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Celia Dropkin’s Scintillating Poems

Lawrence Bush
August 17, 2017

Yiddish poet Celia Dropkin died at 68 on this date in 1956. Born and educated in the Russian Empire, she was active in Yiddish circles in New York as a poet and fiction writer while raising five children. Her “explicitly sexual imagery and themes,” writes Kathryn Hellerstein at the Jewish Women’s Archive, ” . . . redefined the ways modern Yiddish poetry could depict relationships between women and men. Beautifully crafted lyrics, Dropkin’s poems undo the poetic conventions implicit in their very forms and, with their anger and passion, call into question societal assumptions about love. . . . Even her poems about depression, about mother love, and about nature are infused with erotic energy.” Despite achieving a reputation as a blistering poet, Dropkin had only one book of poems published in her lifetime, In heysn vint (“In the Hot Wind”), in 1935, but her family arranged for the publication of more volumes posthumously. Dropkin was “skewered” by critics of her time, notes Faith Jones in Pakn Treger, the magazine of the National Yiddish Book Center. “They were all men. She was all wrong. She wrote about sex and bodies -- women’s bodies. A man’s passion is noble; a woman’s is embarrassing. She was unafraid and a woman.” Dropkin was also an accomplished visual artist in her later years. To see a trailer for a film about her, Burning Off the Page, look below.

“What reconstructed my limbs to be so ugly
and sucks my marrow and sucks my blood
and bores through my breasts?
Why do I dream so often of this
bed, the Inquisition bed,
where I lie stretched out in heavy suffering.
Slowly, slowly, you grow and grow
in me, O, secretive life.” --Celia Dropkin

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.