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Klepfisz, Irena


Nationality: American (originally Polish: immigrated to Sweden, 1946, the United States, 1949). Born: Warsaw, 1941. Education: City College of New York, B.A. and M.A.; University of Chicago, Ph.D. in English literature; post-doctoral fellow, Max Weinreich Center for Jewish Studies, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York. Career: Translatorin-residence, YIVO, late 1980s; teacher of creative writing and women's studies, Vermont College; professor of women's studies and Jewish studies, Michigan State University, Lansing; professor of Jewish women's studies, Barnard College. Has also taught at Columbia University, Long Island University, Brooklyn College, State University of New York at Albany, Hamilton College, University of California, Wake Forest University, and Centre College in Kentucky. Founding editor, Conditions, 1976-81; editorial consultant, Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Their Friends. Executive director, New Jewish Agenda, 1990-92.



Periods of Stress. 1975.

Keeper of Accounts. 1982.

A Few Words in the Mother Tongue: Poems Selected and New (1971-1990). 1990.


Why Children? 1980.

Different Enclosures: The Poetry and Prose of Irena Klepfisz. 1985.

Dreams of an Insomniac: Jewish Feminist Essays, Speeches and Diatribes. 1990.

Editor, with Melanie Kaye-Kantrowitz, The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Woman's Anthology. 1989.

Editor, with Rita Falbel and Donna Nevel, Jewish Women's Call for Peace: A Handbook for Jewish Women on the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict. 1990.


Critical Studies:

"Stepmother Tongues," in Tikkun, 5(5), September/October 1990, and "History Stops for No One," in What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, 1993, both by Adrienne Rich; Irena Klepfisz: A Life in Print: The Early Years, 1975-1992 (dissertation) by Esther Helfgott, University of Washington, 1994; "Irena Klepfisz's 'Fradel Schtok' and the Language of Hyphenated Identity" by Gisela Ecker, in Anglistik & Englischunterricht (Germany), 53, 1994, pp. 129-39; "The End of Exile: Jewish Identity and Its Diasporic Poetics" by Maeera Y. Shreiber, in PMLA, 113(2), March 1998, pp. 273-87; "Pedagogy and the Mother Tongue: Irena Klepfisz's 'Di rayze aheym/The Journey Home"' by Laurence Roth, in Symposium, 52(4), Winter 1999, pp. 269-78.

* * *

Irena Klepfisz has resisted the classification of her work as either lesbian/feminist or Holocaust/Jewish poetry, explaining in her book Dreams of an Insomniac, "I write as much out of a Jewish consciousness as I do out of a lesbian/feminist consciousness. They are both always there, no matter what topic I might be working on. They are embedded in my writing, embedded and enmeshed to the point that they are not necessarily distinguishable as discrete elements. They merge and blur, for in many ways they are the same … Alienated. Threatened. Un-American. Individual. Defiant. To me they are ever present." Her Holocaust poetry has not been informed exclusively by her experiences as a child survivor but by the experience of multiple marginalizations (as an unwed, childless Jewish woman; as a lesbian feminist; and as an immigrant and nonnative speaker of English).

Throughout her career Klepfisz has struggled with the label Holocaust poet. After her friend and fellow child survivor Elza's suicide, Klepfisz spent six years writing almost exclusively about the Holocaust, in Elza's voice. Klepfisz felt that she never had this poetry "completely under control." In the 1970s she developed her own "identifiable voice" and progressed beyond poetry as therapy, continuing to worry, however, that her work was dominated by the Holocaust (poems from this period include "death camp," "herr captain," and "about my father"). Klepfisz maintained that the commercialization of the Holocaust (the "Holocaust of American Big Business. The Holocaust of glamour. Of movie stars. TV stations. Of sloppy books that sell millions of copies.") had eroded the meaning of the word Holocaust in America and robbed her "of the possibility of really mourning the losses of [her] life, of even defining them or articulating them properly. How can [she] say to people that for the survivors … the Holocaust never ended?" Therefore, the majority of Klepfisz's Holocaust poems (exceptions include "death camp," in which the poem's I recounts her own death by gas chamber) focus not on the events of the Holocaust but on its legacy, its ever-presentness in the daily life of survivors. Her early poem "The Widow and Daughter" portrays Klepfisz's mother as a survivor not only of the Holocaust but also of motherhood, widow-hood, and New York City. The missing father/husband, killed in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, haunts mother and daughter, "press[ing] himself between them … forcing them to remember … when they sat down to eat they could taste his ashes." Two other poems, "Searching for My Father's Body" and "About My Father" address the void created by the narrator's absent father, revealing her obsession with collecting facts about her father, whom she does not remember, with accounts of his death, and with finding his grave. By dedicating her poem " Bashert " ("destined") to "those who died because …" and "those who survived because …" and listing the accidents that resulted in either life or death, Klepfisz has underscored the highly individual experiences of both survivors and victims. The poem's four first-person, prose-style cantos recall stations and episodes of the narrator's life, ending in Cherry Plain, where the narrator concludes that she has become "a keeper of accounts," keeping track not of money, as her "despised ancestors" but of "past and present. Pain and pleasure. Living and surviving. Resistance and capitualation. Will and circumstances. Between life and death."

When she came out as a lesbian, Klepfisz initially felt unwelcome in the secular Yiddish community in which she had grown up. While the labor movement and the Holocaust had sensitized progressive secular Jews to multiple forms of oppression, they remained blind to the oppression of homosexuals despite the striking similarities between Jewish and gay experience. Klepfisz was equally uncomfortable presenting her Holocaust poems in the lesbian community, which she believed was guilty of "anti-Semitism by omission." Although she withdrew from the Jewish community at this juncture, her poetry continued to be "very Jewish." "From the Monkey House and Other Cages," for example, which is written from the perspective of female monkeys born and raised in a zoo, is a "direct outgrowth of [her] Holocaust literature."

Increasing anti-Semitism caused by Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 prompted Klepfisz's return to Jewish themes and the Holocaust in her poetry. During a 1987 trip to Israel, Klepfisz met with Palestinian women in East Jerusalem to discuss the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Her poem "East Jerusalem, 1987" conveys her solidarity with Palestinian women, which is rooted in her own experience as a survivor, "We understand we remember history and understand it all … If I forget thee … may I forget my own past my pain the depth of my sorrows." A year later she helped found the Jewish Women's Committee to End the Occupation. Klepfisz has continued to support the Palestinian cause despite charges of Jewish self-hatred and fueling anti-Semitism, believing that passivity and indifference amount to collaboration and that defending the persecuted, whether Jewish or not, was the best way to honor Holocaust victims, survivors, and the Jewish resistance. In a July 2001 interview with Matthew Rothschild in Progressive, Klepfisz explained Jews' unwillingness to criticize Israel's actions: "Many Jews cannot see themselves as oppressors. They see themselves as victims and say that we can't compare the Holocaust to anything, we can't compare Israel's actions to any other country's actions."

—Elizabeth Loentz

See the essay on "Di rayze aheym/ The journey home."

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