On this episode, we spoke with Irena Klepfisz. Irena is a writer, a poet, an activist, a lesbian feminist, a teacher, a researcher, and a movement elder. We spoke about her experience being born to Bundist parents in the Warsaw Ghetto, her role in founding the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation, her years of work in the lesbian feminist movement in NYC, and her thoughts on the ways Jewish history is being taught today.
If you liked this episode, we also recommend also listening to parts 1 & 2 & 3 of our series on the Jewish Labour Bund.
Episode 50 – Irena Klepfisz: Show Notes
- Wikipedia, ‘Irena Klepfisz’
- Wexler Oral History Project, ‘Irena Klepfisz’s Oral History’
- Irena Klepfisz, ‘The 2087th Question or When Silence is the Only Answer’
- Vaybertaytsh, ‘Episode 44: Irena Klepfisz (English/Yiddish)
- Wikipedia, ‘Camp Bnai Brith (Montreal)’
- KlezKanada, ‘Yiddish Women’s Voices with Irena Klepfisz’
- YIVO, ‘120th Anniversary of the Founding of the Jewish Labor Bund’
- Wikipedia, ‘Camp Hemshekh’
- Wikipedia, ‘SKIF (Sotsyalistishe Kinder Farband)’
- Wikipedia, ‘Tsukunft’
- Wikipedia, ‘Zakopane’
- Wikipedia, ‘Warsaw Ghetto Uprising’
- Encyclopedia.com, ‘Victor Shulman’
- The Forward, ‘Remembering Archivist and Warsaw Ghetto Survivor Rose Klepfisz’
- Wikipedia, ‘Michał Klepfisz’
- The Bund in Pictures: 1897-1957, ‘Gina Klepfisz’
- US Holocaust Memorial Museum, ‘Funeral of Warsaw Ghetto Resister Gina Klepfisz’
- Wikipedia, ‘Marek Edelman’
- Jewish Women’s Archive, ‘Vladka Meed’
- Vladka Meed, ‘On Both Sides of the Wall’ (1948)
- Wikipedia, ‘Hashomer Hatzair (The Young Guard)’
- Rise Up! Digital Archive of Feminist Activism, ‘Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation’
- Wikipedia, ‘Women in Black’ (Nashim BeShakhor)
- Dai La’Kibush (End the Occupation)
- Wikipedia, ‘The Worker’s Circle’
- Jewish Women’s Archive, ‘Clare Kinberg’
- Wikipedia, ‘Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz’
- Wikipedia, ‘Grace Paley’
- Wikipedia, ‘Adrienne Rich’
- Wikipedia, ‘Nancy Bereano’
- Good Reads, ‘Bernice Mennis’
- Jewish Women’s Archive, ‘Gloria Greenfield’
- Wikipedia, ‘Evelyn Torton Beck’
- Evelyn Torton Beck, ‘Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology’ (1982)
- Irena Klepfisz & Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, ‘The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women’s Anthology’ (1986)
- Irena Klepfisz, ‘Dreams of An Insomniac: Jewish Feminist Essays’ (1993)
- Elly Bulkin, ‘Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends’
- Wikipedia, ‘Betty Friedan’s Anti-Lesbian Politics’
- Wikipedia, ‘Lavender Menace’
- Wikipedia, ‘Off Our Backs’
- Wikipedia, ‘Conditions (Magazine)’
- Wikipedia, ‘Persephone Press’
- Wikipedia, ‘Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press’
- Wikipedia, ‘This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color’ (1981)
- 972 Mag, ‘Zionism Split the Women’s Movement in the ’70s. Will it Do the Same to BLM?’
- Barbara Smith, Minnie Bruce Pratt, & Elly Bulkin, ‘Yours in Struggle’ (1984)
- Wikipedia, ‘Barbara Smith’
- Wikipedia, ‘Minnie Bruce Pratt’
- Wikipedia, ‘Elly Bulkin’
- Wikipedia, ‘Sinister Wisdom’
- NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, ‘The Duchess’
- Wikipedia, ‘Judy Grahn’
- YIVO, ‘Medem Sanatorium’
- Wikipedia, ‘YIVO’
- Wikipedia, ‘Center for Jewish History’
- Wexler Oral History Project, ‘Gabriela Von Seltmann’s Oral History’
- Wikipedia, ‘Di Shvue’
- BBC, ‘Inside Poland’s ‘LGBT-Free Zones”
- Wikipedia, ‘Ringelblum Archive’
- Samuel Kassow, ‘Who Will Write Our History? Rediscovering a Secret Archive in the Warsaw Ghetto’ (2009)
- Helen Epstein, ‘Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors’ (1979)
- Helen Epstein, ‘Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for her Mother’s History’ (1997)
- Never Again Action
- Jewish Currents, ‘Roundtable: The Ethical Response to Birthright’
- Wikipedia, ‘Mohammad and the Mountain’
- Wikipedia, ‘The Jewish People’s Schools and Peretz Schools’
Episode 50 – Irena Klepfisz: Transcript
Sam: I’m Sam.
David: I’m David.
Sam: And this is Treyf.
David: Welcome to Treyf, the only Jewish podcast that’s considering whether to complain to WNYC about use of the term ‘sheisty’ in their ad copy…
Sam: (Laughs) You played it for me earlier today, David, and I am in favour of doing that.
David: But putting that immediately aside, we have a really great show lined up for everybody today, a whole episode focused on an interview we did with Irena Klepfisz.
Sam: Yes! Irena is a writer, a poet, an activist, a lesbian feminist, a teacher, a researcher, and a really wonderful person.
David: Yeah and you know, Irena was born in the Warsaw Ghetto, to Bundist parents, and following up on the suite we just did about the Jewish Labour Bund, it was a nice opportunity to talk a bit with Irena about the Bund as well.
Sam: And before we get any further here, David, I think it’s important to mention the fact that this was recorded about a year and a half ago.
David: Yes, this is an interview that we, I think it took us about three years to set up? (laughs) Many failed attempts, you know, just technical problems, trying to send people to Irena’s house with a microphone, that didn’t quite work out. But then Irena actually ended up having plans to be about an hour and a half away from where we live and we were able to meet up and spend a few hours together.
Sam: And I mean, I think you might be burying the lede a little bit here by not mentioning the fact that this interview took place at KlezKanada.
David: Oh, yeah. So for people who aren’t familiar, Klezkanada is this week-long klezmer music and sort of Yiddish cultural festival, or retreat, that happens at this Jewish campground in the Laurentians, just about an hour away from Montreal. I think it’s been happening for over twenty five years now. And so Irena was there doing a few workshops and participating in the retreat.
Sam: Yeah, we talked about KlezKan a little bit in the interview. What we didn’t talk about, David, is the fact that I was a summer camper at Camp Bnai Brith, where KlezKanada takes place, about 20 years ago.
David: Yes, although no endorsement of Camp Bnai Brith on this podcast.
