Poet Irena Klepfisz was born in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941. She survived the war hiding in an orphanage and later in the Polish countryside with her mother. After the war they lived in Łódź and Sweden before settling in New York in 1949. Klepfisz’s poetry broke new ground in its brazen lesbian voice, while also finding new ways to poetically investigate the trauma of the Holocaust. Klepfisz played a key role in the emergent Jewish lesbian movement starting in the 1970s. She has been dedicated to the recovery and transmission of women’s writing in Yiddish, as an active scholar, translator, and teacher. Her own poetry engages the Yiddish language, writing bilingually to create a Jewish feminist poetics for the past and present.
Poet, Translator, and Scholar
Irena Klepfisz is a poet whose legacy is key to the history of Jewish, American, and lesbian literature. She is also a pioneer of the recovery of Jewish and Yiddish women’s writing, to which she has dedicated translations, research, teaching, and activism.
Klepfisz’s poetry combines the many themes that shaped her history, moving between the Holocaust, Israel/Palestine, and explicit depictions of lesbian love and sex. One of the most unique aspects of Klepfisz’s poetry is her use of Yiddish within her English-language poetry. In her bilingual poetry, Klepfisz fuses the multiple legacies she inhabits, bringing Yiddish into the world of radical lesbian poetry and bringing lesbian content into Yiddish poetry. She also uses her linguistic experiments to echo and complicate the language politics between Yiddish, Hebrew, and Arabic in speaking to historic and contemporary political tensions. Klepfisz has forged new ways to address the horrors of the khurbn (the Holocaust); following the publication of Klepfisz’s poem “Bashert,” Adrienne Rich described Klepfisz as “recognizably one of the most powerful poets to have addressed those events.”
As a scholar and translator, Klepfisz has been part of crucial initiatives to recover the work of Yiddish women writers. She has translated the Yiddish fiction of Blume Lempel, Kadya Molodowsky, Fradel Shtok, and Yente Serdatsky, among others. Besides writing scholarly essays and widely publishing her translations, Klepfisz has brought Yiddish voices to life in two musical productions, Bread and Candy: Songs of the Holocaust, a Musical Drama for Five Voices, which premiered at The Jewish Museum in New York City in 1990, and Zeyere eygene verter/Their Own Words: Yiddish Women's Voices, a bilingual musical performance piece of women's poetry, stories, memoirs and songs, which premiered at The Jewish Museum in 1994.
Early Life and Family
Oral history with poet Irena Klepfisz. This interview was conducted by Christa Whitney on September 25, 2017, in Brooklyn, New York as part of the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project. To explore the full collection of over 1,000 interviews about Yiddish language and culture, visit yiddishbookcenter.org/tell-your-story.
Klepfisz was born in the Warsaw ghetto on April 17, 1941, to Rose Perczykow Klepfisz (Mama Lo) and to Michał Klepfisz, a member of the Bund (the secular Jewish socialist movement) who was killed in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the spring of 1943. Klepfisz and her mother had left the ghetto a few months earlier, passing as non-Jews on the Aryan side of Warsaw, with Mama Lo posing as a maid and Irena as a foundling in an orphanage. When the Warsaw Uprising began in the summer of 1944, Mama Lo kidnapped her own daughter from the orphanage as the orphanage leaders did not want to return her, and they both hid in the Polish countryside until the war ended. After the war they lived in Łódź before moving to Sweden in 1946 and emigrating to the United States in 1949. In New York, they lived amongst Yiddish-speaking Bundist Holocaust survivors in the Amalgamated Houses in the Bronx, where Mama Lo remained until her death in 2016.
Klepfisz was partnered with painter Judith Waterman for nearly forty years, until Judy’s death in 2014. They shared a loft in Brooklyn and a house in Upstate New York, where Klepfisz wrote much of her poetry.
Education and Activism
Klepfisz received a BA in English from City College of New York in 1962, where she also studied with renowned Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich. In 1970, she received a PhD in English from the University of Chicago, where she wrote her dissertation on “The Uses of History in George Elliot’s Fiction.” Though her American education set Klepfisz on the path of upward mobility (as was the case for many Jewish immigrants) and an academic career, the 1970s recession caused her to lose her first teaching position after graduation. To support herself, Klepfisz initially did office work at YIVO, the Institute for Jewish Research, in New York, where she gradually shifted her focus to Yiddish in postdoctoral studies at YIVO's Max Weinreich Center for Advanced Jewish Studies (1976-1978). At the same time Klepfisz was also becoming increasingly active within the feminist and lesbian movements. In the 1970s and early 1980s, homophobia was still ingrained in many Jewish communities, and Klepfisz's increased visibility as a lesbian writer and activist created tensions, contributing to her economic and social marginalization, a price paid by many of the first generation of openly LGBT individuals with the emergence of gay liberation after Stonewall.
