- Yiddish Poetry in Translation
Shoshane Tshenstokhovska was born in Czestochowa, Poland, in 1898. Little is known of her early years, but she must have had an unusually fine education, since she became a teacher before she was out of her teens, working in both Yiddish and Hebrew-language schools. During World War I she appears to have been concerned with the plight of war orphans and helped create educational institutions serving orphanages.
Her first poems appeared in 1918, and she continued to publish in Yiddish periodicals in Lodz, Warsaw and Czestochowa until her 1924 emigration to Palestine, where she lived on a kibbutz. Her work in education became her primary focus: she sat on the board of education of the united kibbutzim, taught, and wrote articles on pedagogy in Hebrew until the 1950s. She was still alive in the mid-1960s, but we have not been able to trace her life following that point. It is not known if she had children or a companion, when she died, or if family survive her.
Tshenstokhovska's poetic work has been characterized as "folkshtimlekh" ["in the manner of folk songs"], but they seem to use the folk motif as a prism through which modernist ideas refract. The poem below was published in Ezra Korman's groundbreaking anthology, Yidishe Dikhterins [Yiddish Women Poets], published by the Stein Farlag in Chicago in 1928.
I asked translator Hinde Ena Burstin what attracted her to Tshenstokhovska's work. She writes:
"A lot of Yiddish writing by women, whether poetry or prose, portrays women rebelling against the rigid roles imposed upon [End Page 108] them as women. Many of these center around women's desire for education. Yet in all too many cases, the women are unsuccessful in their attempts to break out of social and religious confines.
"The poem, 'A Vaybele' appeals to me because it depicts a woman who has succeeded in resisting social and communal expectations. She is able to read and to choose her reading material, even if she must do so surreptitiously.
"Her subversiveness is empowering. She also gains power in keeping the family waiting, while she indulges in her forbidden pastime. To me that adds a delicious touch to the poem."