Sam: They’ll have to pay you, right, David?
David: (Laughs) Waiting for that cheque! No, we wouldn’t take that money.
Sam: (Laughs) So that’s your episode of Treyf for the 11th of Adar, 5781.
Irena Klepfisz: I’m Irena Klepfisz, and I’m a writer, a poet. I just retired from teaching Jewish Women’s studies at Barnard College for 22 years, and I’m here at KlezKanada. I just gave two courses, I gave a poetry creative writing workshop and I gave a little mini course on early Yiddish women writers in America.
David: Well thanks so much for talking with us.
Irena Klepfisz: Oh, thank you for inviting me.
David: So we’re actually just finishing up a series on the Jewish Labour Bund. And so I thought we could maybe start by talking about the conference you helped organize in New York City last October. It was commemorating the 120th anniversary of the founding of the Bund. What was the experience like organizing that, and also attending it?
Irena Klepfisz: Well, it was a kind of a labour of love for me because I was raised by Bundists, people who were extremely active in interwar Poland before the war. And all of them were Holocaust survivors. And I feel an enormous debt to the Bund. So there was some talk among children of Bundists, some of them, most of them, in fact, younger than me because they were born after the war, maybe like 10 years or so. I was interested in participating. And I also was coming off a period where I’d been really totally inactive in terms of activism. I mean I was continuing teaching, but I had family obligations and I couldn’t really be active and I was now able to do it. And so I very much wanted to be involved in it. It was sort of my way, I think, of paying tribute to the Bund and what I feel I’m indebted to from it, and from the people that I knew who taught me about the Bund rather indirectly, actually, because I never really had formal lessons. And some of the people that were involved in organizing were ex Hemshekh people. It was a camp that was organized by these Bundists. I think it started in 1958. By 1958, I was entering college so I was too old for it. But they got a real grounding in it, I mean they got, you know, lectures and whatever and they acted, they reenacted, in fact, many things from SKIF and Tsukunft that they had in Europe. I never had that experience. My experience was a very vicarious experience, I kind of eavesdropped on my mother’s friends, I loved listening to them. It’s sort of interesting, I read somewhere that sometimes a catastrophe erases your memory of everything but the catastrophe itself. And though the Holocaust was very much memorialized and very much in the consciousness of these people, so was their life before the war, it was not something that was buried. And I was very taken with sort of the loyalty and the energy and the commitment and the clear eyed way they looked at things and the clear eyed way that they looked at Jews. They weren’t sentimental in a certain way, but they were very committed to improving Jewish life. I don’t know quite what drew me as a child, because I didn’t start really hearing it until I came to the United States, and that was when I was eight. So that kind of continued for about the next ten years. And so it was really by almost osmosis kind of, learning about how they lived, what they did, it always sounded extremely energetic and quite, quite wonderful. And I loved the engagement of it.
David: What was the turnout like to that [conference]?
Irena Klepfisz: It was very filled. I think the auditorium is 400 and there were people, they video it so that people in the lobby can see it and I think it was live streamed as well, and they had tons and tons of people for it. So it was very gratifying. And we worked really hard on it. And we also, did I send you the commemorative book? Did you see the commemorative book? Yeah. So I worked with Danny Sawyer on that, he’s an academic history person who teaches Jewish history at Fordham University. And we worked together on on that. And that was also a wonderful, I mean, it’s a difficult experience, we were under enormous pressure to get it done by exactly October (laughs)… In fact, it was sort of a nightmare. But it was definitely a labour of love on my part. And I think on Danny’s as well. I just felt it was was something I wanted to pay tribute to.
Sam: Over the years, you’ve also been a part of different memorials and commemorations of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I’m wondering if you could talk briefly about your family, who were members of the Bund in Poland and who participated in the uprising?
Irena Klepfisz: Well my father’s family, my grandparents, were really from the, I guess I would say they were from the first, almost the first, generation of Bundists. My grandfather, Yankov Klepfisz, came from a Hasidic family and he broke with them. So as an adult already, he was he was a Bundist. And he was probably born, I would imagine, like around 1880, maybe 85, so he was at the very beginning. My grandmother, his wife Miriam, was Miriam Solomon, and she and at least one sibling were very much Bundists. One of her sisters was married to a well-known Bundist, Victor Shulman. [her name was] Guta Shulman. So that was a Bundist family. My mother’s family, I don’t know what her parents were, if anything, but it was a large family with six children. And as I understand it, they were totally split. Two, I think, Bundists, two Communists, and two Zionists, or something like that. And my mother was in the Zionist camp when she met my father and she switched. (Laughs) They met on a skiing trip in Zakopane, which was a place where people went to, both in the summer and the winter a lot of Zionists and socialists, like Bundist organizations, would take their people for sports, competitions, the Maccabi games, and stuff like that. My mother was… her father died, her father was a watchmaker, they didn’t have very much money. And when he died, she had to go to work and she was 12. She was very literary minded. And the important thing, before she stopped school, her older siblings were very insistent, apparently, that she not go to a folk shule, they wanted her to know Polish. And it was a really important element in her survival. It’s not the only element but it was certainly an important element in that she had impeccable Polish. She didn’t have any accent, she spoke like a Pole, like a Christian Pole. And so when they married, she became a kind of Bundist. So that during the war, he was part of the underground and he had a significant connection with the PPS, the Polish Socialist Party. And my aunt, his sister, Aunt Gina, her best friend was a Polish woman, a young woman who was in the PPS. And it was partly because of that that he ended up having some important contacts with the PPS. It didn’t solve the problem but it was a contact that was important. And Marisha, the friend, and her sister, they helped my mother and they helped my father during the war. And they were recognized as righteous gentiles. I met Marisha in 1983 which was very thrilling for me. So the socialist and the Bundist ideas were very much in there. But you know, I’m born during the war, so the war is already on, he’s in the underground, and I mean he was charged with getting ammunition. He apparently didn’t look that Jewish and however he could do it, he went in and out of the ghetto quite a bit. He smuggled both people and guns and ammunition into the ghetto. And eventually he developed a mixture for the Molotov cocktails. So they started small factories in the ghetto to produce these bottles. And when they knew that they were going to do the uprising, at least a few months ahead of time, he got me out. There was a Polish orphanage on the Aryan side in Warsaw and I got placed there and my mother got Aryan papers and she got a job as a maid. And then, you know, he was in the uprising and he was killed on the second day. And my mother was on her own after that. So that was the activity. And the people that I knew up in the Bronx, the people I grew up with, a lot of them were involved, not all, but a lot of them were involved in some form of armed resistance. I mean, everybody was involved and people don’t realize that. My father got a medal for his heroism, which I think… I mean, I don’t begrudge the medal but I always felt my mother never got the credit, she survived the last two years of the war and saved me and she sort of never got that kind of credit. And I consider that resistance as well. So these people were, I mean I grew up in a very…it took me years to realize how unusual the community was because, I mean, I grew up with Vladka Meed, who wrote On Both Sides of the Wall, she was a courier during the war and she became a real public figure. I knew Marek Edelman, he was with my father when he was killed. I knew Borek Ellenbogen, he was in the resistance on the Aryan side. I mean to me, they were just people. I babysat for Vladka Meed (Laughs). But it took me a long time to realize exactly where these people stood in terms of history. So it was a hard childhood in many ways but it was also an incredibly… I feel very privileged with the kind of people I met and learned from.