In the lesbian and feminist movements Klepfisz found a new home, and she created a home for others by co-founding and editing the magazine Conditions and by contributing to the first Jewish lesbian anthology, Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology (1982). It is within the context of the lesbian movement that Klepfisz also decided to experiment with incorporating Yiddish in her English-language poetry, inspired by the bilingual Spanish/English writing of Gloria Anzaldúa, who herself quotes Klepfisz’s poetry in her Borderlands/La Frontera (1987). She served as the first Yiddish editor of the Jewish feminist magazine Bridges, to which she contributed the essay "Di mames, dos loshn/The mothers, the language: Feminism, Yiddishkayt and the Politics of Memory" (1994); she also wrote a "Feminist Introduction" to the groundbreaking Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers (1994) and co-organized and co-edited the proceedings of the national conference Di froyen; Women and Yiddish: Tributes to the Past, Directions for the Future (National Council of Jewish Women, 1995, 1996). Klepfisz's work has helped shape a queer Yiddish cultural and political movement, which scholar Jefferey Shandler has called “Queer Yiddishkeit” (2006).
Klepfisz has a long history of political activism, critiquing antisemitism, United States imperialism, and the occupation of Palestine in her poetry, essays, and political work with groups such as Di vilde khayes/The wild beasts, Jewish Committee to End the Occupation (JWCEO), and New Jewish Agenda. She co-edited The Jewish Women's Call for Peace: A Handbook for Jewish Women on the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict (1990). An active proponent of the Jewish Labor Bund and its veltlekh/secular socialist ideology, in 2017 she co-organized a major event and co-edited the album The Stars Bear Witness: The Jewish Labor Bund 1897-2017 (YIVO), celebrating the 120th-anniversary of the founding of the Bund. Klepfisz first returned to Poland in 1983 on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In 2018, she edited the memorial book Annual Gathering Commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising—75th Anniversary (Congress for Jewish Culture).
Teaching and Writing
In her teaching career Klepfisz has been devoted to the history of Jewish women’s writing, which she taught as an adjunct lecturer at Barnard from 1993 to 2018 and as a guest scholar in many other institutions. Concurrently, Klepfisz also taught women at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for many years. She has taught summer language courses at YIVO and offered workshops and courses on Yiddish women's literature, Yiddish translation, and creative writing at Klezkamp, KlezKanada, and the Yiddish New York festival.
Klepfisz published her first book of poetry, Periods of Stress, in 1975, followed by Keeper of Accounts (1982), Different Enclosures: Poetry and Prose of Irena Klepfisz (1985), and A Few Words in the Mother Tongue: Poems Selected and New (1971–1990) (1990). She also writes essays and prose, a collection of which was published in Dreams of An Insomniac: Jewish Feminist Essays, Speeches, and Diatribes (1990). She co-edited and contributed to The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women's Anthology (1986). A bilingual Polish edition of her poetry is forthcoming. She completed a new poetry collection, tentatively titled Her Birth and Later Years.
Klepfisz has received poetry grants and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her collection A Few Words in the Mother Tongue was nominated for a Lambda award in poetry and she received the Adrienne Cooper Dreaming in Yiddish award for her commitment to Yiddish and Yiddish culture in 2016. In 2019 she was named one of the “Forward’s “50 Influential American Jews” and was also included in the 2019 list of “Sexiest Jewish Intellectuals Alive.” In 2020 she was inducted into the Saints & Sinners Hall of Fame (a New Orleans-based, national literary festival profiling LGBT literature).
Irena Klepfisz’s poetry crystalizes a new Jewish lesbian voice while conjuring the power of women past, those she recovers and resuscitates in her poems, translations, research, teaching, and activism. Taken together, these vital projects allow Klepfisz to connect back, “Forging a Women's Link in di goldene keyt,” (the golden chain) as one of her essays is titled. Klepfisz thus gives us a hemshekh/continuity in the face of the many ruptures and challenges that have shaped her life, as well as Jewish history and women’s history.
