Miriam Yalan-Stekelis was born in the town of Potoki, near Kremenchug in Ukraine, on September 21, 1900, and died in Haifa, Israel on May 9, 1984. Her father, Dr. Yehudah Leib Nisan Wilensky (1870–1935), a Zionist leader, was among the earliest members of the secret Zionist society, Benei Moshe. He also served as head of the Jewish communities of Nikolayev and Kharkov, preaching self-defense in the face of antisemitic pogroms. Yalan-Stekelis’s mother Hoda (Hadassah), the daughter of Yitzhak Lifschitz (1877–1916), was, like her father, born to a family of Lubavitcher, nationalist, and modern rabbis that instilled in its children a love of the Jewish people and of Zionism. In 1912, when he was only fifteen years old, Miriam’s older brother Mulya (Shmuel) Wilensky (1897–1966) was sent to study at Herzlia Hebrew Gymnasia in pre-state Palestine. He was later active in the Haganah, served as captain of the Solel Boneh unit of the British Engineering Corps, and was one of the first engineers of the Solel Boneh firm. Her younger brother, Professor Emmanuel Yalan, an architect, lectured at the Technion, founded and directed the Institute for the Study of Rural Construction, wrote textbooks for architects and experts in the field of agricultural settlement and served as an officer in the IDF Intelligence Branch.
Because of pogroms and threats to her father’s life as a result of his public functions, Yalan-Stekelis spent her childhood and adolescence moving from one city to the next (among them Kremenchug, Minsk, Petrograd, Kharkov and Berlin). But despite the family’s relocations, she managed to complete her high school studies in Minsk and Petrograd, studied psychology and social sciences at the University of Kharkov, pursued Judaic studies at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin and completed a degree in library science at the College of Library Studies in Paris. As befitted the product of a Jewish-nationalist upbringing and the daughter of a delegate to the first Zionist Congresses, Yalan-Stekelis combined the study of the Hebrew language, learned from private tutors, with her general studies in the social sciences, Judaism and library science. Her knowledge of Hebrew later proved its importance; when she immigrated to Palestine, her familiarity with the language enabled her to find her place in the emergent Hebrew culture and to enrich it with her talents. Her first poem in Hebrew, aimed at adult readers, was published in 1922, only two years after her arrival in Palestine with her father and her brothers. A decade later, in 1933, she turned her energies to writing poems and stories for children, with the popular children’s weekly Davar li-Yeladim serving as her base and providing an environment of encouragement and support.
The first, spontaneous urge in the direction of poetry can be attributed to the traumatic experience of her mother’s death when Yalan-Stekelis was a sixteen-year-old adolescent. The loss left its mark on her psyche, casting a veil of sadness over her life; traces of the pain of her orphaned state later found their way into her poems for both adults and children.
When Yalan-Stekelis immigrated to Palestine in 1920 she settled in Jerusalem, where she headed the Slavonic Department of the Jewish National and University Library for close to thirty years. In 1929 she married Professor Moshe Stekelis (1898–1967), but the memory of her parents was preserved in the surname joined to her husband’s: Yalan, taken from the Hebrew initials of her father’s name Yehudah Leib Nisan.
Yalan-Stekelis, who had no children of her own, was gifted at writing stories for this age group; but it was her poems that placed her at the pinnacle of her field and bestowed upon her the mantle of the greatest children’s poet in Israel. Indeed, the development of children’s poetry in Israel would have been inconceivable without the twofold achievements of Yalan-Stekelis: on the one hand, she carried on a tradition rooted in romanticism and in the “Mother-Play and Nursery Songs” written by the father of the modern kindergarten, Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852). This tradition, which was widespread in the Hebrew children’s poetry composed by the national poets of the generation preceding Yalan’s (among them Bialik, Tchernichowsky and Shneour), drew a connection between the child and nature, the child and its toys, the child and its imaginary games. Combining the form of Froebel’s poems with the spirit of the “children of nature” of romantic poetry, these works contained nationalist, optimistic, idyllic, sentimental and ideal elements; but first and foremost, they sought to commend the adult and offer legitimation for the manner in which (s)he educated his/her nature-child as a new, nationalist, modern creation.