David: So by the time you’re eight, your mother brought you to the US.
Irena Klepfisz: Yeah.
David: Was there sort of a sense of disconnection when you were growing up, between all these stories of struggle and loss and what everyday life was like in the Bronx?
Irena Klepfisz: You know, it’s interesting because some of the people that I, well I lived in Sweden for three years before we came. And a lot of those same people that I knew later in the Bronx were also in Sweden with us. And we had a sort of communal living kind of thing. And it was interesting because I’ve thought a great deal about this and I don’t remember any talk about anything like the War or the Bund or memorials in Sweden for three years. I was eight when I left, I was going to school already, I was in first and second grade. And it was only when I came to the United States that I suddenly came across the Korban [Holocaust]. I had never, I don’t think I even knew. I mean I knew there was a war and I knew my father had died. My mother had said he was a soldier, you know, she told me that. But I just didn’t know anything. And then within days, my mother was at a memorial meeting when we arrived. We arrived early in April and like eight days later, she was at a meeting, at a memorial meeting. So I don’t think there was a disconnect. It was in some ways, I think, what it was was a sense of a kind of envy. I’ve always said that I felt that my true homeland had been Poland and that I lost that. That time, that period. I wasn’t romantic about it, I knew the thirties were really hard in Poland and they were hard for Jews. It wasn’t that. But I so envied them having the Bund and the organizations and having all that excitement and vision, and something I wanted to have in my life. I think. I don’t know that I consciously thought that. I knew that they were doing memory stuff rather than living it. I don’t know quite how to express it. And that that was an important part of their interactions. And it was one of the reasons I didn’t care if I was the only kid that evening, sitting on the floor listening to them, I mean I was just happy to do that. For them, looking back on it, none of them were really that politically active in American politics. And why that is, I don’t, that’s a whole interesting question about what happened to political activists. Because they were all, it wasn’t just that they were active during the war, they were all active before the war. I mean, really active and very committed. But the Bund functioned and people went to meetings, but it wasn’t like they had an impact on the rest of Jewish life in the way that the Bund did in Europe. I mean, in Poland.
Sam: So there’s been a little bit of a renewed interest in the Bund in the younger generations. And one piece that seems to be significant to a lot of people is the opposition to Zionism. When did Zionism first become an issue on your radar? And was it something that was present growing up in the Bronx?
Irena Klepfisz: I mean I was raised with a kind of, maybe not disparaging, but Zionism was just something that was looked down on in a way. And I never really thought, I mean, I was so much rooted in Bundism that it never occurred to me to really think about Zionism very much. I didn’t think about Israel very much. I know that it was an issue among her friends and there were Bundists that ended up in Israel, which is because they couldn’t, they didn’t necessarily want to go there, but that’s where they ended up. So there was that. And I remember Manya Patt, Dr Emmanuel Patt who was one of sort of the pillars of the Bronx Bundist community (his father was Jacob Patt, who was an important Bundist of the previous generation), went to Israel and he came back, and he wrote a book called a briv fun yisroel, A Letter from Israel. And I don’t know what was in it because I didn’t read it. And I’d be curious, actually, to read it now. I have a copy of it at home but I never read it. But to me it was like a signal that it’s okay, I mean, we have people there and we have to somehow, you know, we don’t have to be Zionists, but we don’t have to have the kind of virulence maybe, I don’t know what was in it. But it was a kind of capitulation, not capitulation, but acceptance that Israel existed and in a certain way, that that was over, I guess, the struggle. I’m not sure they would have phrased it that way. For me, Israel played no important role. And like I say, I mean, I longed for Poland, not for Jerusalem. And after college, I took a year off, I was planning to go to graduate school, I took a year off. And I went to Europe for three months and then I went for three months to Israel. And I worked on two kibbutzim and I saw some friends and family friends and all this kind of stuff. And I ended up being actually quite negative from my experience there because I didn’t like the way they, first of all, talked about the Holocaust. This is still pre-Eichmann trial, which changed things a lot. I was very upset about it. I mean, the idea of being ashamed of survivors or what happened to Jews was just appalling to me. And I’m not sure I had heard it before or what but there was something very immediate when I did see it and confront it in Israel. I mean it’s interesting, my mother was in the Hashomer Hatzair before she met my father and my contact in Israel in terms of the kibbutzim were in fact via Hashomer Hatzair. So I went to two kibbutzim through Hashomer Hatzair. And I just, I didn’t like this attitude. I mean, they had a very arrogant attitude I thought to American Jews, and they told me I couldn’t be a complete Jew, and how could I walk in the street with my head high? I don’t know, I got a lot of junk like that. And it was very naive, I mean looking back on it, they were probably saying what they learned in school, you know? But it didn’t go down very well with me. And so in some ways, my experience in Israel that year, sixty two, sixty three, really that’s when I sort of started looking down on it much more than I had before. And we didn’t really, I don’t remember big battles around the issue. I mean, I wasn’t privy to them. My complete, I mean, sort of to my horror, I really knew nothing. I mean, I vaguely, I’m a fairly well read newspaper person, but I really didn’t think very much until I came out and I became active and then suddenly, like you couldn’t be in any lefty feminist lesbian movement without dealing with Israel. And I thought oy vey, why do I have to focus on this? And that’s when I first started having to really think about it. And that’s late, I’m talking about late 70s now. You know, I’m born in ’41, so by the late seventies, I’m like thirty five, thirty six already. And I really haven’t…and also I haven’t really thought much about the Bund. I mean that’s when I first started reading about Bund history, because though I understood the Bundist principles, and I understood the motivation and I understood the intent, I didn’t really know the history at all.
David: So by the 1980s, you were voicing support for Palestinian resistance and talking about Israel as a Goliath in some of your writing…
Irena Klepfisz: Probably. (laughs) I don’t remember, I think I had, somebody put it as, ‘Israel is the Goliath and the Palestinians are David,’ Is that what I wrote? Yeah, I think I did that.
David: (laughs) And then when the First Intifada started, you co-founded the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation with Grace Paley and Clare Kinberg.
Irena Klepfisz: Right.
David: How did that group first come together?
