Most people believe that Yiddish literature and poetry was written solely by men. In reality, there were hundreds of female Yiddish writers and poets, all of whom had their own distinct biographies and writing styles.
Edith Kaplan Bregman was one of these women. She was born in a Russian shtetl in 1899 to a Hasidic family, immigrating to New York when she was 13. In America, she was exposed to literature that hadn’t been available in Europe, so she became a voracious reader. Bregman went on to write poetry in her native tongue, Yiddish. Her love of language led her to meet many Yiddish literary giants, like Avrom Reyzen, a poet who became her mentor. While she wrote poems throughout her early life, her works weren’t published until 1939, when a Yiddish newspaper had a poetry contest that she entered and won. Her victory gave her the confidence to publish more of her written work. Some of the themes that recur throughout her poems are a love of Judaism and God, life in Europe, and Holocaust remembrance. In addition to writing poetry, Bregman sang and played the mandolin and piano. Bregman’s last poem was published in 1997, a few years before her death at age 99.
Recently, I saw Eleanor Reissa, a talented and well-known Yiddish actress and performer, sing "My Yiddishe Momme" to a standing ovation. Mind you, the crowd was entirely over seventy and the children of Polish Jewish immigrants to North and South America. To help pass the time, I thought about that nice tough character, Sophie Tucker, who made the song into a bi-lingual top five hit in 1928.
As stated in the Boston Globe, "Two years ago, Bubbe didn’t know from a website." Her grandson, Avrom Honig, decided to share his Bubbe with the world, producing an online kosher cooking show from her classic 1950s Jewish kitchen called Feed Me Bubbe. After 30 Youtube episodes teaching luchen kugel, chicken soup, cheese blintzes and more, 83 year-old Bubbe now has her own website, t-shirts, and even a ringtone.
Over lunch today, our conversation turned to an article a couple of us had recently read in Tablet about Yiddish words for vagina. (Yes, this is fairly typical lunchtime conversation at the Jewish Women's Archive.) None of us had really thought much about this topic before, but we were all quite intrigued. Why yes, it IS strange, we agreed with the author, Elissa Strauss, that Yiddish slang for penis has been assimilated into general English usage, while Yiddish slang for vagina is virtually unknown.
Years ago, when I was working on my undergraduate thesis on Yiddish film, I attempted conversation about the subject at cocktail parties (well, at that point they weren’t yet cocktail parties, but there were definitely M&Ms) –
“Yiddish? Film? What? Like Yentl?”
No. Not like Yentl. They’re in Yiddish! And most of them were originally Yiddish theater productions. Molly Picon? ... No?... Nobody?... Nevermind. Is it hot in here? Pass the M&Ms.
I recently attended a Yiddish culture conference where participants were required to wear nametags printed with their full names. Thus displayed, my conspicuously Puerto Rican name provoked endless fascination and scrutiny. One day I was asked to identify my ethnicity five times -- before the end of breakfast.
I spent the last week of December encamped in a Catskills hotel with about 425 klezmorim, dancers, artists, students, and lovers of Yiddish from around the world. We had gathered for the 23rd annual KlezKamp, a music and culture extravaganza organized by Living Traditions, a nonprofit dedicated to Yiddish cultural continuity and community. During the day, we took classes on everything from Hasidic dance to world Jewish foodways; at night, we danced to the newest and oldest in Ashkenazi music in the hotel ballroom with its famous gold lamè curtains.
I always have an ear out for new music, especially music that brings together sounds and styles from different parts of the world. Two of my favorites include the music of the Afro-Celt Sound System and Rebbe Soul, both of which are quite innovative and energizing.