By Madeleine Cohen

Written by:
Madeleine Cohen
Summer 2022 / 5782
Part of issue number:
Translation 2022

I am an acrobat,
and I dance between daggers
erected in the ring
tips up.

Celia Dropkin’s poem “Di tsirkus-dame” represents the experience of women who create art like acrobats dancing among erect and sharpened blades. An audience of men—like the male critics whose sharp pens and tongues dissected Dropkin’s own poetry—watch the balancing act with a mixture of violent and erotic expectation. Will they applaud if she manages to complete her performance skillfully, “eluding death-by-falling,” or will they be more satisfied to watch her fail? Dropkin’s poem ends with an acrobatically shocking twist:

I’m tired of dancing between you, 
cold steel daggers. 
I want—my blood warming 
your bare tips—to fall. 
       (translation by Faith Jones, Jennifer Kronovet, and Samuel Solomon)

It is this surprising end that makes the poem a masterpiece of Yiddish literature. Dropkin captures not only the experience of the woman artist in a male-dominated literary world—always on display, always sexualized, always the object of a sometimes violent male gaze—but also the woman’s exhausted wish, even if only for a moment, to give in, to give up, to let the daggers penetrate. This dark ending lifts the poem from simple metaphor—women as ballerinas existing for the pleasure of the male viewer—into the complicated and conflicted interior experience of the woman artist herself.

It is perhaps not coincidence that Lili Berger used almost the same imagery in her story “At the Interrogation,” one of the fourteen stories, poems, and memoirs included in this anthology of new translations from Yiddish about women’s experiences. In Berger’s story, translated by Judy Nisenholt, a Yiddish woman writer in Poland in 1961 endures a daylong interrogation by a government official whose hands “looked as if they were constantly ready for a fight”: “Lena bit her tongue. She had stepped onto a slippery slope. Her husband had cautioned her. She rallied her remaining strength. She must be careful, retain her equilibrium like an acrobat, stepping along a wire in midair.” Like Dropkin’s acrobat, Berger’s protagonist, by the end of the day, longs to end her ordeal by signing the incriminating testimony the official puts before her—to give in to the threat of violence against her and her family lurking under the surface of the interrogation.

Each new translation in this issue invites us to enter and consider similarly fraught experiences of women: mothers weighing whether to leave their children alone for the sake of work or political commitments; women partisans risking their lives in the struggle against fascism; the challenges of upholding Yiddishkeit and tsnies in a modernizing world; daughters attempting to understand their mothers as women with lives of their own.

In 2017 we marked a commitment to listen to and raise up women’s voices with that year’s Pakn Treger Translation Issue. In the five years since, the work of countless individuals has borne fruit in translation, scholarship, and art of many genres celebrating the work and lives of Yiddish-speaking women. Some of this work has been ongoing for decades; some is clearly the result of a broader cultural moment. This year’s Pakn Treger Translation Issue gives an opportunity to sample some of the excellent work happening in Yiddish literary translation. You can explore much more through the full scope of the Yiddish Book Center’s Decade of Discovery: Women in Yiddish.

In the introduction to her translation of Rokhl Krampf’s poem “To Rosa Palatnik,” Abigail Weaver writes: “This poem makes me feel that there is another golden chain, or maybe a silver one, to use the color mentioned in the poem, that links woman writers together—in love, in sisterhood, in mentorship, in sorrow, in shared striving to carry on the literary legacy of our mother’s mothers . . . and I hope my translation links me to them as well.” On behalf of the translators, editors, and all who helped create this anthology, we invite you to join this goldene (oder zilberne!) keyt by reading these works with us.

—Madeleine Cohen