for me to stay here, watching the child. (Out loud.) I’ll just leave her with the janitor.

MANIA (Unhappy.)   You’d leave the baby with the janitor, in all that filth? Lord have mercy!

HELENA (With hidden anger.)   So what? Don’t the janitor’s children live like that? Proletarians in this world have to go where the work is. (To herself.) I could take in work in my house too if I wanted to . . .

MANIA (Contemplatively.)   Yes, yes, when the work calls . . . But Helentshka, you could hire a maid and give lessons if you wanted to.

HELENA (Laughs bitterly.)   You’re talking like you’re from another city. You have to be very well off to take in a maid here. My three rubles a week and Marcus’s five rubles a week wouldn’t be enough. Never mind that I find the idea of being well off revolting on principle.

MANIA (Moves closer to the crib and gazes with pity at the child.)   Poor baby, to have to stay in such a filthy home!

HELENA (Somewhat moved, looking at the child and speaking to herself.)   She should pity the janitor’s children too . . . (With resolve.) I have a mind and I must use it! In times like these, I can’t just stay at home!

(MANIA looks at her accusingly. A short pause.)

HELENA (Bitterly, to herself.)   I can’t just sit here buried alive, while he . . . ! Yes, he’s out all night . . . He has to go, he says. Work calls.

MANIA (Glances impatiently at the clock.)   It’s so late, and Marcus isn’t here yet!

HELENA (Jealous and angry.)   He has plenty to do there. He’s agitating with the Silverstein brothers and their sister.

MANIA (With jealousy.)   She’s a pretty girl, that sister.

HELENA (To herself.)   Aha, so she’s jealous. (Out loud.) Yes, very pretty, but she’s just a mindless flirt.

MANIA (Even more jealous.)   Never mind. Marcus will soon make a more substantial person out of her. (Looks at the clock again, angrily.) It’s time to go already, and who knows if he’ll ever come home. Good night, Helentshka. Do you think you’ll come soon?

(Takes HELENA’s hand to wish her goodbye and leaves.)

HELENA (To herself.)   Ha! She’s jealous? Then how should I feel? I have to sit here buried alive and look after our daughter. I’m drowning in loneliness and envy. And I can’t even yell at him because he says he’s not just going out to see women, he’s pursuing a higher cause . . . (With resolve, as though addressing someone standing in front of her.) That’s how it’ll be! From now on I’m going to start going to all of the meetings again. I’ll be out among people again. Because if no one sees you out and about, they forget all about you. There are plenty of other women out there, and men are only interested in you when they see other men looking. 

(HELENA crosses the room and takes a small mirror out of a drawer. She looks at herself and smiles.)

HELENA   I’m not so bad looking . . . (She goes to the water basin, washes her face, combs her hair, takes down a black skirt and white blouse that are hanging on the wall, and changes her clothes. She puts on a white collar and glances again at the mirror, happily.) There’s still a big world out there!

(HELENA gets ready to go out but stands in the middle of the room looking at the door. She can hear footsteps coming up the stairs.)

HELENA (Excitedly.)   Those are his steps. He has no idea that I’m going to come with him. Let’s see what he has to say about it. (Jealously.) He has a whole crowd of people there to listen to his speeches while I have to stay here by myself!

(MARCUS briskly opens the door, his face full of cheerful absent-mindedness. He speaks with a joyful voice.

MARCUS   Good evening, Helena!

HELENA (To herself.)   He must have had a very interesting class. He’s so cheerful. (Out loud.) Good evening.

(MARCUS approaches the crib almost mechanically and looks at the child.)

MARCUS   Was she calm today?

HELENA (Forgetting herself, she speaks with motherly pride and warmth.)   You should have seen her, Marcus. You would have loved the way she danced and toddled today! 

(Looks at MARCUS and stops talking abruptly.

HELENA (To herself.)   He’s not even thinking about the child. He only asked about her because he’s supposed to . . .

(A short pause.)

MARCUS   You’ve already eaten supper, Hel?

HELENA (Curtly.)   Yes, and you?

MARCUS   I ate at the Silversteins’. (Looks at the clock and then takes some papers out of his pocket and gives them to HELENA.) Take these, Helena. I’m going to a meeting, and I don’t want to bring them with me.

HELENA (Resolutely.)   I’m going with you today, Marcus.

(MARCUS looks at her and realizes that she’s dressed for going out.)

MARCUS (Surprised.)   You’re going! And who will stay with the child?

HELENA   I’ll leave her with the janitor. I’ve already talked to him about it. Twenty kopeks for the evening.

MARCUS (Unhappily.)   It’s so dirty at the janitor’s. Poor child.