Yalan-Stekelis touched on these themes, yet at the same time she rejected them, generating shock waves in the linguistic context as well, by parting ways with the tradition of biblical, talmudic and flowery language that marked the works of the preceding generation. This paved the way for a fresh new portrait of the urban child of Israel; the thematic route to his inner world, with its emotional conflicts, was now virtually redrawn in the spirit of modern psychology. Her work gave new form to the poetic expression of the dialogical (and critical) relationship, with—and attitude towards—the behavioral norms of adults in their interactions with children.
Thus we encounter for the first time in the history of Hebrew children’s poetry the figure of a child chattering away in native Hebrew that echoes the ancient language of the forefathers while at the same time faithfully reflecting the children of the new generation born in Palestine. The child is poised on the edge of the adults’ awareness, questioning their norms of behavior. The childish protagonists of Yalan-Stekelis, in poetry and prose, hold up a mirror to the adults that reflects a child’s reality—at times contented, at times tormented; at times wounded by faithless friends, at other times hurt and humiliated by the obtuseness and insensitivity of adults. In adopting such a stance, Yalan-Stekelis placed herself squarely at the head of the avant-garde stream of both Palestinian and European children’s poetry. As early as the 1930s, she challenged one of the central conventions of modern children’s literature—the “happy ending” that paints the child’s world in shades of unmitigated joy. Accordingly, she portrayed children playing and frolicking yet also struggling, hurting and, especially, suffering from the judgment of adults. From now on, the finger was pointed not only at the children but also at the adults, who were presented as subjugating the children and causing them misery. Suddenly, children’s literature became a form of “bibliotherapy” (even before such a tool had gained widespread use) that encouraged children to give vent to their “negative” feelings, thereby placing the adults on trial. As Yalan-Stekelis writes in her famous poem, “Levadi” (All alone) (Yalan-Stekelis 1957, 70):
Mommy said: Hello, my child,
Hello, my sweetheart.
And went away. And is gone. And I’m all alone.
And I cried.
The young child who shares with the reader its experience of abandonment by a mother who turns her attentions elsewhere not only proclaims its sense of anger and frustration but bears witness to the irreversibility of the moment, through the mother’s words: “you must not” and “little fool.” These words, which sear its memory—a memory lodged in its fists pounding against a locked door—are uttered to a silent teddy bear; they flow once more in the tears forbidden by the mother and the members of a generation fighting for independence and renewal, for “one must not cry.”
In contrast to the uninhibited contrariness that exposes the adults and their misdeeds, the grief-laden lyric poems are laced with hidden, unspoken hope that shields the reader from the vise of pessimism and despondency. The fact that the child protagonist is not afraid to cry and to share its most intimate feelings, despite the explicit prohibition of the adults, grants the child an aura of inner strength that is reinforced by other presentations of these same children as also able to laugh, get excited and enjoy themselves with imaginary games, humor and nonsense, under the shelter of supportive, loving adults, who at times also succeed in conveying warmth, security and reinforcement. Taken together, they create the sense of optimism that emerges from Yalan-Stekelis’s work, which builds a harmonious world that interweaves currents of joy and happiness with moments of anger and pain.
As a result of her gift for presenting a balanced, well-integrated picture of the child’s world that does not infantilize it, and her ability to change static “book language” into a vibrant idiom that echoes everyday speech, Yalan-Stekelis was awarded the Israel Prize for Children’s Literature in 1957 (the first time such a category was included). In explaining their decision, the judges wrote: “…Whatever she wrote, she wrote for children, and whatever she wrote bore no hint of deliberate infantilization but rather of true childhood, genuine and realistic, that embraces joy and innocence but also sorrow and tears, life’s wisdom and life’s evils, disappointment and consolation. She flavored her poems for children with all the key ingredients that mark good children’s poetry. Her work possesses a wonderful sense of the world of children. Language that draws upon sources both ancient and modern, admirable poetic skills and perfect musicality are a rare phenomenon in any nation and language, and not every literature is so blessed” (Editorial, Davar li-Yeladim).
