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  • (Re)Constructing the Tradition of Yiddish Women's Poetry
  • Alisa Braun
Kathryn Hellerstein . Paper Bridges: Selected Poems of Kadya Molodowsky. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1999, 543 pp.

In her introduction to Paper Bridges: Selected Poems of Kadya Molodowsky, Kathryn Hellerstein reminds us that few women poets writing in Yiddish have been able to achieve any sustained measure of literary success. That the career of Kadya Molodowsky could span decades as well as continents confirms Molodowsky's unique status in the world of Yiddish letters and underscores the significance of this remarkable collection. Molodowsky's poetry, notable for its integration of religious and secular influences, reflects the particularities of her background. Born in 1894 in Bereza-Kartuska, White Russia, Molodowsky was educated in an atypical fashion, receiving instruction in both Hebrew and Russian subjects. Molodowsky taught and published in Odessa and Kiev before achieving early literary distinction as a poet in Warsaw. This success continued in America, where she explored a broader range of [End Page 372] artistic genres and gained further recognition for her role at the center of cultural debates. Her writing challenged oversimplified characterizations of women's verse, and the first issue of her journal Svive (which she founded in 1943) generated a flurry of response in the Yiddish press after posing the question: what is the responsibility of the artist during times of crisis?

A product of Hellerstein's more than decade-long engagement with Molodowsky's verse, Paper Bridges takes a crucial step toward refashioning Molodowsky's image in light of the diverse nature of her career. In particular, the collection challenges the conception of Molodowsky as a poet for whom issues of gender were always paramount, an impression perpetuated through the practices of anthologizing and literary criticism. The inclusion of selections from eight volumes of Molodowsky's poetry encourages readers to observe the development of her career over time, to identify those recurring images whose meanings shift with context, and to experience the range of Molodowsky's poetic voice. On a broader scale, Paper Bridges can be regarded as the latest in a series of attempts to redefine the field of Yiddish poetry. Such works as Avraham Novershtern's edition of Anna Margolin's Lider (1991) and Marcia Falk's bilingual volume of Malka Heifetz-Tussman's poetry With Teeth in the Earth (1992) have critiqued existing models of the modern Yiddish canon by bringing the corpus of verse by women into the foreground and into dialogue with established poets. These collections have confronted one of the problems that continue to plague the study of Yiddish poetry by women-that of access. Hellerstein's bilingual collection of Molodowsky's poetry represents a significant addition to these efforts, providing scholars with the tools with which to develop a sustained analysis of Molodowsky's exceptional career.

In choosing to title her volume of Kadya Molodowsky's selected poems Paper Bridges (Papirene brikn), Hellerstein at once evokes the images and themes central to an understanding of the poet's artistic accomplishments. The recurring image of the paper bridge recalls the legendary belief that at the time of the Messiah, the Jews will cross into Paradise on a paper bridge. But in Molodowsky's various renderings, the bridge alternately represents a means of personal salvation, collective redemption through the Zionist dream, and the pathway between life and death upon which the speaker stands as she confronts the reality of her old age. The paper bridges are also the poems, imaginative utterances that dramatize the tensions [End Page 373] between contradictory forces, between traditional definitions of Jewish womanhood and modernity's secularizing tendencies, between the poet's commitment to her art and to public demands for relevance. The poems seek reconciliation by narrowing the distance between opposing tendencies, yet the fragility connoted by "paper" suggests the tenuousness of such attempts. The poetic mode by which Molodowsky chooses to achieve such resolution is the metaphor, another "bridge" through which the poet creates identifications and associations where none existed before.

Unable to dismiss the past, yet ambivalent toward prayer and other traditional forms of expression, Molodowsky returns throughout her poetry to the question of whether it is possible to find a...


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