Skip to main content

12 Big Bad Yiddishe Mamas

In honor of International Women’s Day, a worldwide holiday — originally inspired by the struggles of the mostly Jewish immigrant-led International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union — here’s our list of a dozen badass Jewish women who took on power, prejudice, and patriarchy.

1. Sonya Farber • 1892 – 1983

Sonya Farber was an active participant in the anarchist movement from the day she arrived in the US from Kiev at the age of 14. An executive board member of the Fraye Arbeter Shtime, she was a passionate member of and striker for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Here, she tells of roughing up scabs and cops who got in her way.
Film clip from: The Free Voice of Labor

2. Kraft Women’s Athletics Team • Slonim (White Russia) 1931

Frayhayt was the youth movement of the Zionist Socialist Workers’ Party. Frayhayt (Freedom) organized pioneering and scouting activities for the working Jewish masses throughout pre-war Poland. Although Zionist in political theory, the movement was diaspora-centered and advocated the use of Yiddish as opposed to Hebrew or Polish. The party became best known by its Hebrew name Dror after 1938. Its sporting program, called KRAFT (Strength), brought together young men and women and challenged its members equally to dominate in all areas of athletics — from football to track and field to the creation of physically demanding tableaux vivants (shown here), all under the banner “Zay yung, zay fray (Be young, Be Free)!

3. Grace Paley • 1922 – 2007

Born Grace Goodside in the Bronx, New York to what she described as a “a normal Jewish socialist family,” Grace Paley broke into the literary world in 1956 with her collection The Little Disturbances of Man. Understanding herself as an heir of Jewish radicalism, Paley never shied away from political action and confrontation with The Man in the fight for global justice and human rights and against nationalism (of all kinds) and imperialist war — from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan. She proclaimed: “Art is too long and life is too short. There’s a lot more to do in life than writing.”

4. Molly Picon • 1898 – 1992

A natural talent, Molly Picon, was born in New York and began performing from the age of 14. She went on to become the first great international star of the Yiddish-speaking world. Molly Picon crafted a theatrical persona that subverted gender paradigms by dressing as or “behaving like” a young boy. She continued to perform her transgressive and gender-destabilizing characters throughout her life. Demonstrating the revolutionary potential of women’s humor, theorized by Hélène Cixous, which acts “in order to smash everything, to shatter the framework of institutions, to blow up the law.”

5. Lin Jaldati • 1912 – 1988

Lin Jaldati, born Rebekka Brilleslijper, the Dutch-Jewish-Holocaust-surviving powerhouse rose to become the leading Yiddish diva of the Communist world. Here she is in 1978 at the Festival of Political Song in East Berlin with a visiting Vietnamese choir, to which she had taught Yiddish revolutionary songs.
Photo Courtesy: Archiv der Akademie der Künste • Berlin
And here she is, singing the classic firebrand anthem by Dovid Edelstadt, “In Kamf (In Struggle).”

6. Pauline Newman • 1890 – 1986

The labor trailblazer and union activist was born in Kovno Gubernia and from a nine-year-old girl on a factory floor she rose to become the first woman appointed general organizer by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, the union she fought for for seven decades. Newman was always at the forefront in the struggle for labor rights, tenant rights, and in the working-class suffrage movements. An early adopter of what may now be called a “butch aesthetic,” from 1923 on, Newman and her partner, economist Frieda Miller, lived in Greenwich Village, where they raised their daughter together.

7. Adrienne Rich • 1929 – 2012

Adrienne Rich, born in Baltimore in a Jewish-Protestant household, developed her work and thought throughout her long, brilliant career. She stands out for her writings on radical feminism, motherhood, and the anti-war movement. Rich contributed to the recovery of Yiddish women’s writing through her translations into English of great Yiddish women poets. “Re-vision,” Rich writes, “the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival…this drive to self-knowledge, for woman, is more than a search for identity: it is part of her refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society.”
Here, Adrienne Rich reads her poem “What Kind of Times are These?”
…This isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

8. Pioneer Women of Brest • 1930

Labor Zionist women from the socialist Zionist youth movements in the region of Brest-Litovsk (today in Belarus) on their collective hakhshara (training) farm in Ivatsevichy. These three women are shoveling limestone and sand as they train to pave new roads.

9. Esther a.k.a. Khaye Malke Lifshits • 1880 – 1943

The revolutionary who went by the nom-de-guerre Esther began as a revolutionary “women’s circle” activist in Minsk when Jewish men and women were organized separately. Esther joined the General Jewish Workers Bund in 1901, led efforts to bring “the revolution to the Jewish street,” and, in the period immediately after the 1905 Revolution, was the only female member of the early Bund in a policymaking position. She was among those liquidated in the Stalinist purges of 1936–1938 and died in a forced labor camp in Kazakhstan in 1943.

10. Rosa Luxemburg • 1871 – 1919

How could we have a list of badass Jewish women without Rosa Luxemburg? Active in Social Democratic revolutionary parties in Russia, Poland, and Germany, she was imprisoned time and again for her passionate politics (the mugshot here is from Warsaw, 1906). Although her worldview stemmed from her experience as a Jew growing up in the Russian Empire city of Zamość, she believed human suffering transcended nations, religions, and race. She rejected the idea of a “special suffering of the Jews” and insisted that her work is “at home in the entire world, wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.”

11. Esther Rokhl Kaminska • 1870 – 1925

The daughter of a poor cantor born on a roadside in Porozovo, White Russia, Esther Rokhl Kamińska was entirely self-educated. After joining with her partner, the actor, director, and theater organizer Avrom-Yitskhok Kamiński in 1893, she advanced a new kind of literary and artistic repertoire. Her stellar performances led colleagues and audiences to refer to her as “Di Máme” — the mother. During a period when Yiddish theater was dominated by cheap melodramatic performances derided as “shund,” or trash theater, Kamińska stood out for her measured and thoughtful performances that championed Yiddish acting as art.

12. Arbeter Froyen • Women Workers of the World



Working women, suffering women,
Who languish at home or in shop’s abyss,
Don’t stand at a distance — Why not help build
The temple of Freedom, of human bliss?
Not once have noble women put fear
On a throne, a hangman, a moneybag,
They showed that in the bitter storm
You can trust them to bear our holy flag.
Women heroes, they’ve stood in the storm,
In darkness they’ve promised Hope and Light!
They’ve meted out vengeance on murderous tyrants,
Looked in death’s face, proud and upright.
Remember them? When you do, let their lives
Inspire you again! In triumph you’ll pass!
Learn and think! Fight and strive
For freedom and joy for the whole working class!

8 May 1891
Fraye Arbeter Shtime