1894 – 1974
And why should this blood without blemish
Be my conscience, like a silken thread
Bound upon my brain,
And my life, a page plucked from a holy book,
The first line torn?
These lines, from Kadya Molodowsky’s 1927 sequence “Froyen-Lider” [Woman poems] pose a crucial question: How can a Yiddish woman writer reconcile her art with Judaism’s definition of a woman’s role? Molodowsky’s answer to that question in her poems, children’s poems, novels, short stories, essays, plays, autobiography, and journalism, published between 1927 and 1974, evolved into even broader questions about the very survival of Jews in the modern world.
Kadya Molodowsky was born in the shtetl Bereza Kartuska, White Russia, located within the czarist Russian province of Grodino (now the Belarus Oblast’ of Brest). The second of four children, Kadya had an older sister, Lena, and two younger siblings, a sister, Dora (Dobe), and a brother, Lebyl. Her father, a learned Jew who taught Hebrew and Gemara [commentary on the Mishna] to young boys in heder [elementary Jewish school], was also an adherent of the Enlightenment and an admirer of Moses Montefiore and Theodor Herzl. Her mother, Itke (the daughter of Kadish Katz/Kaplan, for whom Kadya was named), ran a dry-goods shop, and later opened a factory for making rye kvass.
Molodowsky was taught to read Yiddish by her paternal grandmother, Bobe Shifre. Her father instructed her in the study of the Hebrew Pentateuch and also hired various Russian tutors to teach her Russian language, geography, philosophy, and world history. Such an education, especially the instruction in Hebrew, was highly unusual for a girl in the shtetl, and according to her niece and nephew, Kadya was better educated than either of her sisters.
At seventeen, Molodowsky passed the high school graduation exams in Libave. She tutored students in Bereza until her eighteenth birthday, when she obtained her teaching certificate. From 1911 to 1913, she taught in Sherpetz and in Bialystok, where her mother’s sister lived and where she joined a Hebrew-language revivalist group. From 1913 to 1914, she studied under Yehiel Halperin in Warsaw to earn qualification for teaching Hebrew to children. At the start of World War I, Molodowsky worked in Warsaw at a day-home for displaced Jewish children, sponsored by her teacher Yehiel Halperin. Between 1914 and 1916, she worked at teaching and day-home jobs in such towns as Poltave and in such cities as Rommy and Saratov on the Volga. From the summer of 1916 until 1917, Molodowsky taught kindergarten and studied elementary education in Odessa, where Halperin had moved his Hebrew course to escape the war front.
In 1917, after the Bolshevik Revolution, Molodowsky attempted to return to her parents in Bereza, but was halted in Kiev. There, she worked as a private tutor and in a home for Jewish children displaced by the pogroms in the Ukraine. In 1920, having survived the Kiev pogrom, she published her first poem. In Kiev, she met Simkhe Lev, a young scholar and teacher originally from the shtetl of Lekhevitsh. They married in the winter of 1921. The couple lived in Warsaw until 1935, except for a period around 1923, when they worked at a children’s home sponsored by the Joint Distribution Committee in Brest-Litovsk.
In Warsaw, Molodowsky taught in two schools: by day in the elementary school of the Central Yiddish School Organization (known by its acronym, TSHISHO), and in the evenings at a Jewish community school. She was active in the Yiddish Writers Union at Tlomatske Street 13, where she met other writers from Warsaw, Vilna, and America.
In 1927, Molodowsky published her first book of poetry, Kheshvendike Nekht [Nights of Heshvan, under the imprint of a prestigious Vilna and Warsaw Yiddish publisher, B. Kletskin. The book’s narrator, a woman in her thirties, moves through the landscape of Jewish eastern Europe. Molodowsky contrasts the narrator’s modernity with the roles decreed by the Jewish tradition for women, according to law, custom, or history. Kheshvendike Nekht received approximately twenty reviews in the Yiddish press, nearly all laudatory.
Molodowsky was deeply aware of the poverty in which many of her students lived. She wrote poems for and about them. Her second book, Geyen Shikhelekh Avek: Mayselekh [Little shoes go away: Tales, published in Warsaw in 1930, was awarded a prize by the Warsaw Jewish Community and the Yiddish Pen Club.
Molodowsky’s third book of poems, Dzshike Gas [Dzshike Street, published in 1933 by the press of the leading Warsaw literary journal, Literarishe Bleter, was reviewed negatively on political grounds for being too “aesthetic.” Her fourth book, Freydke (1935), features a sixteen-part narrative poem about a heroic Jewish working-class woman.
