Navigate to Community section

High-stakes Poetry

The enduring power of Rivke Basman Ben-Hayim’s words

Rokhl Kafrissen
April 14, 2023
Chana Pollack
Chana Pollack
Chana Pollack
Chana Pollack
Ven s’volt a vayskayt alts badekt
Volt ikh gevart af dir

Ven s’volt a vayskayt alts badekt
Volt ikh derkent dayn trot
Un volt by ale trit gefregt
Avu nito iz got?
(If a whiteness were to cover everything
I would wait for you

If a whiteness were to cover everything
I would recognize your step
And with each step I’d ask
So where isn’t God?)
—from “A Vayskayt” (A Whiteness) by Rivke Basman Ben-Hayim, 1967

Rivke Basman Ben-Hayim passed away in March 2023, at the age of 98. Before her death, she was hailed as the “last living Yiddish poet of her generation.” She never stopped writing and publishing Yiddish poetry, with her last volume appearing in 2020.

During the war, she was imprisoned in the Vilne Ghetto, where the great poet Avrom Sutzkever became her mentor. After the liquidation of the ghetto, she was sent to a forced labor camp, where she wrote poetry for her fellow inmates as a means of spiritual resistance. In an image that is almost too poetic, upon liberation, she rescued her poems by “by rolling her copy of them under her tongue.” After the war, Rivke Basman met and married Shmuel (Mula) Ben-Hayim in Belgrade, where the two worked to ferry illegal immigrants out of Eastern Europe and into Palestine. As Basman Ben-Hayim’s translator Zelda Kahan Newman writes, “[t]o avoid detection from Interpol, [her husband] took on her name.” Indeed, Basman only began calling herself “Basman Ben-Hayim” after her husband’s death.

Among other unusual paths taken in her life, during the 1960s, Basman Ben-Hayim and her husband spent two years in Moscow, where Shmuel was Israel’s cultural attache. By day, Rivke taught the children of other diplomats. At the same time, writes Kahan Newman, “she furthered clandestine contacts between Soviet Yiddish writers and the outside world.” Contemplating the life of Rivke Basman Ben-Hayim, I am once again reminded of a time when poetry itself was an act with the highest of stakes.

Born in 1925 in Vilkomir (Lithuania), she was educated within the country’s new secular Yiddish school system. It was there that she first read the Yiddish poetry of Kayda Molodovsky, to whom she would dedicate “A Vayskayt,” many years later.

Molodovsky, 30 years older, was a teacher in the TSYSHO (secular Yiddish) school in Warsaw for a time, and wrote stories and poems for students in modern Yiddish schools. Basman Ben-Hayim was among the first generation of students to grow up reading Yiddish women’s poetry in school. It’s a striking thought today, a century later, when it feels like we are in the midst of re-rediscovering so many Yiddish women novelists, playwrights, and short story writers.

Basman Ben-Hayim leaves the identity of her “vayskayt” up to the reader. Is it a blanket of snow in which she is searching for footprints of a beloved? Because the poem is dedicated to Molodovsky, I can’t help but think of it as being in dialogue with Molodovsky, the poet, and her poetry. Perhaps the whiteness is a blank page confronted by a writer?

Molodovsky’s 1927 Froyen Lider (Women’s Songs) cycle “defiantly describes an imagined dialogue with the women in her family,” as Zohar Weiman-Kelman writes, “who come to her at night and lay out their tales of woe and their demands of the poet/speaker.”

These lines are from the first poem in the Froyen Lider cycle, as the narrator contemplates the modest and kosher women who come to her in her dreams:

And why should this blood without blemish
Be my conscience, like a silken thread
Bound on my brain,
And my life a page plucked from a holy book,
The first line torn?

If a Jewish woman yearns to devote herself to her art, to be modern, must she then tear herself away from her traditions, her family, the values and sacrifices of her foremothers?

The narrator of “A Vayskayt” addresses herself to an unnamed you, whose steps she is seeking out. Basman Ben-Hayim writes:

And with each step I’d ask
So where isn’t God?