Irena Klepfisz: I was invited, in I think ’87, and it was before the Intifada, it was an international women’s writing conference. It wasn’t Jewish, it was just a women’s writing conference in Israel, in Jerusalem, and it was in the summer. And that conference could never have taken place four months later. It was really interesting because people came from Africa and came from everywhere. And it was during that period, I think, that we met with some Palestinians and we had a kind of exchange. I wrote a long poem about it. It was very moving but it was very bracing also. And I learned a lot from them. I mean I was very naive I think when we started. I was not only naive, I was plain ignorant. And I had to really bone up and understand much more on a kind of visceral level by being there. I think going to Israel was really important, and meeting people and talking, we talked endlessly. And one of the people interviewed in The Tribe of Dina was Lil Moed. Lil Moed was a social worker who had retired, she was gay, she was a product of Workmen’s Circle and stuff like that. And she had a daughter who was living in Israel. So she was spending six months there and six months here. She was kind of a political mentor to me for a certain period of time. And she came back right after the First Intifada started, which I think was December 87. And in January of February, she came and she said, you know, there’s these women and she named some of them (and Melanie and I had met them so I knew who she was talking about and most of them were lesbians, were gay), she says, you know, there’s these women that are protesting, in Dai La’Kibush [End the Occupation], with the Women in Black. So I said, well we should support them. And she said, yeah, you should. And so I called Clare and I called Grace Paley and they said sure. And we got a whole bunch of other people and took out a statement, you know, so it was a normal for that time statement, two state solution, you know. And so we started in New York as a kind of local organization, we had no intention of becoming a national organization. What we wanted was for people to form their own groups. We didn’t insist that they call themselves JWCEO. We purposely did not call ourselves Women in Black because we wanted here, people to know that we were Jews, that were doing this, that it was important to have Jews, the Jewish word, in the name. But other places did, there was the Hannah Arendt Peace Patrol, there was stuff like that. But it grew. And then we did a newsletter with contact numbers, we wanted people to connect. So that if you went to a city, you would know they meet on this in this corner on this in this day every two weeks or every week or whatever. So it wasn’t intended, there was no party line, there was not anything like that, but it was basically to spread the word. And I think we were very, very successful in that. And I think some of those groups, a few of them are still standing (laughs). But I’m very proud of that because I felt it wasn’t like we headed anything, it was really to try to get other people to organize on their own local level and for them to be conscious of what was going on in Israel and to publicize it to other people.
Sam: And so to put on your reflecting goggles right now, or your looking back goggles, what do you think some of the big or the major differences are between the work of the group that you were involved in back then and Jewish solidarity work that is happening around Palestine today?
Irena Klepfisz: Well I don’t know that I’m as informed as I should be about what’s going on today. I mean JWCEO was a very local kind of organization. One of the things that we tried to do was to create a network without any officers or without any kind of ruling group, but just so that people could connect and either do larger things or smaller things or know what to do. And everything that’s happening now is so much more amplified because of the internet. I mean when we created JWCEO, at first maybe 50 people know about it. I mean this time if somebody tries to stop an ICE office or whatever, millions of people know it practically the next day! We had trouble just putting out a newsletter so that 10 people here and 5 people here and 15 people here could know about each other, never mind everybody else. But now what’s happening is not only that these people know each other, everybody else knows about them. So I think the impact is greater. I think people dismissed us as being not threatening. I mean, they could put us down and call us horrible names but they didn’t think that we were a threat in any way. But I don’t think that’s so true now. I think these groups are threatening to the Jewish establishment. I think they’re worried. I think Birthright is worried. I think all the main organizations are worried, I think probably Jewish heads of organizations are tearing their hair out about it.
David: I mean, here’s hoping.
Irena Klepfisz: Yeah, here’s hoping! (Laughs)
David: So I also want to talk about your time in New York in the 70s.
Irena Klepfisz: (Laughs)
David: You know, coming out as queer, as a lesbian woman, in 1973, I imagine had a lot of different implications for what it means to be out in a lot of places today.
Irena Klepfisz: Yeah…
David: And it was during this time that you wrote about tensions you were experiencing, between existing both in sort of the queer feminist world, but also in the Jewish world. And so what were the main tensions that came out of that period?
Irena Klepfisz: Um, big surprise, the Jewish community was as homophobic as any other community (laughing) Why should they be different? So it was hard. I mean, it was you know, I’ve always said that one of the luckiest things that happened to me was coming out in New York City at that time. Because New York City was just popping and it was bursting and there was all kinds of support, and there were places, you know, everything was going. I mean at the same time, you know, people have jobs or they have offices and they have families, and that’s where a lot of the tension is. As much as everything is great if you go to the firehouse for the lesbian meeting, you still have to face your family, you have to face other people and so on. I mean, I think within three or four years I didn’t have a single of the original straight friends that I had when I first came out. I just lost them. I mean, it wasn’t anything vicious or horrible they just, just faded. I had a lot of difficulties with my mother. She was very upset about it and she did not like it. And she didn’t like it for a really long time. And I think in the Jewish community, I mean, I think there was just homophobia. I mean, I was very careful, I tried to be you know, I was closeted for some of the time even though a lot of people knew, but it wasn’t anything official, I never came out in an official way in those early, very early days. By the time I started editing Conditions magazine, which was around seventy eight, seventy nine, I did Kunst and I published my first book, it was very hard to stay in the closet. But there are people you know, it’s amazing what people can do in terms of not seeing what’s right in front of them or even what’s written right in front of them. They just deny it and you move on. I was in a peculiar position with the Jewish community because, I mean, I wrote about the Holocaust. And that was greatly respected. But at the same time they couldn’t put it together with these other parts of me. So it was a dilemma. They couldn’t totally turn on me, but at the same time they couldn’t totally accept me either. So it was a dilemma. And it was painful. It changed, I mean, we have Klezkanada, I mean, you should have seen the cabaret last night (laughing). Too bad you didn’t see it, it was really interesting,
David: Yeah, for people who aren’t familiar with this milieu, we should say that there’s a particularly high representation of queer and trans folks here.
Irena Klepfisz: Yeah. So it was a difficult, painful period of transition for me. And it also made me realize, I think, that I had to step out in order to really do what I wanted. And I became increasingly more interested in the 80s, for example, in creating my own kind of Jewish, Yiddish space. So that I could do my research on Yiddish women, I could, you know, do my Jewish thing, which mostly was around Yiddish and the Bund and secularism and that kind of thing. But it was still painful and this also included people in the Bronx. I mean, these are people that I really admired and loved and felt rooted with. And it’s it’s hard to see that. They changed. Eventually they changed. I mean, people do change. But when it’s happening at the moment, it’s very difficult. And it was. And at the same time, like I say, I was really lucky to be in New York because I had a poetry support group, I was able to publish, I was able to do Conditions. You know, in the 70s and 80s, they were like five or six women’s bookstores in New York City. I mean it was amazing. There were lesbian bars I could go to, a coffeehouse I could sober up in. You know that part of it was really great, it was very different than somebody in a small town coming out. But that other stuff was still there.
