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"So the Kids Won't Understand": Inherited Futures of Jewish Women Writers

  • Author(s): Weiman-Kelman, Zohar Eeda
  • Advisor(s): Kronfeld, Chana
  • et al.

Reading poetry in Yiddish, Hebrew and English from across the twentieth century, this dissertation examines how literary lineage is constructed and challenged by Jewish women in Eastern Europe, America and Mandatory Palestine. Between Jewish women's limited access to the past and the precarious future of Yiddish, I offer a queer genealogy based on nonlinear transmissions, affective connections and cross-temporal encounters. This genealogy serves as an alternative to teleological heteronormative narratives of Jewish history, which the lens of Yiddish and the lens of women's writing complicate. Reading women writers undermines the binding value of the past, for women's literature emerged despite and against historical silencing and erasure. While many feminist projects have aimed to recover women's lost pasts, I explore what it means to write without a past, what the stakes are for recovering the past, and what complications arise when the past is not quite gone. At the same time, pronouncements of the "death of Yiddish" pose a challenge to politics of futurity (those politics conceiving of the now in service of that which is to come). Indeed, the fact that secular Yiddish speakers are no longer made in the bedroom but in the classroom means the value of Yiddish cannot depend on having a future, at least not one wedded to heteronormative reproduction and language transmission. Instead, I embrace the challenge of formulating a cultural legacy that is not primarily invested in biology, the nuclear family or the future, echoing queer theories of temporality, kinship and sociality that have questioned the priorities produced by reproductive politics.

In search of alternative histories and alternatives models of history, this dissertation turns to the interwar period as a moment of past possibility for the Jewish future. Focusing on Jewish women's poetry of the period, each chapter offers a different model of lineage as a means of reaching back to this poetry. Through the work of early Hebrew poet Yocheved Bat-Miriam, the Introduction formulates a queer Jewish keyt/chain of transmission that serves as the methodological model of the entire dissertation. Chapter One looks at how 1920s poets Anna Margolin (writing Yiddish) and Leah Goldberg (writing Hebrew) formulated their poetic identity through the histories of non-Jewish others, whereas Chapter Three shows how Jewish lesbian writers of the 1970s such as Irena Klepfisz and Adrienne Rich could reach back to the women writers who preceded them within Jewish history. Through real-life, literary and imagined encounters of writers such as Adrienne Rich and Yiddish poet Kadya Molodowsky, as well as between myself and writers of the 1920s and the 1970s, I create a queer dialogue that replaces (hetero-)normative models of cultural transmission and the conflict/continuity they assume. Between these two chapters, Chapter Two uses the erotic poetry of Celia Dropkin and the erotics of Yiddish at large to intervene in contemporary conceptions of Yiddish, as I attempt to replace the fetishizing of Yiddish with fetishism in Yiddish. Employing transgressive sexuality expressed in Dropkin's poetry, as well as in early sexology, Yiddish archives and contemporary kink, I offer an affective genealogy based on erotic activation past and present. Taken together, the three chapters produce queer lines of lineage that challenge the present approach to the past and the dictate of looking forward to the future, instead turning back to and with Jewish women's writing.

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