The two women, Molodovsky and Basman Ben-Hayim, became acquainted in Israel in the early 1950s. When Molodovsky edited a volume of poetry about the Holocaust, she included one of Basman Ben-Hayim’s poems. If Molodovsky was imagining a dialogue between herself and her foremothers (both biological and biblical), Basman Ben-Hayim can be read as being in dialogue with Molodovsky and her froyen (women.) Froyen Lider is shot through with whiteness of many textures: white wedding shoes dreamed by working girls, the white tables on which women labor at childbirth, the white linen Mother Rivke brings to poor brides by camel. If Molodovsky feared that she was separating herself from the holiness of previous generations, this is Basman Ben-Hayim’s answer to Molodovsky’s sleepless prayer:

Avu nito iz got?
So where isn’t God?

Here Rivke Basman Ben-Hayim reads “A Vayskayt” herself:

As a European-born Yiddish poet in the 21st century, Basman Ben-Hayim had another distinction. Because she lived many years into the digital age, we are blessed with a relative abundance of audio and video footage of her speaking and reciting her own poetry. Here, in her beautiful, clear Yiddish, she explains her continued dedication to Yiddish, even while living in the State of Israel and working as a Hebrew teacher.

In the summer of 2022, a CD called “Nem Mayn Vort” (Take My Word) was released, featuring four new musical settings of poems by Basman Ben-Hayim. The duo behind the project is Patty Farrell (accordion) and Sveta Kundish (voice). They describe the music of “Nem Mayn Vort” as ranging “in style from Art Song to folk-influenced rhythms and harmonies, from Free-Jazz colors to achingly beautiful, stirring melodies.” Kundish has the vocal power of an operatic singer, but her singing is intimate, lovely, though with a hint of mystery. She is also very much at home in Yiddish. Together with the gently modern approach of Farrell, “Nem Mayn Vort serves as a kind of sonic deconstruction of what would otherwise be a very traditional Yiddish musical combination of voice and accordion. One of the four songs featuring lyrics by Basman Ben-Hayim is “Ver Hot Gezen?” (Who Has Seen?). Farrell and Kundish’s setting of “Ver Hot Gezen?” is gorgeous, perfectly capturing the verdant, dreamy eroticism of the poem, while also inviting the listener to delight in the words of a masterful poet, one whose work will reverberate for even longer.

Ver hot gezen
Zikh kushn a tsvayg mit a tsvayg?

(Who has seen
The kiss of a branch with a branch?)

LEARN MORE: On April 23, Dr. Miriam Trinh will lead a workshop on the life and poetry of Rivke Basman Ben-Hayim. Participants will read and analyze her poems, and Trinh will provide historical-biographical context for the work. This free, Yiddish-only workshop is co-presented by YIVO, League for Yiddish, and Yiddish-Ort. Register here … Purchase the 2016 bilingual (Yiddish-English) volume of Basman Ben-Hayim’s poetry, The Thirteenth Hour.

ALSO: After a 15-year hiatus, the avant-Yiddish band Black Ox Orkestar returned last year with a new album called, appropriately enough, Everything Returns. To celebrate the album, and to reflect on the last 20 years of Jewish music in North America, I will be joining the members of Black Ox Orkestar in conversation, sponsored by York University, on April 20. Register here … On April 24, YIVO and the Tenement Museum will present “Virtual Tenement Concert: Songs of Yiddish New York.” The concert will feature an introduction and historical commentary by Alex Weiser in conversation with Tenement Museum President Annie Polland, and musical performances by singer Eliza Bagg and pianist Paul Kerekes, including a performance of Weiser’s new song cycle, Coney Island Days. More information here … “Ashkenazi Séance: A Theater Ritual” is a “theatre show and community ritual about what it means to connect to your ancestors, even when you’re pretty sure they wouldn’t like you.” April 27-29, Union Temple House of CBE. Tickets here … On May 2, singer-composer Zhenya Lopatnik brings her concert program Heym un Veg (Between Home and Away) to Brooklyn. The show “threads together cultures and generations through Lopatnik’s rich repertoire of Yiddish songs and the poetry of prominent Ukrainian Yiddish Poets.” Soapbox Gallery, 636 Dean St., Brooklyn. Purchase tickets here.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.