Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 29, 2021

‘The New World’, by Esther Singer Kreitman, translated by Barbara Harshav, in Found Treasures, Stories by Yiddish Women Writers, Edited by Frieda Forman et al

Although I enjoy adventures in translated literature, I’ve read very few Yiddish translations, and those were both by men. So when the opportunity came my way, I didn’t hesitate to enrol in a nine-week online course exploring ‘Yiddish Women Writers in Translation’ presented by Hinde Ena Burstin, courtesy of the Melbourne Jewish Museum.

The story for the first week of the course is ‘The New World’ by Esther Singer Kreitman, translated by Barbara Harshav.  Narrated by a newborn girl, it relates the imagined experience of being bored in the womb and anticipating the joy which her birth will bring to her parents, and goes on to tell the —real or imagined—story of disappointment when she is born and her parents know that she is a girl.

Grandma comes in and smiles at Mama.  She looks happy—probably because her daughter has come through it all right.  She doesn’t even look at me.

Mazel tov, dear daughter!”

Mazel tov, may we enjoy good fortune!”

Mama smiles too but not at me.

“Of course, I would have been happier if it were a boy,” says Mama.  Grandmother winks roguishly with a half-closed eye and consoles her.

“No problem, boys will also come… .”

I listen to all that and it is very sad for me to be alive.  How come I was born if all the joy wasn’t because of me! (p.79)

The introductory notes to this story explain that Kreitman (1891-1954) is showing the discrepancy between attitudes towards men and women, especially in the Hasidic milieu in which she was raised, where the male is valued far above the female.

We see that in Kreitman’s world a woman’s feelings of powerlessness begin very early, perhaps even at birth.  In a sense, the story is symbolic of Kreitman’s entire life: she wanted to be “born” — to be creative, to experience a full life — and from the day of her birth, she was pushed back into darkness and passivity.  (p.77)

Wikipedia confirms that this ostracism was literal:

Kreitman had an unhappy childhood. According to her son, her mother gave her to an uncaring wet nurse for the first three years, who left her in a cot under a dusty table where she was visited once a week by her mother, who did not touch her. Later, as a highly gifted child, she had to watch her younger brothers being taught, while she was relegated to menial household duties. Kreitman’s first novel includes numerous scenes depicting the main female character’s desires for education: scenes in which she waits with great anticipation for the bookseller to arrive in their town, dreams of becoming a scholar, and hides a Russian text-book from the male members of her family so that they won’t find out she is studying in secret. It is likely that these incidents reflect Kreitman’s own story.

I am looking forward to finding out more about this story and its author, and why it was chosen for the first week of the course.

Editors: Frieda Forman, Ethel Raicus, Sarah Silberstein Swartz and Margie Wolfe
Title: Found Treasures, Stories by Yiddish Women Writers
Publisher: Toronto Second Story Press, 1994, first published 1947
ISBN: 9780929005539
Source: Melbourne Jewish Museum’s short course ‘Yiddish Women Writers in Translation’, presented by Hinde Ena Burstin


Responses

  1. It’s wonderful discovering writers that have been forgotten or erased. This is my latest literary pursuit and have discovered quite a few so far. Looks like you’re on another discovery course. Lucky you.

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    • The class was terrific… I learned so much!

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  2. What a great course to take; I’ve borrowed this collection from the library but haven’t read it straight through (though I’d meant to). Is there a Chava Rosenfarb short story in there by chance? I think I found one there (she’s a favourite of Mel’s at The Reading Life and she’s wonderful-so direct, so poignant).

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    • It’s been very interesting so far…a little like being back at uni in the way we’re deconstructing everything.
      I will ask about Chava Rosenfarb. We don’t have the book, only a pdf. of the story. There’s going to be a poem next but we don’t have it yet, they send us what we have to read a day or so beforehand.

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  3. […] its anniversary, is well-known in New York.  But I had never heard of it until it was mentioned in a course about Yiddish Women writers that I took through the Melbourne Jewish Museum. One of the stories we read referenced Jewish girls migrating from the shtetl to work in the […]

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