A sense of connection and continuity with the traditions of the Jewish people and its culture, on the one hand, and with the treasures of Russian and European children’s literature, on the other, coupled with an avant-garde boldness in the fields of Hebrew language, psychology and the thematics of writing for children, all combine to create the unique poetry of Miriam Yalan-Stekelis. These qualities are manifest throughout the range of genres that she employed in composing her works of poetry and prose for children. Her work is permeated with positive educational values without falling into the trap of didactic preaching; it is replete with nationalist, Zionist ideology, without climbing on the propaganda bandwagon. While incorporating the tradition of Russian and European literature, she never ceases to be both original and Israeli. All of these aspects are reflected in her diverse literary endeavors, among them her translations of children’s literature into Hebrew from Russian, English, German and Dutch, which include Russian folk tales; Tinok Ba la-Olam (A Baby Is Born: The Story of How Life Begins by Dr. Milton I. Levine and Jean H. Seligman, 1957), whose translation into Hebrew marked the breaking of a taboo in the sex education of Israeli children in the late 1950s; and works by Samuel Marshak, Erich Kastner, Leo Tolstoy, Anne Frank, P. L. Travers and others.
Among her original stories for children is Ha-Masa el ha-I Ulay (Journey to the Isle of Maybe, 1944), which tells of toys in a children’s room that come to the aid of a damaged doll named Elisheva and venture out to seek help for her at the clinic of the greatest doctor in doll-land; Ma’aseh be-Parokhet (Tale of a holy curtain, 1951), a poetic, dream-like story that expresses the Jewish people’s longing for redemption and renewal in the Land of Israel; Bimi (1953, 1967; winner of the Hadassah Prize), which describes the warm relationship between man and dog; and Hayyim u-Milim (Life and words, 1978), which features memoirs, prose, poetry and translation.
The poetry, fiction and translations of Yalan-Stekelis were collected in three volumes published by Dvir Publishing House, Tel Aviv between 1957 and 1963, with illustrations by Zila Binder: Shir ha-Gedi (Song of the kid); Yesh Li Sod (I have a secret); and Ba-Halomi (In my dream). With the author’s assistance, her works were divided for the first time according to the reader’s age and emotional, linguistic and cognitive stages of development, with a separate volume for each level. (This collection, which was reprinted several times, was gathered into one volume and published in an elaborate special edition in 1986.)
The first volume contains songs and stories for preschoolers and non-readers, assembled under the guidance of children’s author Kornei Chokowsky. It includes Yalan-Stekelis’s play-songs (which marked an innovation in Hebrew children’s poetry), among them rhymes for finger-play, lullabies, nature poems, poems aimed at socialization and the inculcation of good habits, and poems for sheer amusement, play-acting and the expression of emotions. The works in the second volume, intended for children who have already acquired reading skills, are lengthier and express the intricate relationships between children and parents (particularly mothers) and between children and their peer group. Included in the third volume, aimed at an older age group, are nationalist and Zionist poems that express yearning for the Land of Israel, bereavement and the loss of parents during the Holocaust, and the struggle leading up to the establishment of the State of Israel. Appearing alongside poems filled with the hope for peace and redemption are lyrical-confessional poems that reveal the suffering of the child amid the difficulties of his social reality, in the encounter between the “self,” on the one hand, and parents and friends, on the other. Among this group are poems that have become classics of Israeli children’s literature, such as “Ha-Oniah” (The ship), “Gingi” (Redhead), and “Michael.”
A considerable number of Yalan-Stekelis’s poems have been set to music again by contemporary composers, giving them a more modern flavor that has enhanced their popularity. Miriam Yalan-Stekelis’s children’s poems have become an integral part of the cultural repertoire of kindergartens and schools in Israel, reflecting and shaping the everyday lives of children both past and present.
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Mashiach, Celina. "Miriam Yalan-Stekelis." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 14, 2020) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/yalan-stekelis-miriam>.