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Kadya Molodowsky

One of my great joys this semester was a course on modern and contemporary Jewish-American literature. It gave me a taste of so many writers and literature from our history, whose names are slowly being forgotten outside academia.

One of the writers I really loved was Kadya Molodowsky, (1894-1975). Born in a shtetl in White Russia, Molodowsky grew up in an educated family as one of four children. Her father taught Hebrew and Gemara to boys in a heder, but was also a passionate follower of the Enlightenment and early Zionism. Her mother ran a dry-goods shop and later opened a factory that distilled a lightly alcohol beverage made from fermented cereal.

Molodowsky’s grandmother taught her how to read Yiddish. Her father taught her Bible and also hired Russian tutors to teach her secular subjects. Such an education, especially instruction in Hebrew, was not typical for a girl of her time and place, explains Jewish American Literature: a Norton Anthology.

Molodowsky married and emigrated to the US in 1935, settling in New York City. She published widely in multiple genres, including children’s poems, adult poems, novels and columns. In 1950, she moved with her husband to live in Tel Aviv, where, in 1971, she was awarded the most prestigious award in the world of Yiddish letters, the Itzik Manger Prize. In particular her writings reflect a deep awareness and compassion for the poverty she witnessed among immigrant Jews in New York.

After her husband died, Molodowsky’s health began to decline and she became incapacitated. Her sister, niece and nephew moved her to a nursing home near Philadelphia, where she died in March 1975.

It’s easy to learn more about this interesting writer. A research article has been written about Molodowsky and her work, which you can view here. A collection of her poems can also be viewed on GoogleBooks here.

One of Molodowsky’s most famous poems is called “God of Mercy.” What do you think of it? I’d love to hear your reactions.

God of Mercy

O God of Mercy
Choose –
another people.
We are tired of death, tired of corpses,
We have no more prayers.
Choose –
another people.
We have run out of blood
For victims,
Our houses have been turned into desert,
The earth lacks space for tombstones,
There are no more lamentations
Nor songs of woe
In the ancient texts.

God of Mercy
Sanctify another land,
Another Sinai.
We have covered every field and stone
With ashes and holiness.
With our crones
With our young
With our infants
We have paid for each letter in your Commandments.

God of Mercy
Lift up your fiery brow,
Look on the peoples of the world,
Let them have the prophecies and Holy Days
Who mumble your words in every tongue.
Teach them the Deeds
And the ways of temptation.

God of Mercy
To us give rough clothing
Of shepherds who tend sheep
Of blacksmiths at the hammer
Of washerwomen, cattle slaughterers
And lower still.
And O God of Mercy
Grant us one more blessing –
Take back the divine glory of our genius.

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This semester I’m taking a course on modern Jewish literature. We began our studies with the interesting question of: What defines Jewish literature anyway? It turns out, it’s a question that isn’t so easy to answer, and which has spurred countless ruminations in academic journals.

Surely, there is more to being Jewish literature than being written by a Jewish author. Then there are the conundrums raised by such wonderful books as Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, which won a national Jewish book award two years ago, and its author wasn’t Jewish at all! Is it the themes or subjects that make a story Jewish? Messages of diaspora, identity, Otherness, living in two worlds, wrestling with tradition? Do those themes only count as Jewish if they involve Jewish characters?

Perhaps the best way to think about this question is through the open-ended nuance offered by poetry. This poem, by Myra Sklarew, appeared in her collection From the Backyard of the Diaspora, published in 1976.

what is a Jewish poem

does it wear a yarmulka
and tallis
does it live
in the diaspora
and yearn for homeland

does it wave the lulav
to and fro inside
a plastic sukkah
or recite
the seven benedictions
under the chupah

I wonder
what is a jewish poem
does it only go to synagogue
one day a year
attaching the tfillin
like a tiny black stranger
to its left arm

does it open
the stiff skins
of the prayerbook
to reveal the letters
like blackened platelets
twisting within

little yeshiva bocher
little jewish poem
waving your sidecurls
whispering piyyut to me
in my sleep
little jewish poem
in your streimel hat
little grandfather
sing to me
little jewish poem
come sing to me

– Myra Sklarew

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