David: Can I ask you more about the positive part of that time, of sort of the day to day of being in that milieu in the 70s, how did that shift to what exists now in New York City?
Irena Klepfisz: I don’t go to, I mean I’m almost 80, I’m 78. So I don’t really know. But I mean, I used to go, I wasn’t a big bar person but I used to go to the Duchess which was down at Christopher [Park], what’s it called? [Sheridan] Square in New York City. I would go down there and at that time I would have some adjunct jobs, so I was always grading papers in the Duchess. And then literally, and then I would go walk down the street and there was the coffee house and I had a support group, I met Eli Balkin and Jan Klauson, and my partner at the time. We formed Conditions magazine so we felt we were doing something really constructive and something that we really believed in. And we were going to change literature. And I think we did.
David: So for folks who aren’t familiar with Conditions magazine, you were part of the Conditions collective and….
Irena Klepfisz: It was a magazine of women’s writing…this took us weeks. (Laughing) Conditions, a magazine of women’s writing with a special emphasis on lesbians. Weeks! (laughing) And we published, you know, we self published our books. We had bookstores that supported and, you know, I could go to the 8th street bookstore, Women Books or whatever, and put my books down there. We also, there was national distribution companies, Women’s Distribution, there were various newspapers, just in general in the country, so that books got reviewed. I mean, it was a system, it was a network and a system. So I didn’t feel, I never even attempted to publish with mainstream press. And I wasn’t even that interested in it. But what we did was we actually had a real audience. I mean, there were people in that lesbian world, and I’m saying lesbian because there was a lot of tension between straight feminists and lesbians, and the Jewish lesbians and Jewish straight leaders. I mean Betty Friedan didn’t want to initially acknowledge that, she was afraid that everybody would be labeled a lesbian and the movement would go down over that. And lesbians weren’t women haters, you know, this whole schtick. So it was very, it was exactly what I envied interwar Poland for. It really gave me that. It was energy we created, if something wasn’t there, we said, we’ll make it. That’s what the Bund did. The Bund said children are sick, we’ll make a children’s hospital, we’ll make Medem Sanitorium. Children aren’t educated, we’ll make shules, which they did. It was very parental in a certain kind of way. And the lesbian movement, I mean, during that second wave for about twenty years, was similarly. I mean, for example, it was known that because the whole bar scene was the only scene that up until then anybody could go to, there was a lot of alcoholism among lesbians. So it was decided that these big national events, no alcohol. I mean, it was like taking care of and really trying to do something constructive, you know. So it was very exciting. And it felt like we were doing new things and that we were helping people and that we actually changed women’s lives. And then poetry readings were incredible. I mean, people like Judy Grahn could bring 500 people to a reading. I mean, it was amazing how people who never read a single poem in their life and had no interest, these women just came. We did readings when I was first [started], before we published and with Jan and Eli, we did these readings. We had a group called Seven Women Poets. We were out to each other but not publicly, but we were all dykes. And we started just reading in bars and just announcing. But when we did a reading at the coffeehouse, God, it was overflowing. It was unbelievable. Because there were messages and there was a kind of assertion and it was very exciting and women responded to it.
Sam: So by the 1980s, you’d carved out explicitly Jewish lesbian and feminist spaces. Nice Jewish Girls: a Lesbian Anthology and Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women’s Anthology were both published at this time. But we also want to talk about Di Vilde Chayas. When and how did that group come together?
Irena Klepfisz: You know it’s far more famous and well known than let’s say JWCEO. And JWCEO did much more than the Vilde Chayas. The Vilde Chayas came together, it was Nancy Bereano, Bernice Mennis, Gloria Greenfield, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, Evey Beck, Adrienne Rich, there were seven of us, and me. I don’t remember how it came together exactly. It preceded Nice Jewish Girls. I don’t know who contacted whom first, I don’t remember that. But we came together over the problem of what to do with the whole Israel issue that I mean, collectives were breaking up, Jewish women were withdrawing from organizations that they had founded. There’s a very, if you’re ever interested in looking at what happened in the women’s movement, in the lesbian movement, around Israel, you should read Yours in Struggle, which has an article by Barbara Smith, an African-American lesbian, Minnie Bruce Pratt, about being a white Southern lesbian, and Elly Bulkin who does an entire survey of what went on around Israel and Zionism on magazines, on collectives. I mean, it was a breaking. It was one of those issues that just broke people up completely. And so we met, I would say, maybe four times. The group was intended kind of almost like a little think tank or something. We were supposed to come up with something to try to defend or protect Jewish women and how they were being treated in lesbian organizations. We were totally ignorant. Let me be clear about that. We just did not know history. And some people were, Gloria identified as a Zionist, I didn’t, Somebody else did. You know, it was all very emotional. And I think we were outraged at sort of the fierceness of the anti-Zionists towards some of these Zionist women. So we were going to ‘fix’ this (laughing). And in our ignorance, I don’t remember, there were three statements and we were challenged with each one. And also they were all terribly mistimed and they appeared in Off Our Backs. I mean Off Our Backs ended up with like sheets of these responses to these single statements. It was a total mess. We made three statements and by the third statement, Adrienne had had it, we had had it, it wasn’t getting us anywhere. Now, I think the reason it was famous was for a couple of reasons. Some of us were very visible, especially like Adrienne. The rest of us were becoming more visible and Nice Jewish Girls was coming out so people knew Evie and so on. Gloria Greenfield had published a number of well-known writers so she was known. So I think it made a splash just by the people who were in it. That was one thing. The other thing, I mean I’ve argued with people about this because I always try to play down the Vilde Chayas because I’m sort of embarrassed by it. And I think in reality, in terms of organizing, I think JWCEO was much more important than the Vilde Chayas.
Sam: So changing gears back to the present moment, where we’re seeing far right and fascist movements rise to power all around the world right now. And you decided to travel back to Europe this year and two years ago as this is all happening. What are your reflections on being there at this time?
