Around 2010, Jeffrey Michael Brown was cleaning out the Long Island home of his late father, David, when he came across a school notebook with bands of inky Yiddish script. As he could not read Yiddish, he sought out a translator. He could already assume, however, that the notebook belonged not to either of his parents, but to his grandmother Lena Brown who had arrived in the United States in the late 19th century and had lived in an apartment on President Street in Brooklyn until she died sometime in the 1940s. Jeffrey’s father, David, had brought Lena’s things with him to Hempstead when he moved into his home there in 1951. David had placed the notebook in a desk drawer and there it lay until Jeffrey dusted it off 60 years later. What has turned out to be one of the most powerful Yiddish plays of the 20th century—one of only a small number of Yiddish plays written by women, and one that expresses honest and difficult sentiments about marriage, motherhood, and reproductive rights—sat silently in a drawer for about a century only to have its moment now as we contemplate American women’s newly curtailed reproductive freedoms.
The poetry of this moment would not be lost on the titular character of Brown’s Yiddish play, Sonia Itelson: Or, a Child, a Child, a tragedy set in the second decade of the 20th century in Jewish immigrant New York. Educated, cultured, and middle class—if only just—28-year-old Sonia and her sister Fanny struggle with the expectation that middle-class women like themselves have children and be homemakers. Sonia is sharp-witted, intellectually alive to the dilemmas that lie before her. At first, she knows she wants her independence, and she does not want children. Her love for Leo Edit, however, slackens her convictions. She marries, and begins to put her ideas in a drawer.
While they don’t use the word “abortion,” the characters speak about or around abortion casually and with the shared knowledge that it is the key to their reproductive freedom. Perhaps precisely because she was writing for the drawer, Brown writes with a satisfying frankness about abortion as she touches on such issues as aging and adoption, and the effect of men’s desires on women’s own conflicting and conflicted desires. Each thematic thread unspools with subtlety in Brown’s original Yiddish, which the translator, Myra Mniewski, translates with great sleight of hand.
Fanny’s state of sadness in Scene 1 cues up Sonia’s emotional unraveling over the course of the play. Fanny had given birth months earlier to twins, one of whom died soon after delivery. But with little time, the audience figures out that she is not grief stricken over the baby’s death. And she spends little time with the surviving twin, who is cared for by a wet nurse. To Sonia it’s obvious: Her sister is depressed because, at the age of 22, she is too young to have a family. The seven intervening years between Acts 1 and 2 confirm this hypothesis, as Fanny will rely on multiple illegal abortions to avoid having more children. She says to Sonia, “I could never get used to being tied down again, going around with a carriage. Oh, it’s so good to be free now.”
We are introduced to Sonia through the gaze of Fanny’s husband, Simon Rabinov, who wonders aloud to her why she can’t spend more time dolling herself up for the theater. “You’re just like your sister, she takes five minutes to get ready ... That’s why you two never look like ladies.” Fanny is not intimidated: “We want to look like people, not like ladies.” Simon responds with impatience: “That’s enough. If you continue, I’ll start to think Sonia was doing the talking […] As it is you’re not far from turning into the little lady philosopher that she is.”
When Sonia comes onto the scene, she delivers on the wit and intelligence that Rabinov promises. And, later in the act, Leo Edit, a man eight years her junior, declares his love for Sonia and his admiration for her independence of mind and spirit. Even as the play makes clear Sonia’s instinct is not to get married, this reader could not help but root for them to fall in love and marry, as indeed they do.
The constraints that hem in these women have a Chekhovian invisibility: Their middle-class lives liberate them from the back-breaking factory work that was more typical of early 20th-century immigrant life, but impose expectations that not even the fierce and spirited Sonia has the wherewithal to resist. Act 2, seven years later, reveals Sonia and Leo’s relationship to be strained. Sonia is weighed down by the need to provide Leo with a child, even though she had never wanted to have children of her own and has learned from a recent doctor’s visit that she cannot have children. She contemplates a dangerous operation that might help her to conceive.
