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Not Quite Rooted

Rokhl’s Golden City: Poet Irena Klepfisz has carved out a literary world between languages and subcultures

Rokhl Kafrissen
December 23, 2022
Inset photo: Wikipedia
Inset photo: Wikipedia
Inset photo: Wikipedia
Inset photo: Wikipedia

“Holocaust survivor” or “lebn-geblibene”? Do the terms we use make a difference? Survivor carries an air of finality—whatever it was, it has been survived. In Yiddish, the lebn-geblibene are those who remained alive, without the implied sense of a completed action.

In Yiddish and modern Hebrew, the biblically weighted sheyres hapleyte—surviving remnant—was another term, adopted by those in displaced persons camps at the end of the war. They saw themselves as a distinct group with a mission, the reestablishment of Jewish life, moving into the future. Pleytim, the related Yiddish word for refugees, was also in wide usage.

It’s understandable that Americans would want to think about survival, and survivors, as temporally unambiguous. If there are survivors, then it follows that the war is over, and danger has passed. But as we know today, for many, the distinction between war and peace, or victim and survivor, was never quite so easy to make. The trauma of mass death doesn’t just linger, but may yet be passed down, generation to generation—the dark yerushe, or inheritance, of 20th-century Jewry.

Her Birth and Later Years: New and Collected Poems, 1971-2021, published this year by Wesleyan University Press, is an exploration of that terrain of ambiguity, between death and survival, by the poet-activist Irena Klepfisz. One of her major subjects is the lebn-geblibene, of which she is both subject and observer. Indeed, Klepfisz writes from a most unusual vantage point. She was born in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941 and both her parents were Bundist activists. Her father, Michal (Mikhl), was a resistance fighter who was killed on the second day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in 1943. At the big Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, on Okopowa Street, you can visit his grave, prominently located near other Bundist heroes.

Before Michal’s death, Irena’s mother, Rose, escaped with Irena to the Aryan side of Warsaw, where Irena was briefly sheltered in a Catholic orphanage. After Rose reclaimed her from the orphanage, the two survived the war using false identities. Even so, isolation, poor nutrition, and terrible living conditions remained mortal dangers. After the war, the two relocated to Sweden for a few years, and then the United States, where they settled in the famed Amalgamated co-ops of the Bronx. There, a young Irena was surrounded by the remnant of Polish Yiddish life. Adults spoke Polish and Yiddish and read Yiddish newspapers. Their politics were connected to the causes they had fought for in Poland, whether Bundist, Zionist, or points in between.

In the Bronx, Rose sent young Irena to a five-day-a-week afternoon Arbeter Ring Yiddish shule and when she graduated from that, the mitl-shul or Yiddish high school. And yet, at home, her mother spoke Polish exclusively. Before the war, Rose had been encouraged to attend a Polish school. Her ability to speak flawless Polish, without a trace of Jewish accent, undoubtedly helped save their lives during the war. Young Jewish women who “passed” as Aryan will be a familiar theme to readers of Judy Batalion’s 2021 bestseller The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos. Before the war, Jewish communal discourse frequently blamed Jewish women for bringing Polish into Jewish homes and endangering Jewish families by assimilation. And yet, those same marks of assimilation played a key role in resistance operations, and ultimately saved many lives.

Some of Rose Klepfisz’s peers made a choice to abandon Polish once in the United States, finding the memories attached to the language to be too much. But Rose remained at home in the language. And so, Irena was sent for schooling in Yiddish and English, but family life would be conducted in Polish.

As Irena Klepfisz told me recently when we talked in person, for the first few years in New York, this state of affairs left her not quite rooted in any language. That unrootedness is one of the master metaphors in Klepfisz’s work. In an essay called “Secular Jewish Identity: Yidishkayt in America,” which appeared in the groundbreaking 1986 volume Tribe of Dina, a Jewish Woman’s Anthology, Klepfisz described two different awakenings to language, through literature. At her Yiddish school, reading and reciting poetry was a key part of the education. “It was in this yidishe svive, Yiddish environment, that I developed a passion for literature.”

Toward the end of high school, she discovered world literature, finding a home in Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Victor Hugo. That discovery would lead to graduate work in literature at the University of Chicago. On the one hand, success in the American academy involved a certain amount of self-erasure, as serious students were discouraged from appearing too interested in Jewish culture. On the other hand, Klepfisz never quite sees herself as being able to claim Yiddish literature for herself as a writer; in her view, her Yiddish was too stiff and formal and she had failed to really apply herself to the language when she had the chance. The resulting tension between languages produced some of Klepfisz’s most famous, and most lauded poems, including “Bashert” and “Etlekher verter oyf mame-loshn / A few words in the mother tongue,” both gathered in Her Birth and Later Years. 

From “Etlekher verter oyf mame-loshn…”

a froy kholmt a woman
dreams ir ort oyf der velt
her place in this world
un zi hot moyre and she is afraid
so afraid of the words
zi kholmt she dreams
un zi hot moyre and she is afraid
ir ort
di velt
di heym
der mark
zi kholmt
zi kholmt
zi kholmt

Here, Klepfisz gathers the uncertainty and self-doubt of a language learner and fashions it into her own poetic tool, navigating her way through the ambiguities of her own existence: as an American inheritor of a Polish Jewish political tradition, as a lesbian in a homophobic world, as a Jew in a world hostile to her (almost) mame-loshn.

Klepfisz is exquisitely attuned to those who find themselves trapped, or even in captivity. Her 1982 poem “From the Monkey House and Other Cages” imagines itself from the point of view of monkeys in zoo captivity; their fumbling attempts at intimacy, the physical indignities visited on them by their keepers, the insistence on connection with fellow captives, in spite of everything.

