Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Kadya Molodowsky: El Khanun (1945)

Yiddish Poetry

Kadya Molodowsky: El Khanun (“God of Mercy”). Merciful God,/Choose another people,/Elect another./We are tired of death and dying,/We have no more prayers.

Kadya Molodowsky [1894–1975], also spelled Kadya Molodovski, was born on May 10th in the shtetl of Bereze (Bereza Kartuska), in Grodno province in what was then the Russian Empire and is now in Belarus. Her poems were initially about the role of women in a modern world, especially working-class women. Her later poems later evolved to discuss the survival of Jews in the modern world, in a world where humanity seemed hopelessly lost.

Such times have always marked the Jewish People. For example, after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, finding herself stuck in Kiev, Ukraine, Molodowsky worked as a private tutor, and, as Kathryn Hellerstein notes in the Jewish Women’s Archive, “in a home for Jewish children displaced by the pogroms in the Ukraine.” There, she met and married Simkhe Lev [1896–1974], a scholar and teacher. The couple then moved to Warsaw in 1921, where she was an active member of the Yiddish Writers’ Union and published four books of poems (she published seven in total).

Then to New York City (by way of Philadelphia, where he father and sisters lived) in 1935. Simkhe Lev, her husband, joined her a few years later (around 1938). In those years she had a active literary life, giving lectures and poetry readings in the U.S. and in Canada. She also wrote a column for the Forverts, under the pen name of Rivke Zilberg.

Then the Khurban in Europe changed everything, and undoubtedly this change lasted for a long, long time for writers, poets, authors, etc. It was in NYC, far removed physically, but not soulfully, from her East European Jewish roots, that she wrote a collection of poems, her sixth, Der melekh David aleyn iz geblibn (Only King David Remained; 1946), which includes this poem. (For biblical passages on El khanun, see, for example, Exodus 34:6-7, Jonah 4:2, and Nehemiah 9:16-17.)

Molodowsky named this collection khurbn lider, or “poems of the Destruction.” In this poem, Molodowsky asks/requests God of Mercy to reconsider His Covenant with the Jewish People, given that having such a distinction is long on suffering and death, and seems more like a curse than a blessing. As much as this poem subverts the relationship, it also, ironically, affirms it. The Jewish People cannot be anything else but a people who have a covenantal relationship with God. In the end this becomes a heartfelt prayer. For more, go [here] and [here] and [here].

Kadya Molodowsky in Israel (circa 1949): Between 1949 and 1952, she and her husband lived in Tel Aviv, where she was editor of the Yiddish journal Di Heym (Home), published by the Working Women’s Council (Moetzet Hapoalot). In 1971, Molodowsky received the Itzik Manger Prize, the most prestigious award for Yiddish letters and literature.
Credit: Epharim Erde; National Library of Israel, Schwadron collection
Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons

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