Original by Khane Levin
Translated, from the Ukrainian Yiddish, by Reyzl Grace
I go to the family plot
with my living mother.
She cries with swollen eyes,
weeps over me like a mourner.
— Whose advice do you follow!
Not mine or your father’s,
but a goy’s, a shikse’s!
Our daughter plays with rifles!
— Mama, the world goes on!
I, too, can saddle a horse
like a goy, like a shikse.
I’ve made love in bushes.
The world burns and the girl glows.
Beside me, a cold rifle.
On me, two hot hands.
Like a sheygets, like a goy
on a horse on the frontline, in the fire!
The fields and the miles ask —
A young woman owes something
to the world being born:
her own blood and her own flesh,
— Mama! You should know
how your daughter Sime is called now —
Dayosh, tovarishtsha Maxima!
בּין איך אַוועק אף קייווער אָוועס
.צו מיין לעבּעדיקער מאַמען
,וויינט מיט אויסגעזופּטע אויגן
.וויינט אף מיר מיין מאַמע שאָווייס
!אין וועמען בּיסטו נאָר געראָטן—
—ניט אין מיר און ניט אין טאַטן
!אין אַ גויע, אין אַ שיקסע
!אונזער טאָכטער שפּילט מיט בּיקסן
!מאַמע, לעבּן זאָל די ערד—
,קאָן איך אויכעט זאָטלען פערד
.ווי אַ גויע, ווי אַ שיקסע
.כ’האָב געליבּט זיך אין געוויקסן
.בּרענט די וועלט און מיידל בּרענט
,נעבּן מיר אַ קאַלטער בּיקס
.און אף מיר — צוויי הייסע הענט
ווי אַ שייגעץ, ווי אַ גוי
!אַפן פערד אין פראָנטן-פייער
—פרעג די פעלדער, וויאָרסטן פרעג
געגעבּן מיידל האָט צו שטייער
:אף דער וועלט, וואָס ווערט געבּוירן
,אייגן בּלוט און אייגן פלייש
מאַמע! ווייסט, ווי איצטער הייסט—
—דיין טאָכטע סימע
!דאיאָש טאָוואַרישטשאַ מאַקסימאַ
Khane Levin published this poem following her Red Army service in the Russian Civil War. In it, the narrator’s mother remonstrates against her daughter for enlisting to fight, accusing her explicitly of un-Jewish behavior and implicitly of un-feminine behavior. Her daughter’s response artfully combines Yiddish and Russian to subvert the claims of both gendered and cultural expectations. Goy, shikse, and sheygets are all Yiddish terms for a non-Jewish person. In switching from repeating the feminine shikse in the first stanza to likening herself to a masculine sheygets in the second, the daughter uses her transgression of (what her mother perceives as) the bounds of Jewish community to simultaneously stake a claim to the “man’s world” of war and politics. She justifies this choice, however, by likening the debt of the would-be free citizen to the revolutionary movement to what a mother may owe to the child to which she is giving birth, refusing to relinquish women’s experience in processing her decision. The final line of the poem is Russian, rendering in Hebrew characters the phrase Даёшь товарища Максима (Give us Comrade Maxima!). Даёшь, followed by the name of a city, was a common slogan of the Red Army—used, for example, in its advance on Kyiv. Here, it demands the mother render her daughter’s freedom—represented by the translation of the Yiddish name Sime into a feminine form of a conventionally masculine Russian name. The feminization of the name recalls the androgynous use of sheygets and, in doing so, suggests that, just as she is asserting herself not as a man, but rather as a new kind of (Soviet) woman, the daughter is likewise not turning her back on her people, but reconstituting herself as a new kind of Jew—one who knows that her identity cannot be explained back to her mother in Yiddish, and yet renders her Russian in the familiar Hebrew letters her mother would once have taught her. A careful balance between translation and its refusal throughout the poem thus inscribes an interpenetration of the feminine and the masculine, as well as of the Jewish and the gentile, that permits neither assimilation nor disengagement.
Khane Levin was born in 1900 in what is now Dnipro, Ukraine. Educated at a school for poor children, she worked as a seamstress and sales assistant before fighting in the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. Settling in Kharkiv, she worked as a Yiddish schoolteacher in the 1920s before moving to several newspaper editorial staffs as Kharkiv became a center of Soviet publishing. Widely regarded as the foremost Soviet woman poet in Yiddish, she became a founding member of the Yiddish section of the All-Ukrainian Association of Proletarian Writers in 1928. From the 1920s through the 1940s, her poetry and stories were staples of Yiddish-language publications throughout the Soviet Union, while her Ukrainian-language work for children found an even broader audience. She passed away in 1969.
Reyzl Grace is a transfeminine Ashkenazi writer and librarian originally from Cascadia, whose prior translation credits include work by the Ukrainian Yiddish poets Dine Libkes and Hinde Roytblat recently published in In geveb. She serves as copy editor for Cordella Magazine and is currently helping prepare a new edition of the Jewish Library Handbook for the Association of Jewish Libraries. More of her work can be found at her website, reyzlgrace.com, and on Twitter @reyzlgrace.