HELENA (Steeling herself for an argument.)  The janitor’s children live that way. We’re activists with a higher cause than home and child. (To herself, impatiently.) Anything is excusable for the sake of the struggle, but for the sake of my own life, nothing is.

MARCUS (Looking at her searchingly; he wants to say something, but only speaks to himself.) It’s no use saying anything. She has the same excuse that I do. I wouldn’t be able to stand being in the house either. I’d want to be among people. (Out loud, with a forced smile.) Good, Helena, let’s go together!

HELENA (Glances at the clock.)   It’s so late already! (She hastily puts on her coat, takes out a thick blanket, and wraps the sleeping child in it. Her eyes fall on the baby’s rosy bare feet. She kisses them and sighs happily to Marcus.) You should have seen it! I let her go and she stood up on her own today for a few minutes! (Angrily, to herself.) What’s the point of telling him? He doesn’t care. He isn’t the one who spends all day with the child.

(MARCUS approaches the crib, looks at the child, and with awakened sympathy speaks as if to himself.)   

MARCUS   It’s such a pity to leave her with the janitor, in a dirty room.

HELENA (Uncomfortable.)   Yes, it’s a pity. (She remembers herself, gestures emphatically, and huffs.) A woman’s pity is her downfall. Let him have pity on the child and stay at home.

(With even more sympathy MARCUS looks at the child, bends over to kiss her, and lifts her up over his head. He speaks to Helena as though lost in thought.)  

MARCUS   You know what, Helena, my work isn’t so urgent today. It’s nasty outside, and it’s no good to carry the child out in such weather. You go and I’ll stay here at home.

HELENA (Confused and a bit embarrassed, looks at him with disbelief.)   You’ll stay at home?

(MARCUS looks at the child and speaks with confidence.)

MARCUS   Yes, I’ll stay.

HELENA (Proud of herself.)   That’s how it should be! (She buttons her coat, dons an Astrakhan hat, and puts her hands through her muff. When she’s all ready she stands and looks in the mirror and smiles. She hears a few small sounds of the child rousing herself.)

HELENA (Eagerly gesturing.)   The milk’s over there, Marcus. It’s late; I can’t nurse her right now. (She hurries to MARCUS and gives him her hand to say goodbye. She tries to avoid looking at the child, but when she sees her she forgets herself with joy.) Do you see, Marcus? What a fine pair of eyes she has! See how she’s looking at you! (Then, angry at herself.) Again this womanly weakness! (To MARCUS.) Good night!

(MARCUS holds her hand, looks her in the eyes, and whispers softly.

MARCUS   Helentshka!

HELENA (Blushing, gazing at him, and speaking to herself.)   How handsome he is today! 

(Remembering herself, she hurries to leave.)

MARCUS (Holding fast to her hands and whispering sweetly.)   Helentshka, how beautiful you are tonight. How you shine . . .

HELENA (Impatient, tears herself away from him.)   I know, I know, but the Silverstein girl is prettier. If not, you wouldn’t spend your evenings there! You’d come home to be with me instead! (She’s very angry now and, freeing herself from him, lifts her head high and shouts with an embittered voice.) Listen, Marcus, I see that you want to keep me here, but I’m going! I still want to live, and anyone who wants to live has to go out and be among people sometimes. Until now I’ve suffered from loneliness, from terrible envy. I’ve been neglected and forgotten by everyone, even by you, my own husband. And all because I was afraid to do something that might hurt the child. Now we’ve changed places. Now some father feeling has finally awoken in you. You took pity on her. Fine, so take care of her, comrade, and suffer like I’ve suffered. Suffer until you can’t stand it anymore. But you can’t keep me here. I’m going! (She looks hastily at the child, then goes toward the door, glares at MARCUS, and leaves.)

(MARCUS watches her leave and then paces the room, lost in thought. He listens to the silence.)

MARCUS   It’s so awful to be stuck here alone, contained in these four walls! (Stands by the crib, contemplates the child for a long time, and then looks around the room in despair.) No, it’s not an easy thing for a young, vivacious person to be shut in a room taking care of such a little child. (With pity.) Poor Helena! Shut up in here for so long! (Bitterly.) Let the child stay with the janitor. Let her be raised in filth together with the janitor’s children. That’s how she’ll have to be, suffering, until there’s a new world order. (He approaches the crib, bundles the child in a blanket, and whisks her out of the room.)
(A pause. You can hear his footsteps on the stairs. Curtain.)



Yenta Serdatsky (1877-1962) was born in Aleksat, Lithuania, and immigrated to the United States in 1907. She was a prolific writer of short stories and was a staff writer for the Forverts. Her writing centers on women’s experiences and the disparities they face.

Jessica Kirzane is the assistant instructional professor of Yiddish at the University of Chicago and editor-in-chief of In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.