Selected Works by Irena Klepfisz
Periods of Stress. New York: Out and Out Books, 1975.
Keeper of Accounts. Watertown, MA: Persephone Press, 1982.
Different Enclosures: Poetry and Prose of Irena Klepfisz. London: Onlywomen Press, 1985).
A Few Words in the Mother Tongue: Poems Selected and New (1971-1990). Portland, OR: Eighth Mountain Press, 1990.
Dreams of An Insomniac: Jewish Feminist Essays, Speeches, and Diatribes. Portland, OR: Eighth Mountain Press, 1990.
Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women’s Anthology, ed. eith Melanie Kaye/ Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.
"Queens of Contradiction: A Feminist Introduction to Yiddish Women Writers" to Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers (1994)
"Di mames, dos loshn/The mothers, the language: Feminism, Yidishkayt, and the politics of memory." Bridges 4, no. 1 (1994): 12-47.
"Di feder fun harts/The Pen of the Heart: Tsveyshprakhikayt/Bilingualism in Jewish American Poetry" in Jewish American Poetry: Reflections, Poems, New England: University Press of New England, 2000.
The 2087th Question or When Silence is the Only Answer” In Geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies (January 2020): https://ingeveb.org/blog/the-2087th-question-or-when-silence-is-the-onl….
Interview with Irena Klepfisz, Wexler Oral History Project https://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/collections/oral-histories/interviews…
Vaybertaytsh Podcast Yiddish and English Interview http://www.vaybertaytsh.com/episodes/2019/12/9/episode-44-irena-klepfis…
Pacernick, Gary. “Interview with Irena Klepfisz.” In Meaning & Memory: Interviews with Fourteen Jewish Poets. Ohio State University Press, 2001, 233-54.
Jones, Faith, and Irena Klepfisz. "They Wrote about Everything: Women and Yiddish." Bridges 16, no. 1 (2011): 58-63.
Antler, Joyce. “Irena Klepfisz and Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz 'Danger as the Shared Jewish Identity."” In Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices from the Women’s Liberation Movement, 295-311. New York: NYU Press, 2020.
Bachmann, Monica. "Split Worlds and Intersecting Metaphors: Representations of Jewish and Lesbian Identity in the Works of Irena Klepfisz." In Connections and Collisions: Identities in Contemporary Jewish-American Women’s Writing, ed. Lois E. Rubin, 197-214. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005.
Beck, Evelyn Torton. “Introduction.” In Dreams of an Insomniac, xvii-xxix. Portland, OR: Eighth Mountain Press, 1990.
Hedley, Jane. “Nepantilist Poetics: Narrative and Cultural Identity in the Mixed-Language Writings of Irena Klepfisz and Gloria Anzaldua.” Narrative 4:1 (1996), 36-54.
Helfgott, Esther Altshul. "Irena Klepfisz, loss and the poetry of exile." Journal of Poetry Therapy 18:3 (2005), 153-163.
Legutko, Agnieszka. Teachers’ Guide to Irena Klepfisz, “Bashert.” Yiddish Book Center.
Lentin, Ronit. “Irena Klepfisz.” In Jewish American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical and Critical Sourcebook, ed. Ann Shapiro, 165-172. Westport, Conn: Greenwood, 1994, 165.
Rich, Adrienne. “Introduction.” In A Few Words in the Mother Tongue: Poems Selected and New (1971-1990), 13-25. Portland, OR: Eighth Mountain Press, 1990
Shreiber, Maeera Y. "Where are we moored? Adrienne Rich, Irena Klepfisz, lament, and its diasporic aftermath." In Singing in a Strange Land: A Jewish American Poetics, 143-178. Palo Alto CA: Stanford University Press, 2007.
Weiss, Michaela. “Multilingualism in American Jewish Literature: Irena Klepfisz’s Yiddish Revival.” In Cross-Cultural Perspectives in Literature and Language, ed. Joanna Stolarek, Jaroslaw Wilinski, 67-87. San Diego: Academic Publishing, 2017.
Weiman-Kelman, Zohar. “Legible lesbian lines: The bilingual poetry of Irena Klepfisz.” Journal of Lesbian Studies 23:1 (2019), 21-35.