The great Yiddish poet Anna Margolin, pen name of Rosa Lebensboym, was born on January 21st 1887 in what is today Brest (Yiddish: Brisk), Belarus. Margolin received a secular European education and excelled in school.
When she was just eighteen years old she first traveled to New York to prepare for a university entrance exam. However, instead of enrolling in school she became involved in the bohemian intellectual and artistic life of the Lower East Side, becoming involved with Chaim Zhitlowsky and his circle.
Margolin published her first story in the Jewish Anarchist newspaper, פרייע ארבעטער שטימע, “Free Voice of Labor,” whose editorial board she also joined. Not ready to settle, Margolin spent the next years traveling to Warsaw, Odessa, London, Paris and Palestine. She finally returned to New York permanently in 1913.
I Was Once a Handsome Boy
I was once a handsome boy,
heard Socrates in the porticos,
my darling, my bosom-buddy,
had Athens’ most stunning torso.
There was Cæsar. And a bright world
built of marble, the last was I,
and selected as my wife
was my proud sister.
Rose-wreathed, over wine, all night through,
I heard in the highest of spirits
about that weakling from Nazareth
and wild stories about Jews.
— Translated by Maia Evrona
Back in New York, Margolin joined the editorial board of דער טאג, “The Day,” in which she wrote a column entitled “In the women’s world.” In 1929 Margolin’s only book of poetry, Songs, was published to critical acclaim. Margolin’s close friend and later husband Reuben Iceland (Ruven Ayzland) described to her in letters how the Yiddish intelligentsia would argue about who the unknown author of her poems could be, and how “the general opinion is that it must certainly be a man…these poems are written by an experienced hand. And a woman can’t write like that.”
Margolin’s poetry deals with the alienation of women in society, with women’s sexuality, and with themes of anxiety and loneliness. Upon her death in 1952, her poem “Epitaph” (1932) was engraved on her tombstone: