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  • Introduction
  • Kathryn Hellerstein (bio)

In 1890, the Hebrew Haskalah poet Judah Leib Gordon asked, "Jewish woman, who knows your life? / In darkness you have come, in darkness do you go." Nashim no. 19 offers an illuminating response to this poetic pronouncement of 120 years ago.

During the centuries that they were muses, subjects, addressees and readers of poetry by men, Jewish women themselves wrote poems that revealed their lives and endure as living artifacts of Jewish culture. They wrote and published in the Jewish languages—Yiddish, Ladino and Hebrew among them—as well as in the languages of the wider world—including English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Persian. However, as late as the mid-twentieth century, Jewish women poets rarely found large audiences, and most of their poetry survived in obscurity. Until recently, too, this vast body of work was ignored as a topic of scholarship; but, once studied, its value becomes evident. Poems by Jewish women record the lives they led, their religious beliefs, aesthetic and political ideologies, sexual practices, education and work in the world. Far beyond their contributions to socio-historical knowledge, however, the poems survive as works of art that expand the range of Jewish culture.

Nashim 19 presents nine scholarly articles that engage issues of gender across languages, cultures, and historical periods. We also feature previously unpublished poems and translations by nine women poets and translators.

The issue opens with literary tradition. Anne Lapidus Lerner's "Back to the Beginning" explores the roles played by Eve and the Garden of Eden in four contemporary poems, by two American and two Israeli women poets. Each reclaims Eve and reinterprets Genesis. In sequences of poems about Eve in Eden, American poets Linda Pastan and Kim Chernin invoke traditions of English poetry through gendered tropes of gardens and eroticism. In contrast, Israeli poets Techiyah Bat-Oren and Ruḥama Weiss summon classical Jewish literature. Thus, in Bat-Oren's "She Finally Speaks," Eve [End Page 5] challenges the rabbinic condemnation, conveyed in the seventeenth-century Yiddish midrashic compilation Tsenerene, that threatened women with death in childbirth unless they lit the Sabbath candles to atone for her disobedience.

Wendy Zierler's "Race and Gender in Modern Hebrew Poems about Numbers 12" extends the dialogue between modern poets and biblical texts into a political discourse, by way of three Hebrew poets who reread Numbers 12, where Miriam responds to Moses' "taking" a Cushite woman. A ballad-sermon by the American Hebrew poet Ephraim Lisitzky, modeled both on "Negro sermons" and on Jewish midrash, "indicts Miriam" as a racist of the American South. Two poems by the Israeli Yokheved Bat-Miriam champion Miriam as an icon for modern Jewish women and celebrate her demand for recognition as a prophet. A 1988 poem by the Israeli Rivka Miriam comments on the Cushite woman as a marker of clarity against the Israelites' wanderings in the white desert—and perhaps also as a symbol of the struggles of the Ethiopian Jews then arriving in Israel.

In "A Boat of Light: Zoharic Images in Zelda's Poetry," Nitza Kann considers how Jewish mystical imagery figures in the poems of the twentieth-century Israeli poet Zelda. Through close readings of Zelda's modern poems in conjunction with the kabbalistic texts of the Zohar, Kann discusses the role of both types of texts in "aspir[ing] to express the inexpressible." Through hermeneutics, Kann argues that Zelda's poems call forth "the diverse character of the divine female, the Shekhinah," as a trope for "the female's vantage point upon herself."

Naomi Brenner expands Jewish literary tradition to include Yiddish and Hebrew modernism in her article "Slippery Selves: Rachel Bluvstein and Anna Margolin in Poetry and in Public." Brenner interrogates the perceptions and self-representations of women poets through the works of modernist poets Rachel Bluvstein, in Hebrew, and Anna Margolin, in Yiddish, who, she argues, are "remembered … first and foremost as women." Yet both poets used the minimalist aesthetics of Russian Acmeism to create "sophisticated lyric personas," which contemporary critics, blinded by conventional ideas of femininity, mostly failed to perceive.

Developing the question of how women Yiddish poets are perceived, Rebecca Margolis, in "Remembering Two...


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