Yiddish Poet

Anna Margolin

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

Anna Margolin

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 טאָג, “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:

She squandered her life on rubbish, on nothing.

Perhaps she wanted it so, perhaps she desired this misery, these seven knives of anguish to spill this holy living wine on rubbish, on nothing.

Now she lies with shattered face. Her ravaged spirit has abandoned its cage. Passerby, have pity, be silent — Say nothing.

(translation by Shirley Kumove)

זי האָט איר שיינקייט פאַרשווענדט אַף מיסט, אַף גאָרנישט.

זי האָט עס אפשר געוואָלט, אפשר געגלוסט צום אומגליק, צו זיבן מעסערס פון פּייַן, און פאַרגאָסן דעם לעבנס הייליקן ווייַן אַף מיסט, אַף גאָרנישט.

איצט ליגט זי מיט אַ צעבראָכן געזיכט. דער געשענדטער גייַסט האָט פאַרלאָזן די שטייַג. פאַרבייַגייער, האָט רחמנות און שווייַג – זאָג גאָרנישט.