Irena Klepfisz: Well, two years ago I went there, it was right after, it was like six months after Trump was elected. I got a lot of questions about Trump. And it wasn’t a deliberate kind of visit. I mean I have to explain. I went to Poland for the first time in 1983 and I went with my mother, it was the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. And we didn’t go exactly on the anniversary because she wanted to skip all the hoopla so we went like a month later, in June or something. And that was a very quick visit, which included Treblinka and we went to Lodz, and it was a week. And it was a very difficult trip for her, she never went back. I went back a number of times for different things and for really quick visits. I would go to the cemetery, my mother put up a stone for my father, it’s not where he’s buried, but she put up a stone for him. I would visit Gina’s grave. And, you know, that was the visit, basically. I would see a couple of people maybe that were connected and it was just a few days. I went to the 100th anniversary of the Bund in 1997, they had a thing there, and Marek Edelman was there. But this was very different. So it was all about the past in my previous visits, they were only about the past. And the past was only the Holocaust. Because there’s nothing you can visit, you know, because everything’s gone. This last time was instigated by a woman that has become a really close friend, my friend Gabi von Seltmann. Gabi was sort of interested in my poetry and it’s a long story, but anyway, she got me to come two years ago. She arranged for some readings and I came and I had, in fact, three readings. And she also took me around. She and her husband drove me around Poland. And I saw all kinds of, I went to the very southern part, to Zakopane where my parents met, which is about the only thing I could see, I wanted to see where they actually met, that was still in existence. And I was meeting a lot of Gabi’s friends and people and what I didn’t know was that the some of my poetry had been translated into Polish. I mean I just didn’t know about it. So I met some of the translators. So it was a much more in the moment, I mean, this is what Poland’s going on. And of course I was meeting a very specific bubble, I was being placed into a very specific bubble that’s very concerned about what’s happening in the rest of Poland. And it was intensified this last time. I mean just like here, the issues are exactly the same. But it’s a smaller country and they feel it more quickly and they feel it, in fact, quite immediately. There’s an onslaught right now on the lesbian and gay community, on LGBT. The Catholic Church is determined to block out all the abuse stuff and they have a new thing now. It used to be that the country was draped in red by the communists and now we’re being draped in the rainbow colours by the LGBT community. It is up front and totally out, they have ‘LGBT free’ towns, I mean it’s horrific. I was there actually, I was in Warsaw for the Gay Pride March, which was interesting. 80,000 people showed up, it was really remarkable that that happened in Warsaw. But it’s… I don’t think these people should be forgotten, who are working against the government. They’re doing, a lot of them, various things. They talk about the Bund, they bring out Bund banners, they sing Di Shvue in Yiddish. It’s on YouTube, you can see it. I mean, it’s very moving. And they’re fighting a really difficult fight. And it’s about everybody, it’s not just about LGBT people. I can’t totally articulate what I feel because I have to really work it out in my head. Because it’s a balance now of sort of the past and the present. And I’m very moved by these people, both the fact that they have memory and by the fact that they’re fighting the good fight. I mean it is very moving. But I mean, it’s everything: climate change, women, abortion, judgeships, I mean, it’s everything that we’re facing here. Except, like I say, it’s such a smaller country. So it’s been an interesting, sort of very different… I mean it’s not, obviously not that I’ve forgotten the past, but it’s a different experience.
David: Yeah. You know, you’re talking about the difficulty of sort of relating the past to the present moment in that context, and it just makes me think of the fact, like I know you recently retired from teaching, but it makes me think about what it means to teach Jewish history in this current political moment, I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about that?
Irena Klepfisz: Teaching history period is (laughs), American students are very weak on history. It’s not their fault, it’s the educational system’s fault, but it’s very depressing. And Jewish, I think, education on history is horrendous. I know I’m making a generalization and I know that there are exceptions but I really believe that the generalization is true and that the exceptions are few. I will give an example of, a lot of my students, I had a class of 12, a lot of my students were very much interested and had read a great deal about the Holocaust. And I once asked students to just write down on a piece of paper when World War Two began, what was the event and the year that started World War Two. And not a single student in that class knew. And they were a mix of Jewish education and American education. And there was a mixture. It was mostly Jewish students but there were at least two or three non Jewish students in the room. And nobody knew. And it’s just appalling. What can I say? It’s appalling. Nor did they even know which was the community that was most, mostly decimated. One student hesitantly said Poland but nobody else even had a clue. So it’s, you know, I have to say that one thing I really miss about teaching, I don’t miss a lot of it, in the sense of I never liked grading students and I’ve always enjoyed engaging with them and so on. I do feel like this is a moment that I wish I were engaged with the younger people because I think it’s an interesting… We always, in my classes, we always did a newspaper article every morning. Every class session, a different student would bring in something that had to do with Jewish women. It could be from a contemporary article and it always flowed into whatever, you know, contemporary issues. So I miss that. And when I think back to me when I was so ignorant, when we did the Vilde Chayas and stuff, and what I had to do. But it takes work and people don’t, you know, it takes effort and work…
Sam: At the beginning of our conversation, you mentioned a quote that I found very, very powerful. That catastrophe erases everything other than the catastrophe itself. And I was actually blown away. I don’t know if that was apparent in my face, but I’m wondering how that insight has informed teaching and your work. Because, I mean, it’s so clear with the Holocaust and the history of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, and maybe we could just stick in that domain, but but how has that impacted how you’ve done your work?
Irena Klepfisz: Let me just attribute that, because it blew me away too when I first read it. I read it in Kassow’s book, Who Will Write Our History. The book is about Ringelblum’s Oyneg Shabes archive, that he documented Jewish life in the Warsaw Ghetto and that they buried and they recovered some of it and some of it they didn’t. And one of the things that Kassow says at the beginning of the book, regarding Ringelblum, or Ringelblum’s philosophy, Ringelblum really wanted the Germans to be accountable [for] what happened. And this is still before they knew about the extermination. I mean they didn’t know how it was going to end yet, though they did find out. And so he wanted to document Jewish life in the ghetto so that Germans could be accountable for it afterwards. And so he had like 30 or 40 people running around the ghetto doing interviews on every aspect you can think of. But when they realized that they were planning, in fact, the liquidation of the the whole thing, Kassow wrote that even then, Ringelblum insisted on continuing precisely because he felt that once the catastrophe happened, everything before it would be erased. And I was very struck, I mean like you, I was very struck by that perception. And it’s one of the things I think about, are the Bundists that I grew up with, that they didn’t allow that to happen. That as much as they mourned, and sometimes I think they overdid it, I’m critical, looking back at some of the things that they did. But at the same time, they did not forget their life in interwar Poland. And that’s, to me, it was like a gift. And it’s interesting because when I was teaching, for example, one of the books I taught was Helen Epstein. Helen Epstein is known for Children of the Holocaust, it was a book in 1979, and it really blew open the whole thing about writing about Holocaust survivors. And this was about not children who had survived, but children of Holocaust survivors and how they experienced their parents’ trauma and experiences. And she wrote a book called Where She Came From, it was after Children of the Holocaust, about 20 years later. And it was basically about, her parents were Czech Jews and she wanted to do a matrilineal history of her mother’s family, going back to her great grandmother. And it covered also Francie, that’s her mother, Francie’s war years. And it ends with the birth of Helen, when they come to the United States or right before they come to the United States. And whenever I’ve taught the book, the only thing that my students want to talk about is the end! Francie’s war years. And it’s very frustrating. And they complain like, why do we have to? (Laughs) So there’s a kind of resistance. I think mourning six million without having a clue who they were, where they came from, what their lives are like, is meaningless. I really believe it’s meaningless. You have to know what you’re mourning. And there’s a real resistance, I don’t know what it’s about. I mean, I somebody who’s maybe a psychologist can talk about it better. But I just, even the focus on camps is wrong because the majority of Jews didn’t die in camps. People don’t know anything about ghettos, or people passing, or what happened to the Polish, I mean most of the Polish Jews survived that survived in the Soviet Union. They didn’t survive in Poland. So it’s very complicated. And I was very conscious of it teaching it. It’s a problem. It’s a real problem. And there’s something false about it that bothers me tremendously.
