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Celia Dropkin

1887 – 1956

by Kathryn Hellerstein

The explicitly sexual imagery and themes of Celia Dropkin’s poems redefined the ways modern Yiddish poetry could depict relationships between women and men. Beautifully crafted lyrics, Dropkin’s poems undo the poetic conventions implicit in their very forms and, with their anger and passion, call into question societal assumptions about love. These poems open up a woman’s psyche in a voice that sounds contemporary in the 1990s. Even her poems about depression, about mother love, and about nature are infused with erotic energy. Best known for her poetry, Dropkin also published short stories and was an accomplished visual artist.

Celia (Zipporah) Levine Dropkin was born in Bobruisk, White Russia, on December 5, 1887. Her father, Yoysef-Yona Levine, was a lumber merchant who died of tuberculosis when Celia was a young child. Her mother, Feige Levine, from a distinguished family named Golodets, raised and educated Celia and her younger sister, Sima.

Until the age of eight, Celia studied traditional Jewish subjects with a rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife). She also received a secular education from her mother, a woman with artistic sensibility, attending a Russian school in Bobruisk and, later, the high school (gymnasium) in the neighboring city of Novosybko. According to Reysen’s Leksikon, upon graduating from high school, Celia taught school in Warsaw and tutored privately. She wrote poetry in Russian as early as age ten. When she was seventeen, she went to Kiev to continue her studies. There, in 1906, she met the famous Hebrew writer Uri Nissan Gnessin (1881–1913), who encouraged her to continue writing poetry. Celia formed a passionate friendship with Gnessin, but he prevented it from becoming a romance because he was infected with tuberculosis. Unbeknownst to Celia at the time, his translation into Hebrew of her poem “The Kiss” was included without credit to her in a posthumously published novel.

With Gnessin, Celia traveled to Warsaw, where she lived for several months. In January 1908, she returned to Bobruisk. There, in 1909, she married Samuel (Shmaye) Dropkin, a Bund activist, originally from Homel (Gomel), Belarus. In February 1910, soon after their first child was born, Shmaye’s political involvement forced him to flee the czarist authorities in Russia for the United States. In 1912, Celia and their son joined him in New York.

In New York with her husband, Celia Dropkin bore five other children. One daughter, Tamara, died in 1924 or 1925, as an infant. Her surviving children were John (b. 1910), Esther (b. 1913), Lillian (b. 1917), Henry (b. 1921), and Eva (b. 1926).

Although she began to meet Yiddish writers in New York, Dropkin continued to write poetry in Russian. In 1917, she translated some of her poems into Yiddish, including “The Kiss,” which Gnessin had translated into Hebrew. These translations, her first Yiddish publications, appeared in Di Naye Velt and Inzikh (1920). Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Dropkin’s poems appeared in these and other avant-garde publications of the Yiddish literary movements, the Yunge and the Introspectivists: Onheyb, Poezye, and Shriftn. Her poems of sex, love, and death shocked and seduced her contemporaries, who acclaimed her as a leading woman poet. She also received encouragement from more established Yiddish writers, such as Avraham Liessin, the editor of Tsukunft, who published her short stories, as well as her poems.

Despite her acclaim, only one book of Dropkin’s poems was published in her lifetime: In Heysn Vint (In the hot wind) appeared in 1935. After her husband died, in 1943, Dropkin wrote a biography of him, which was never published. In her last years, Dropkin painted in oils and water colors, and took art courses at the Art Students League in Manhattan, with Kunyoshi and Levi. The last poem Dropkin herself published, “A Whistle Calls from Somewhere,” appeared in Tsukunft (April 1953).

Celia Dropkin died on August 17, 1956. Three years after her death, Dropkin’s children sponsored the publication of a new and expanded edition of her poetry, short stories, and paintings, also titled In Heysn Vint (1959). This second book includes the poems of the 1935 edition, as well as previously unpublished poems. A friend, Sasha Dillon, selected the manuscript materials and reordered all the poems for this volume. (Although the poet H. Leivik is credited as well, he was too ill to do this work.) Much later, one poem for which there seems to be no written text, “Shvere Gedanken” (Black thoughts), was discovered on a tape recording that Celia Dropkin had made. The translation of this poem was published in Yidishe Kultur (1990).

SELECTED WORKS BY CELIA DROPKIN

“Adam,” “The Circus Dancer,” “The Filth of Your Suspicion,” “Like Snow on the Alps.” Translated by Grace Shulman. In Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, edited by Irving Howe, Ruth R. Wisse, and Khone Shmeruk (1987): 241–245; “Adam,” “The Circus Lady,” “My Hands,” “A Terror Was Rising in My Heart.” Translated by Ruth Whitman. In An Anthology of Modern Yiddish Poetry, edited by Ruth Whitman (1995): 29–35; “A Dancer.” Translated by Shirley Kumove. In Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers, edited by Frieda Forman et al. (1994): 193–201; Dans le vent chaud: Bilingue yiddish-français. Introduction and translation into French by Gilles Rozier and Viviane Siman (1994); In Heysn Vint (1935. Revised and expanded 1959); “Poem” and “Poem.” Translated by Adrienne Rich. In A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry, edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg (1969): 168–169.

Bibliography

Dillon, Sasha. “Vegn Tsilye Dropkin.” In Celia Dropkin, In Heysn Vint: Poems, Stories, and Pictures (1959): 263–269; Hadda, Janet. “The Eyes Have It: Celia Dropkin’s Love Poetry.” In Gender and Text in Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature, edited by Naomi B. Sokoloff, Anna Lapidus Lerner, and Anita Norich (1992): 93–112; Hellerstein, Kathryn. “From Ikh to Zikh: A Journey from ‘I’ to ‘Self’ in Yiddish Poems by Women.” In Gender and Text in Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature, edited by Naomi B. Sokoloff, Anne Lapidus Lerner, and Anita Norich (1992): 113–143; Howe, Irving, Ruth R. Wisse, and Khone Shmeruk, eds. The Penguin Book of Modern Hebrew Verse (1987); Leksikon fun der Nayer Yidisher Literatur. Vol. 2 (1958): 540–541; Reyzen, Zalmen, “Celia Dropkin.” Leksikon fun der Literatur Prese un Filologye (1926); Yeshurin, Yafim, “Tsilye Dropkin: Bibliografye” (Celia Dropkin: Bibliography). In Celia Dropkin, In Heysn Vint: Poems, Stories, and Pictures (1959): 271–273.

More on: Painting, Fiction, Poetry
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Yiddish writer Celia Dropkin both shocked and delighted New York literary society of the 1920s and 1930s with her poetic depictions of the primary elements of the human experience: love, sex and death.

Institution: John Dropkin

How to cite this page

Hellerstein, Kathryn. "Celia Dropkin." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 27, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/dropkin-celia>.

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