Sisterhood Blog

Throwback Thursday: Yiddish Novelist Takes On Stalin's Terror

By Chana Pollack

Copyright Forward Association Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly photo feature in which we sift 116 years of Forward history to find snapshots of women’s lives.

Vera Hacken was the Odessa-born memoirist of a Czernowitz childhood, and an early novelist of the intricacies of life under the Soviet Union’s police state apparatus — but much of her life remains somewhat shrouded in mystery. So when we found her dreamy photo in our archive and felt ourselves hooked in by her dark-eyed melancholic scrutiny, we were determined to unveil some of the hinted-at inscrutability.

Luckily she does have an entry in Berl Kagan’s Lexicon of Yiddish Writers (1986). It reads like the scene of a terse briefing in a 1950’s noir detective film with its ‘just the facts ma’am’ line of inquiry.

Still, we gratefully reaped those gleanings: The future Yiddish multi-talented novelist, poet, lyricist, memoirist, essayist, director, playwright, and German and Russian translator was born in 1912 in Odessa. Hacken spent her childhood years in Czernowitz, epicenter of a thriving Yiddish literary and cultural scene, where acclaimed Yiddish fabulist and educator Eliezer Shtaynbarg was her teacher. She studied theatre, establishing herself by 1938 as a director in Bucharest’s and Munich’s kleynkunst theatres, which are sometimes also described as literary cabarets.

She escaped to the Soviet Union during the war in 1941 with her husband, Yiddish composer and physician Emmanuel Hacken. She briefly lived in the Bavarian resort town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, which hosted a post-war convalescent center, from 1947 until arriving in New York City in 1951.

She published in a variety of Yiddish journals including Afn Shvel and Tsukunft and in 1969, in book form, a Yiddish memoir of her youth under Shtaynbarg’s stirring creative influence. In 1990, a collection was published posthumously of her short stories, essays, poems and a novella entitled ‘Stantsye Grafskaya’ detailing, among other things, the stresses, intrigues and even romances taking place under the sadistic reign of the NKVD who were responsible for enforcing Stalin’s reign of terror. An ongoing project in the early 1980’s was her editorial supervision and writing of authoritative introductory essays for a series of Yiddish classics published in German by Weitbrecht of Stuttgart.

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How One Yiddish Actress Was Blocked From Stardom

By Chana Pollack

Actress Esther Nersolavska // Copyright Forward Association

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly photo feature in which we sift 116 years of Forward history to find snapshots of women’s lives.

In 1965, a short two column item at the bottom left corner of page ten of the Forverts announced the funeral of Esther Nadya Neroslavska, the Yiddish actress and widow of composer Peretz Sandler. As it turned out, on the trail of her glamorous soft-focus portrait in our archive, we learned she was known as a first class prima donna who truly suffered for her art — or at least for her union’s control of the arts.

Born in Ekaterinoslav (today’s Dneiperpetroskov) in Ukraine to a family of artists, she started vocal training early, and at six-years-old was already concertizing. Professionally trained at Kiev’s music school to which she was awarded a scholarship, she had to leave the institution early when her mother became a widow and needed her financial support.

She began performing in Goldfaden operettas and travelled throughout Eastern Europe, and eventually was engaged by an Italian opera troupe where she achieved the level of second prima donna performing the role of Micaela in the opera “Carmen.” The great Yiddish theatre impresario Boris Thomashefsky saw her in Poland in 1913 and brought Nerovslavska and her husband to New York where she performed the role of diva in many operettas throughout the US and Canada.

Reputedly talented and beloved, Nerovslavska seemed curiously to have performed only infrequently in New York City. In 1918, Forverts labor editor and West coast correspondent Harry Lang reported about Neroslavska’s lack of work. Incredulous, he wrote that Madam Esther Neroslavska has long been a guest in New York City. Youthful, beautiful and talented, he commented, she’s a prima donna and she sings — but doesn’t act. In Philadelphia’s American Theatre she had several appearances, he reported — but seemed slightly hidden. And, he concluded, it’s been said the actor’s union doesn’t want her performing. He questioned that assumption asking whether in fact the union would stoop to such treachery.

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Pepi Littman, Yiddish Drag King

By Chana Pollack

Forward Association

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly photo feature in which we sift 116 years of Forward history to find snapshots of women’s lives.

The image of early 20th century itinerant member of the Broder Singers (and Yiddish drag king) Pepi ‘Peshe Khane’ Littman (1874-1930) seen here as ‘the griner bucher’ (the inexperienced bachelor) calls to mind the bawdy Yiddish saying: es zol dir dunern in boykh un blitsn in di hoyzn (may you have thunder in your belly and, — more importantly perhaps — lightning in your pants.)

Electricity was precisely what Pepi brought to the then nascent field of Yiddish women performers: either in drag as a young hasidic man costumed in a long black satin coat, high peaked silk yarmulka, white knee-socks and breeches, or as a dandy bachelor, sumptuously filling out a handsomely tailored three piece suit. Pepi was a charming transgressive star delivering original Yiddish lyrics and drawing fans from literary circles, including those based around the “grandfather” of Yiddish literature, Mendele Moykher Sforim.

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Second Avenue Songbird Selma Kaye

By Chana Pollack

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly photo feature in which we sift 116 years of Forward history to find snapshots of women’s lives.

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Helen Broza Helped Israeli Women Fly

By Chana Pollack

Forward Association

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly photo feature in which we sift 116 years of Forward history to find snapshots of women’s lives.

