Women’s History Month: Irena Klepfisz

Women’s History Month is a time to celebrate the contributions of women and their roles in our cultural history. For Women’s History Month 2023, we are turning the spotlight to Irena Klepfisz!

IRENA KLEPFISZ is a lesbian poet, essayist, political activist, Yiddishist, and a practicing secular Jew. Born in 1941 in the Warsaw Ghetto, Klepfisz spent part of the war in a Polish orphanage and part in hiding with her mother until liberation.  After a three-year stay in Sweden, they immigrated to the United States in 1949 and settled among Yiddish speaking Holocaust survivors who were active Jewish Labor Bundists (Jewish socialists) in interwar Poland.

After settling in New York in 1949, Klepfisz would go on to write groundbreaking poetry through a lens of queerness that navigated the traumas of the holocaust. She would later dedicate herself to activism, serving a major role in the Jewish lesbian movement in the 1970s.

Klepfisz’s poetry is intersectional as it combines the many themes that have shaped her life, moving between the Holocaust, the Israel/Palestine conflict, and depictions of lesbian love and domestic life. Her poems also employ the Yiddish language within her English-language poetry. Yiddish is woven into and works together with the English, to create vivid depictions of people and politics, human conflict, and the experience of a refugee girl trying to survive.

As a scholar and translator, Klepfisz has been involved with crucial initiatives to recover the work of Yiddish women writers. Notably she has translated the Yiddish fiction of Kadya Molodowsky and Fradel Shtok, among others. Besides writing scholarly essays and publishing her translations, Klepfisz has brought Yiddish literature to life in two musical productions, Bread and Candy: Songs of the Holocaust, a Musical Drama for Five Voices, which premiered at The Jewish Museum in New York City in 1990, and Zeyere eygene verter/Their Own Words: Yiddish Women’s Voices, a bilingual musical performance piece of women’s poetry, stories, memoirs and songs, which premiered at The Jewish Museum in 1994.

Front Cover of "Her Birth and Later Years"

Her most recent book, Her Birth and Later Years: New and Collected Poems, 1971–2021, is first complete collection of her poetic work. For fifty years, Klepfisz has written powerful, searching poems about relatives murdered during the war, recent immigrants, a lost Yiddish writer, a Palestinian boy in Gaza, and various people in her life. In her introduction to Klepfisz’s A Few Words in the Mother Tongue, Adrienne Rich wrote: “[Klepfisz’s] sense of phrase, of line, of the shift of tone, is almost flawless.”

Irena Klepfisz is a poet whose legacy is crucial to the history of Jewish and lesbian literature. She has worked to revive Yiddish and helped pave the way for lesbian and queer representation in publishing.

Listen to an interview with Irena Klepfisz, an interview from Wesleyan’s Life Lines Podcast.

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