Sonia Itelson reads more like an art play than a work from the commercial Yiddish theater. The characters do not mention their Judaism and most of them share an openness to feminism that didn’t get much play in the more culturally conservative space of the early 20th-century American Yiddish stage. There is no intergenerational drama; no nagging kleyn shtetldike parents. Instead, there is quick banter between well-rounded characters, as when Sonia and Dave discuss the possibility of marriage to Leo:
You sound like someone who’s head over heels, my sister.
Lowers his voice
And what’s your plan for making him happy—free love?
Leave that to me.
Don’t get mad at me for pressing you about this. You know how much you two sisters mean to me.
And you are precious to me, but I would never mix into your private life.
I am a man.
Ha, ha. You just said we were equal!
Brown explores the divide between the characters’ lip service and their decisions, and then moves on to philosophical ideas. About bringing children into the world, Sonia laments to her husband Leo, “Oh—there are enough already. If only they were well-loved and properly raised and cared for. So many of them wouldn’t die then! The less born the better.” Leo replies impatiently, arguing that her well-thought-out Malthusian theories do not hold a candle to the power of human instinct to reproduce. He continues:
I’m not in a position to philosophize. I’m at a loss as to what to call this foolish idea you’ve cooked up in your head, Sonia. Let’s say it is justifiable to devote oneself to those who are already here rather than bringing more into the world. What do we do with our instinct then? What do we do with our urge to bring children into the world? Does it satisfy either you or me that there are already so many? We don’t have any! To have them there is no other choice but to bring them.
To Leo’s self-indulgence, Sonia responds, “I could answer you plenty on this but I’m not in the mood.” Moments like these demonstrate Brown’s sure hand in drawing characters and letting them speak.
While we know little about Lena Brown’s artistic life and influences, the ideas Leo accuses Sonia of “cooking up” are evocative of those of Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger, who were both roughly Brown’s contemporaries. In 1920s New York, Brown might have bought a Yiddish-language copy of Goldman’s book Marriage and Free Love for 6 cents. Sanger believed birth control (she coined the term) and “voluntary motherhood” to be essential to a woman’s self-determination. And, in keeping with Sonia’s ideas, Sanger believed the ability of women to control the number of children they have would limit war, famine, and oppression more so than diplomatic efforts by self-important male political leaders (as well as limit the reproduction of “inferior races” like African Americans and Jews, helping to preserve the ideal “Nordic” racial characteristics of the American population).
Sonia Itelson bridges a divide between vocal birth control activists of this era and those who practiced birth control and family limitation as private individuals. The historian Melissa Klapper explains that well before the birth control movement coalesced, Jewish women in America averaged fewer children than other ethnic groups, a discrepancy that suggests Jews were early adopters of contraception, including abortion. This trend was true of Jews in European cities, as well, and also in Palestine. The historian Lilach Rosenberg-Friedman explains that historical evidence suggests the prevalence of abortion in the Yishuv, even as Zionist leaders encouraged Jewish women to have more babies and increase its Jewish population. The birth control movement in the United States, with its disproportionate numbers of Jewish activists, was, in part, a response to a landscape in which illegal abortion was already a widespread form of birth control among Jews.
While we can’t be sure exactly when Lena Brown wrote her play, the activism it reflects and represents precedes the mostly strictly prohibitive stance against abortion that would come to characterize the Orthodox halachic establishment by the 1930s. Jewish community leaders and influential newspaper editors who might have been even more vocal in support of abortion were restrained—but not by Jewish leaders or law. In the 1920s and ’30s, more than anything, it was federal obscenity statutes that kept activists in check. Obscenity, for instance, was the charge for which Goldman and Sanger were jailed after speaking publicly about birth control or distributing leaflets about reproductive rights.
