1880 – 1945
Rokhel Brokhes was one of the earliest women writers to be published and a prodigious author whose name was linked to the romantic years of modern Yiddish literature. Born in Minsk, Belarus on September 23, 1880, she was educated by her father, Volf, a maskil (an adherent of the Jewish Enlightenment) and a gifted Hebrew scholar. Her early studies included the Bible and Modern Hebrew language and literature.
Her father died when Brokhes was nine, leaving an already impoverished family in even greater penury. The eldest child in her family, Brokhes worked as a seamstress while still young, and later taught needlework at the Minsk Jewish Vocational School for Girls. Brokhes was nineteen when her first short story, “Yankele,” appeared to great acclaim in the influential fortnightly Der yud, which published older, established writers side by side with younger ones. Der fraynd, the first Yiddish daily in Russia, also published her stories and sketches, as did the New York based Zukunft, one of the longest running Yiddish periodicals, whose editor, the noted socialist poet Avrom Liessin (1872–1938), was her close friend. Her novellas were translated into Russian, German and English.
Her marriage to a dentist and their subsequent move to a village in the province of Saratova uprooted Brokhes from the Jewish literary circles where she was highly regarded, indeed revered, both as a writer and as a true “Jewish daughter.” Life in that isolated and remote area became the subject of numerous works, most of which were not published. The family returned to Minsk in 1920, the year of the great famine in the Volga region.
Sadly, though widely read and regularly published in Yiddish periodicals, only a fraction of her short stories, novellas and theatre pieces appeared in book form; this accounts in great measure for the critical neglect her work suffered during her lifetime. In 1922 A Zamlung dertseylungen (A Collection of Stories) and in 1940 Shpinen (Spiders) were published. Eight volumes of her collected works, including two hundred short stories, were scheduled to be published by the State Publishing House of Byelorussia (Belarus), the first volume already typeset, when the German invasion aborted the project.
Not since the seventeenth century autobiography of Glueckel Of Hameln have we had such an intimate and poignant glimpse into Jewish family life, particularly the Jewish woman: as worker, as unwilling bride, as mother. Brokhes documented women’s lives and their children’s in the voice of the engaged. Her range was wide yet concentrated: themes re-emerge, characters re-appear, yet they never leave the world of Jewish Russia.
Always identified with the Jewish masses in Russia, Brokhes was fierce in her portrayal of lives besieged by poverty (by the end of the nineteenth century, almost half of Jewish Minsk lived on charity). Not merely describing the misery of poverty, she set it in a class framework and her characters voiced these injustices. No romantic transcendence of poverty here; quite the contrary, it infiltrated and crippled every fibre of life.
A woman’s rage, bordering on madness, is stunningly expressed in “ Di zogerin” (A zamlung dertseylungen), a multi-layered monologue by the women’s prayer leader and interceder, which bridges religious sensibility and the social world.
Despite their centrality in her writing, Brokhes’ female characters rarely move beyond their fixed destinies of isolation, hopelessness and resignation; when thrown together, as they are in many of her stories, they offer one another little succor. Conversely, her male characters are frequently endowed with dignity, action, and aspiration. This disparity finds a parallel in her own family: while her father was recognized as an eminent scholar, Brokhes’ biographers do not even record her mother’s name.
A realist with an inclination to lyricism, her meditations on women's sorrows occasionally gave way to tender folkloric tales threaded with mystical, spiritual overtones. In the late 1930s Brokhes brought her rich and diverse literary sensibility, braiding social realism and idealism, to two short volumes of children’s stories and fables. Possibly her last published work, “Avremelekh” (Little Abrahams), in Shpinen, 1940, a tragic story of infants abandoned and left to die in conditions of unspeakable brutality, is an unsparing condemnation of Jewish society. Reminiscent of the Biblical prophets, she rebukes the community for its inequities, its scorn of the poor, its vilification of prostitutes and their children, its hypocrisy and indifference to suffering. Like Mame Rokhl, Mother Rachel of the Bible, she weeps for her children.
Rokhl Brokhes lived during Tsarist repression, pogroms, wars, the Soviet Revolution and finally the Holocaust. She was tortured and murdered in the Minsk Ghetto in 1945.
A zamlung dertseylungen. Vilna: 1922; In pionerishen lager. Minsk: 1936; Gelke: dertseylungen (Children’s stories). Moscow: 1937; Odlerl un Shoymele: a vunder-maysele (Children’s stories). Moscow: 1939; Shpinen. Minsk: 1940; “The Zogerin.” In Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers, edited by Frieda Forman et al. Toronto: 1994.
Her stories also appeared in the monthly journal, the Zukunft, during the 1920s.
Reyzen, Avrom. Epizodn fun mayn leben. Vilna: 1929, (part one) 168–171, 181–184,187; (part two) 63; Reyzen, Zalmen, editor. Leksikon fun der Yidisher literatur, prese un filologye (Lexicon of Yiddish Literature, press, and philology), vol. 1. Vilna: 1928; Niger, Shmuel and Yakov Shatsky, editors. Leksikon fun der nayer Yidisher literature. New York: 1956; Binyomin, Yud. “Rokhl Brokhes” Kultur un dertziung, November (1945); Raicus, Ethel. “Rokhl Brokhes.” Di froyen—Women and Yiddish: Tribute to the Past, Directions for the Future. Conference Proceedings. National Council of Jewish Women New York Section, Jewish Women’s Resource Center, 1997.