She is also a daughter who lost her father at age 2, and spent her childhood in the extreme intimacy of a two-person family. She stretches the limits of family through the act of poetry, seeking out those who might be kin to her unrootedness. Her 1978 poem “Two Sisters: Helen and Eva Hesse” is inspired by the lives of the acclaimed downtown sculptor Eva Hesse and her sister Helen. Helen and Eva fled Hamburg, Germany, right before the war, arriving in New York City with their mother and father. The family would be haunted by guilt and untimely death. The girls’ mother committed suicide in 1945. Eva tragically passed away from a brain tumor in 1970, at the age of 33. “Two Sisters” imagines the surviving sister, Helen, through monologue. There is a chasm between the two sisters, one of whom allows herself to feel rooted in America while the other simply cannot. Here’s an excerpt:

Once. I remember she said to me:
“You’re like a fortress
I once dreamed of: all mortar stone
and iron. I scaled its walls with bare
hands and feet tearing myself on the crude
exterior. Eventually I reached the top
gained access to its rooms and halls.
Inside: it was quite empty. Helen it
protected nothing.”

One of the prose sections of “Bashert” remembers Klepfisz’s friend Elza, a child who was hidden with a non-Jewish family during the war. Four years later, at the age of 8, friends of her dead parents come to claim her. She is adopted by a loving Jewish family, with two parents and two brothers. She excels at school, marries, and attains the dream of a safe and comfortable American life. But all the material possessions in the world cannot heal the pain of being twice orphaned, stranded between worlds. Elza’s redemption came too late. Or maybe, she would have been better off unredeemed? But that, too, is unthinkable. It is 1964. Klepfisz, the poet, has gone out in the world, a sophisticated student of literature now. She is in Europe when Elza commits suicide, left to contemplate the destiny she and Elza have inherited:

And that which should have happened in 1944 in Poland and didn’t, must it happen now? In 1964? In Chicago? Or can history be tricked and cheated?

Running through Klepfisz’s work is the tension between conflicting worlds. In the late 1970s, she moved away from the Yiddish world and immersed herself in lesbian literature and politics. To understand the totality of her work, you must understand her coming of age in the once-vibrant lesbian subculture, which included everything you can imagine, even ocean cruising. (2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the all-woman Olivia Cruises.) Klepfisz’s entry into that world was on the cusp of what has been called the golden age of gay and lesbian publishing.

“The lesbian presses, which began to emerge out of the second-wave feminist movement of the 1970s, were rooted in a community that had constructed its own cultural infrastructure, one that included newspapers, magazines, bookstores, music festivals, and women’s studies programs,” writes Michael Nava in a 2021 article called “Creating a Literary Culture: A Short, Selective, and Incomplete History of LGBT Publishing.” “Powerfully supported by the lesbian community, these presses were, from the start, mission-driven and operated largely outside the mainstream literary world. These characteristics helped secure an autonomy that allowed them to publish without regard to the cultural and economic vagaries that swayed New York publishing.”

In 1986, Klepfisz was the co-editor of a landmark volume of Jewish women’s writing called Tribe of Dina. It included both the previously referenced essay “Secular Jewish Identity” as well as her bilingual Yiddish-English poetry and her translation of a Fradel Shtok short story, well before anyone else in the English-speaking world was talking about the genius of Fradel Shtok. In short, Tribe of Dina marked an inflection point for Klepfisz in reconciling her conflicting identities and staking her claim to a compelling new kind of American-Jewish-Yiddish poetics.

Tribe of Dina actually started out as a special issue of the magazine Sinister Wisdom, before being reprinted by Beacon Press a few years later. Established in 1976, Sinister Wisdom is a “multicultural lesbian literary & art journal” that “works to create a multicultural, multi-class lesbian space.” Unlike many of the other gay and lesbian periodicals and publishers that flourished during the golden age, Sinister Wisdom is still alive and kicking, and accomplished something miraculous: passing its leadership on to a new generation.

Indeed, reading about the once lively world of gay and lesbian literary culture, it’s easy to see its resonances with the similarly diminished (but still fighting!) world of Yiddish culture in America. It’s a reminder to all of us who mourn the loss of unique subcultures. Change is inevitable, but it doesn’t always have to be grim. We have the ability to remake our institutions and take them into the future, if we so choose.

At the end of 2022, Sinister Wisdom produced an event to celebrate the publication of Her Birth and Later Years, bringing Irena Klepfisz into conversation with Julie Enszer, a young poet and editor at Sinister Wisdom. It feels like the perfect way to honor Klepfisz: a unique talent who found artistic power in her own life’s contradictions and dedicated activist who continues to connect multiple generations, and worlds.


MORE: Purchase Her Birth and Later Years … “Power of the Pen: A Poetry Writing Workshop” is a four-session workshop which will be led by Irena Klepfisz at Yiddish New York at the end of December 2022.

ALSO: New York Klezmer Series returns in 2023! The next concert will feature Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All Stars, Eleanor Reissa, and a new trio with Jake Shulmen-Ment, Bob Cohen, and Pete Rushefsky. At the AMT Theatre, 354 West 45th St. Check the New York Klezmer Series Facebook page for updates … Yiddish Shmoozers is a relatively new player on the Yiddish programming scene. Their mandate is to offer “lively conversations about Yiddish writers and their works in English translation.” Make sure to get on their mailing list or check their website for their upcoming events. Jan. 22 will feature a conversation with Grey Bees translator Boris Drayluk … The date for the second annual Farbindungen conference has been announced. #Farbindungen23, Yiddish Futures/yidishe tsukunftn will take place virtually on Feb. 19-20, 2023. Register here.

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