Still, there are early examples of progressive rabbis endorsing birth control publicly during these early years of the movement, arguing for the safety and privacy of the mother and the economic health of the family. Before the Orthodox establishment dug in its heels against abortion, historical evidence suggests that even women who considered themselves pious sought illegal abortions; observance of Jewish law was mostly regulated according to public practice.
It is possible that Brown wrote Sonia Itelson in response to another Yiddish play on reproductive rights written by a prolific playwright based in New York named Harry Kalmanovitz. Geburts control oder Rassen Zelbstmord (Birth Control or Race Suicide) hit the New York Yiddish stage for a short run in July of 1916. According to Klapper’s reading of it, some of the play’s characters make a good case for birth control—“We poor workers must not make more slaves for the wealthy,” one cries—but the voice of the play ultimately condemns it as against both nature and the will of God. Sonia Itelson comes at the issue of voluntary motherhood from a middle-class perspective and more secular perspective. It admits that man’s instinct is to have children of one’s own—but ultimately, we stand with Sonia.
The most popular play on the Yiddish stage that championed the legalization of abortion was a left-wing German play called Cyankali that debuted in Berlin in 1929 and was translated for the Yiddish stage in 1931. In it, Hete, an impoverished factory worker has lost her job and goes to a backstreet doctor for an abortion. He sells her cyanide and advises her to swallow five small drops of it to end her pregnancy, but she poisons herself accidentally and dies. With Cyankali, the playwright, the German Jewish doctor and committed communist Friedrich Wolf, argued the hypocrisy of banning abortions as society’s rich always found a way of securing safe albeit illegal abortions, while the poor were forced to take their lives into their hands. With it, Wolf succeeded in making a potent piece of propaganda that became a sensation throughout Europe. As Fanny dies from an abortion in Act 3 of Sonia Itelson, Brown suggests that the ban on abortion does not endanger only the underclass; birth control is an issue for women of all classes.
Throughout the first four acts, Brown thoughtfully pulls several thematic strands into tension with each other, but she is less patient with her play’s denouement. In Act 3, Sonia has lost her confidence and stays at home complaining she has nothing to do. Leo’s sympathy for her has drained away and the reader shares in his frustration with Sonia. Even her loving brother Dave delivers some tough love to Sonia toward the play’s end: “You’ve got to change, Sonia, change. Display some mobility; be more flexible, it will change how you look.” After Dave leaves her alone, Sonia asks aloud of herself: “Change how I look?” And, as she looks in the mirror she continues, “The wrinkles will not smooth themselves out. They only keep my depression captive.” In the end, Sonia swallows a bottle of carbolic acid and and kills herself.
Any Yiddish theatergoer worth her salt would pick up on Brown’s clues that this is where Sonia Itelson was heading. In Act 1, Brown references the Yiddish play Elisha Ben Abuya by Jacob Gordin about the rabbi-heretic who figures prominently in the Talmud. It played often after its début in New York City in 1908. A kind of heretic to the immigrant dream of American success, Sonia is, indeed, a modern-day Elisha Ben Abuya. Even more important is Sonia’s reference to Carmen, whose song she sings gaily to her baby niece and Leo in the first act with an invisible tambourine in hand. Carmen was immensely popular with Jewish immigrant audiences who took it in in droves at the Metropolitan Opera, and who read and attended Yiddish translations of the opera. Carmen insists on free love, refuses to commit to her beloved José, and, in the end, dies at his hand. Sonia follows a different trajectory but is equally doomed.
Sonia Itelson: Or, a Child, a Child will be published by Bloomsbury next fall alongside two other Yiddish plays penned by women, one written in late imperial Russia, another in interwar Poland. In all three, the female protagonists—each one of them alter egos to the educated middle-class playwrights who created them—die in the final scene, two by their own hands. Their body and experiences have told them one thing but the worlds to which they wish to belong tell them something else. Their deaths register, at once, as a form of surrender and protest, like a provocative play written in a notebook and put away in a drawer.
Alyssa Quint is associate editor at Tablet Magazine and author of The Rise of the Modern Yiddish Theater.