Molodowsky immigrated to the United States in 1935. She settled in New York City, and her husband joined her in 1937 or 1938. Her fifth book, In Land fun Mayn Gebeyn [In the country of my bones] (1937), contains fragmented poems that represent an internalization of exile.
Molodowsky’s literary endeavors then branched out in several directions. In 1938, she published a new edition of her children’s poems, Afn Barg [On the mountain. In 1942, she published Fun Lublin Biz Nyu-York: Togbukh fun Rivke Zilberg [From Lublin to New York: Diary of Rivke Zilberg, a novel about a young immigrant woman. At this time, Molodowsky also wrote a series of columns on great Jewish women for the Yiddish daily Forverts, using Rivke Zilberg, the name of the novel’s protagonist, as her pseudonym.
Fearful for her brother and other family still in Poland in 1944, Molodowsky put aside her editorship of the literary journal Svive [Surroundings, which she had cofounded in 1943, publishing seven issues, and began to write the poems of Der Melekh Dovid Aleyn Iz Geblibn [Only King David remained] (1946). Der Melekh Dovid Aleyn Iz Geblibn contains many khurbn-lider [destruction poems] that draw upon traditional Jewish literary responses to catastrophe.
In 1945, another edition of her children’s poems, Yidishe Kinder [Jewish children, was published in New York. That same year, a book of her children’s poems in Hebrew translations by Lea Goldberg, Nathan Alterman, Fanya Bergshteyn, Avraham Levinson, and Yakov Faykhman appeared in Tel Aviv. She published a long poem, Donna Gracia Mendes; a play, Nokhn Got fun Midbar [After the god of the desert (1949), which was produced in Chicago and in Israel; a chapbook of poems, In Yerushalayim Kumen Malokhim [In Jerusalem, angels come] (1952); and a book of essays, Af di Vegn fun Tsion [On the roads of Zion, and a collection of short stories, A Shtub mit Zibn Fentster [A house with seven windows, both of which appeared in New York in 1957. She also edited an anthology, Lider fun Khurbm [Poems of the Holocaust] (1962). In the 1950s, she revived the literary journal Svive.
From 1948 through 1952, Molodowsky and Simkhe Lev lived in Tel Aviv. There, Molodowsky edited a journal for pioneer women, Heym [Home], which portrayed life in Israel. Molodowsky also began work on a novel, Baym Toyer: Roman fun dem Lebn in Yisroel [At the gate: Novel about life in Israel] (1967). At the end of this period, she began to write her autobiography, Fun Mayn Elter-zeydns Yerushe [From my great-grandfather’s inheritance], which appeared serially in Svive between March 1965 and April 1974.
Published in Buenos Aires in 1965, Molodowsky’s last book of poems, Likht fun Dornboym [Lights of the thorn bush, includes dramatic monologues in the voices of legendary personae from Jewish and non-Jewish traditions and contemporary characters. The book concludes with a section of poems on Israel from the 1950s, which, like the ending of her autobiography, express Molodowsky’s Zionism.
In Tel Aviv, in 1971, Molodowsky received the Itzik Manger Prize, the most prestigious award in the world of Yiddish letters, for her achievement in poetry. Kadya Molodowsky died in a nursing home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on March 23, 1974.
A Shtub mit Zibn Fentster (1957); Af di Vegn fun Tsion (1957); Ale Fentster tsu der Zun: Shpil in Elef Bilder (1938); Baym Toyer (1967); Der Melekh Dovid Aleyn Iz Geblibn (1946); Dzshike Gas: Lider (1933, 1936); Freydke: Lider (1935, 1936); Fun Lublin biz Nyu-York: Togbukh fun Rivke Zilberg (1942); In Land fun Mayn Gebeyn: Lider (1937); Kheshvendike Nekht: Lider (1927); Lider fun Khurbn: Antologye, ed. (1962); Likht fun Dornboym: Lider un Poeme (1965); Malokhim Kumen Keyn Yerushalayim: Lider (1952); Martsepanes: Mayselekh un Lider far Kinder (1970); Mayn Elterzeydns Yerushe. Svive (March 1965–April 1974); Mayselekh (1930); “Meydlekh, froyen, vayber, un...nevue.” Literarishe Bleter 4, no. 22 (June 3, 1927): 416; Nokhn Got fun Midbar: Drame (1949); Paper Bridges: Selected Poems of Kadya Molodowsky. Translated, edited, introduced by Kathryn Hellerstein. Detroit: 1999; Pithu et Hasha’ar: Shirei Yeladim. Hebrew translations by Nathan Alterman, Lea Goldberg, Fanya Bergshteyn, Avraham Levinson (1979); Svive, ed, (1943–1944; 1955–1974); Yidishe Kinder: Mayselekh (1945).
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