Sam: Yeah. I mean, I went to secular Jewish school for 1 to grade 6, and then 7 to 11. We learned the Holocaust every year. I learned bubkes, as my father would say, about Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. Like it was every year was the Holocaust, and there was never real engagement with anything that happened before. And I think it’s such a, it did such a disservice to all of us.
Irena Klepfisz: But I have to say, and I don’t know if it’s, and to what degree whether this is an unconscious thing, but I do think some of it is, in fact, a leftover of kind of Zionist philosophy that nothing really was good before 1948. And if nothing was good, then there’s nothing to talk about. There’s nothing to remember. I don’t know if it’s all of it, but I also see I mean, when you go into a bookstore and you look at Judaica, for example, the majority of the books are either on Israel or the Holocaust. Those are the two main topics of books. And that’s a shame. Because there is this incredibly rich history. And also you should know what was destroyed and what was possible. I think that’s one of the things that the Bund did was to show what was possible.
David: So in terms of giving more depth to what life was like before, specifically in the Bundist milieu, something that was a fairly central part, from my understanding of the Bund, was its conception of secular cultural Jewish identity. You know, you’re a secular Jew, we’re also secular Jews, Sam actually attended Jewish People’s Public School in Montreal, which was a secular institution founded by Bundists, I believe. But the new generation of Jewish leftists in the US seems to have less of an interest in explicitly secular Jewish life.
Irena Klepfisz: Yeah.
David: Is this a trend that you’ve noticed and what is your take on why that’s happening?
Irena Klepfisz: Well, first of all, I was amazed that some of my students just could not conceive of somebody being a secular Jew. I mean, I think the thing is that being a secular Jew in a committed, conscious way, not just by default or by absence, but rather with content, is hard work. I mean, you have to work on it. It’s not like you have a synagogue to walk into. You know, it’s not like there’s an institution that you can walk in. There are institutions, I mean, if you’re lucky in New York, you can walk into YIVO. But YIVO is not proselytizing for secularism, YIVO is a resource. And I think that anything that’s hard work and that takes a certain amount of time and education is going to be avoided. Because you can, if you are observant, you can go almost to any synagogue, it might not be the synagogue of your liking, but you can still go to a synagogue. And especially if you’re in remoter places that don’t have all these resources and don’t have the films. On the other hand, I feel like when you come to some place like KlezKanada or what I experienced 20 years ago at Klez Camp, you saw people who had never spoken Yiddish who made the effort to learn more, not just about the language, but who learned more about the culture, more about Eastern European life. And they become really important resources at this point. But it is hard work I think. And probably getting harder.
David: So I don’t remember where I read it but it might have been an old interview, where you had mentioned the challenge of negotiating religion in the women’s movement as a sort of recurring topic of conversation during a period of time.
Irena Klepfisz: During that period of time.
David: Yeah, what were the lessons around secularism that you learned from that time and those conversations?
Irena Klepfisz: Well, you know, first of all, I had to learn to respect religious people. And I say that because I really, I was very flippant. I was raised very flippant about religion. I always talk about that. When I was growing up as a kid, when we first came to the United States, I thought these Jewish Americans were really bizarre. I mean, they went to synagogue. I mean, who goes to synagogue? I just thought it was weird. And that sort of, you know, that kind of flippancy. When I became active and I wanted to influence and be effective, I had to learn, first of all, I had to learn more about the religion and I had to understand the needs of religious women that were in the movement. So there was tension around that but I think we dealt with it. I mean, things sometimes would flare up but I think most of us were determined to sort of bridge the gap. It didn’t always work. I mean, when you have, for example, there was a conference, I can’t remember now, this is a number of years ago. There was a conference that wanted to invite women from the Hasidic community but they didn’t want to put any lesbians on the panel because these women would be offended. Now that kind of thing can become a big deal. But like in the women’s studies, for example, which is where I did a lot of, most of my interactions with observant, more observant women, that was educational for me. And also when I was teaching, for example, I had quite a bit of respect for my observant Orthodox women who listened to these feminists, had their fellow students talking about feminism in certain ways and talking about men in certain ways, and then they would go home and face their families. I thought that took guts. You know? That took much more guts than the women who were the ardent feminists in the class. So I’ve modified. I mean, I did grow up with a real prejudice against religion. And I think to some degree I still have it. But at the same time, I have to respect the fact that there are intelligent, well-meaning people who, you know, believe it. And I can’t get around that. And if I want them on my side, I have to treat them with respect and with knowledge and not be ignorant in the same way that I would like other people to be respectful of me and not be ignorant about who I am.
Sam: So you’re here in the Laurentians, at Klezkanada, for a week-long poetry workshop. In an old interview, you said that activists need to think more like poets in order to parse out the ways that different forms of oppression relate to each other.
Irena Klepfisz: Mm.
Sam: And in this current political moment, which we’ve chatted about already, what do you see as the role of poetry right now?
Irena Klepfisz: It’s a really good question because I don’t really, I mean, the role of poetry in the women’s movement and during the second wave, was just so important and so visible. And I don’t, I have to say I feel a little bit out of it in many ways but especially I don’t really understand the internet yet. I don’t understand what people are listening to, podcasts or whatever. I mean, I do Facebook but it seems very limited. So I’m still kind of learning and I don’t really know. I mean, I think about it in terms of myself as well, about what I want to write about. And I think about it in terms of my time, what I want to spend my time on. Like, do I want to go out and do something on the street or do I want to stay home, solitary, and work on some of my writing? I mean, that’s always a question. I mean I don’t really know the answer to that. I feel like the mediums have changed so drastically. Even publishing is just alien at this point to me. That I don’t know. I mean, I know that I can only do what I know how to do. How that fits into this… And I can only do what I’ve done, I don’t feel like my process of writing, for example, or even the kind of poetry I can write, I can’t, I’m not interested in adapting myself to anything. I want to try to sharpen whatever I have and do that. But where that fits in even, whether it’s even published, and what does it mean to publish these days? I don’t really know. And that’s something I guess I have to learn or find out.
David: So in Dreams of an Insomniac, your essay collection from, I think was the early 90s?
Irena Klepfisz: Yeah.
David: There was this section where you were writing about sort of feeling guilty for straying away from your poetry and your arts practice, and that the essays came out of this parallel process, which is more rooted in your activism.
Irena Klepfisz: Mhm.
David: Do you still kind of feel that tension between those two?