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Throwback Thursday: Globetrotting Yiddish Reporter

By Chana Pollack

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly photo feature in which we sift 116 years of Forward history to find snapshots of women’s lives.

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Throwback Thursday: Moscow's Yiddish Stage Star

By Chana Pollack

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly photo feature in which we sift 116 years of Forward history to find snapshots of women’s lives.

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Recalling Chana Mlotek, Mother of Yiddish Music

By Chana Pollack

Before there were blogs and Wikipedia, there were archivists like Chana Mlotek, an expert in Yiddish ethnomusicology, whose memory was a trove of cultivated knowledge spanning fields of literature and history.

Mlotek is pictured here (back row, third from right) in the 1960s in the Bronx, with a Yiddish-speaking mother’s group that was affiliated with the Workmen’s Circle in costume for a theater production. Taking time off her full time job at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research to raise her family, Mlotek brought her deep knowledge of Yiddish, as well as the gift of inspiring those around her to embrace it, to this group of mothers. Mlotek provided musical direction and authentic folkloric resources to the group for its productions of classic Yiddish plays, such as Sholem Aleichem’s “Dos Groyse Gevins” (“The Lottery”).

Educated at Hunter College as well as at a Yiddish Folklore masters class at UCLA, Mlotek began her professional Yiddish career as the Yiddish secretary to Dr. Max Weinreich, linguistic scholar and founder of YIVO. He skill-set led her to be tasked, among other things, with proofreading the Modern English Yiddish Dictionary. Mlotek returned fulltime to YIVO in 1978 and was formally appointed music archivist in 1984. Later years found her in great demand as researcher for such projects as Mandy Patinkin’s Yiddish performance series as well as more recently, Michael Tilson Thomas’s project about his Yiddish theatrical grandparents, the Thomashefskys.

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Throwback Thursday: She Interviewed Hitler

By Chana Pollack

Welcome to the Sisterhood’s first installment of Throwback Thursday, a weekly photo feature in which we sift 116 years of Forward history to find snapshots of women’s lives. Click below for more.

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Yenta's Real Yiddish History

By Ezra Glinter

This post is in response to “Yenta’s Dirty Roots,” which ran on The Sisterhood on February 10, 2013.

One of the many interesting things about Yiddish is that no one is entirely sure how it started. Though it originated in Medieval Europe, its exact roots are the subject of competing hypotheses among scholars.

What isn’t in doubt, however, is the origin of the term “yente,” which connotes a gossipy woman. In a February 10 blog post on The Sisterhood, Rachel Rosmarin speculated that it might have something to with the American Yiddish slang term “yentsn,” which means “to f–k.”

In fact, the word “yente” goes back to the very beginning of Yiddish, when there was a strong influence from Romance languages like Old Italian and Old French. It is derived from the name Yentl, which comes from the Old Italian word “gentile” meaning noble, or refined. In English we have words like “gentle,” “genteel” and even “gentile,” that come from the same source. In his book “Dictionary Of Jewish Usage: A Guide To The Use Of Jewish Terms,” the linguist Sol Steinmetz points out a number of Yiddish words that come from these languages, including “bentshn,” to bless, and tsholnt (or cholent), everyone’s favorite Shabbos lunch.

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American Soap Operas Taught Me Yiddish

By Dorothy Lipovenko

courtesy Dorothy Lipovenko
The author’s grandparents, Izzy and Mary Caplan, in 1976.

The language of soap operas is universal: vexing vixens, meddling matriachs and busy men with even busier zippers. When All My Children joined numerous cancelled soaps with its final episode on September 23, it prompted me to reflect on how the voices gone silent did more than entertain; they helped teach me Yiddish.

Like monarchies before a revolution, the kingdoms of daytime television ruled when coffee klatches and occasional babysitters had yet to be overthrown by power lunches and 24/7 nannies.

The demise of soaps draws the curtain on not just a fading era of pre-feminist entertainment, but what women now consider appropriate to do with their days, or at least their afternoons. Which brings me to my maternal grandmother, a woman who survived an immigrant’s ocean trek, a working mother who raised three sets of twins in the Depression.

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The 'Mitzvah Girls' of Borough Park

By Rebecca Honig Friedman

Fordham anthropology professor Ayala Fader is the author of “Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn” (Princeton University Press, 2009), which has just been named the winner of the Jewish Book Council’s 2009 Barbara Dobkin Award in Women’s Studies. The Sisterhood’s Rebecca Honig Friedman recently interviewed Fader about her fieldwork in the wilds of Borough Park, Brooklyn, what “fitting in” means among haredi women, and how her research changed her perspective on how the ultra-Orthodox live.

Ayala Fader, author of “Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn”

Rebecca Honig Friedman:“Mitzvah Girls” began as your doctoral thesis. How did you choose the topic?

Ayala Fader: Growing up on the Upper West Side as a Reform Jew, I had always been fascinated by Hasidic Jews — they had been presented to me as a remnant of a lost past. I think there was some nostalgia I had which was pretty quickly cured by fieldwork. When I began reading some of the literature on Hasidic Jews, I found out that there had not been much research done on [Hasidim’s use of Yiddish], and even less on childrearing. So for both personal and professional reasons, I chose this topic.

In the book you talk about the importance for Hasidic females of “fitting in” and being “with it.” Do you see the desire for conformity and what we might call “hipness” as being different from the similar desires of women outside the Hasidic world?

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