Irena Klepfisz: I do. I do. I have to say, I’ve never gotten over that. I’ve just, I always feel like, there’s you know, I can’t explain it. I always think of a project that I should do after I’ve decided that I’m really going to work on something, and then I think of this other project that’s really not a creative kind of writing project, but that’s more of a political project. And I’m just torn sometimes. I don’t know that I’ll ever stop. My late partner, my partner was a painter and she was always trying to pull me back to my own work and now she’s not around. But I think about that a lot. And I get, I mean, even now, in the last few, just the last couple of years, I’ve written a couple of speeches, I wrote a long review, I wrote a long keynote. And those were all externally asked, you know, while I was thinking about working on some of this stuff. Bbut I thought it was important to do that. And and it’s a dilemma. It’s a dilemma. I don’t, I haven’t really resolved it. I think it just is very…. even doing something like Klezkanada, I mean to some degree. The poetry is something I really enjoy. I love doing poetry workshops, I love reading other people’s work, talking about it, it’s one of my favorite things. And I think I’m good at it. But the Yiddish women writers workshop was like my cause. I don’t like to lose opportunities to promote Yiddish women writers. So that took more time. So that’s that’s how I get pulled in, because I think, oh, this will be a good way to spread the word. (laughs) And so then I start thinking about doing that. So it’s always, it’s a tension within me that, like I say, and maybe I’ll never resolve it. Maybe I’ll just bounce around it in some weird way.
David: So we’ve been talking a lot about the Bund. And, you know, the last world conference of the Bund was, I think in 1992 in New York City. And the Bund’s paper, or at least the Bund’s US paper, Stopped publishing in 2005. And in the mid 80s, you wrote an essay where you talked about watching the secular Yiddish environment becomes smaller and smaller, are the words that you used then. You wrote, “Generations pass, institutions die. This is part of a natural evolution and cycle. But for our culture to survive, its losses must be replaced.” So we’re sitting here, I think, over 30 years since that reflection. And from today’s vantage point, I’m just wondering if you think that the losses are being replaced?
Irena Klepfisz: Well, I mean, to some degree yes. For example, the YIVO is thriving. The Jewish Center for History in New York is thriving. But on the other hand, I mean, I think the statement is maybe too little in a way. They do have to be replaced, but they can’t be the same thing. You know? So I think they have to maybe re-invent it in a new way. Because we’re living in a different time, we’re living in a different continent, we’re living in a different external culture. How we respond to that culture, what our relationship is to that culture, is different than it was in Poland. You know, Poles and Jews. And I do think that’s happening. One of the things I’ve stopped, you know, when I first became interested in Yiddish again sort of, from that time on people have been asking me whether it’s dying or dead or whatever. And it’s like, I don’t know! (Laughs) And it almost doesn’t matter to me. I think that’s the point. That we should do what we really believe and we shouldn’t really look to see if it’s going to be there 50 years from now or if it’s going to touch fifty thousand, fifty million people. And I say this knowing what I know about the Bund, that the Bund was started with 13 people in a crummy attic and Vilna and it became a mass movement. And I know it from my own experience of what happened in the lesbian feminist movement and the women’s movement, somebody like Gloria Anzaldúa, who’s now being taught in women’s studies classes. Audre Lorde, who’s being taught in women’s studies classes. And we started, you know, Conditions and Persephone Press. Kitchen Table, This Bridge Called My Back, I mean, that was just started by two or three people. You know, and it’s sort of amazing what happened. And who would have predicted it? They didn’t predict it, they just wanted to do it! They wanted to publish something and so they did. And so, I think looking at numbers or looking at that, it’s sort of… I leave it to other people. I’m sort of not interested in it. And I don’t mean that in a snobby way. I’m just saying that I think that if you told me that this movement is going to die like 10 years from now or 20 years from now, I’d still do what I want to do. I mean, it wouldn’t stop me. Because that’s the only thing I want to do, or know how to do. And I don’t really totally believe that it’s going to die in 20 years. Or if it does, that it won’t be rediscovered. And why should I just stop? Like Klez Camp closed and now there’s Yiddish New York and there’s KlezKanada. So I mean, it’s not the same thing as Klez Camp, but it’s it’s a kind of continuation of something.
Sam: So David and I have a segment on our radio show slash podcast, and it’s called Shkoyakh.
Irena Klepfisz: Oh Shkoyakh, yeah.
Sam: So we give like a big ups or a congratulations…
Irena Klepfisz: Yeah, I understand.
Sam: We also have a negative one, but I’m hoping for hope here. (laughs) So do you have any Shkoyakhs off the top of your head for something that gives you hope or is exciting to you right now? It could be a person, a place, a book…
Irena Klepfisz: Well, I mean, I was very impressed with the Never Again Is Now actions. I mean, wherever they went. Altogether, I think some of the responses to the immigration [issue] and the dedication is really extraordinary. It’s very, it’s inspiring in many ways. It’s um, it’s painful. Because there’s something about it, because it references the Holocaust and it kind of at the same time, it wants to stop things from happening like in the Holocaust. And it’s very moving from that point of view. And it’s very young people. I very much admired the people that went on the Birthrights and interrupted them, the trips, and insisted on asking questions and then were forced off. I think that was just great. I have to say, I think there is, it’s not only anti Zionism, I think it’s a general, that there’s a very young generation now, and I don’t know where they are culturally or secularly, but I think politically that they have stopped being afraid of the Jewish establishment and they have refused to accept what they’re being told. And they’re challenging. And that, I think, is just wonderful. Because they don’t want to say the Holocaust is untouchable and you can’t compare anything and blah, you know that. And they don’t want to say you can’t let me talk about Palestinians, you know, I’m going to talk about them, I’m not going to be silenced. And I think that that trend, I don’t know if it’s a trend, I mean I can only I only know what I’m reading. But if it is a trend, it’s a really good one. And it means, I think, a real shake up in American Jewry. Because that younger generation is tired of the bullshit. And they’re tired of not being able to penetrate through. And I think I think the establishment should be worried because they have penetrated through. People know about them, people know what they stand for, people know what never again means. And I think that’s an attitude, it’s not even the specific issue, it’s an attitude about how you approach issues. And I think that’s great.
David: Well, on the note of being tired of bullshit, I know we’ve have kept you longer than we said we’re going to keep you. (Laughs) But Irena, it was so lovely to meet you and to get to talk today.
Irena Klepfisz: Well, thank you. Your audience doesn’t know about Mohammed and the Mountain (laughs)
David: (laughs) It’s okay! I think it was a year and a half of us corresponding to make this happen, so it’s a big payoff.
Irena Klepfisz: Well I’m glad we finally did it. It was really wonderful to meet you. And thank you for coming and taking the time. I appreciate it. Let me know when it goes on the air.
Sam: We certainly will.
Irena Klepfisz: (laughs)
David: So that’s our episode for today. Thanks as always for listening to the show. A small correction, I mentioned during our conversation that the secular Yiddish school that Sam went to, it’s technically called the Jewish People’s Schools and Peretz Schools, in Montreal, I said it was founded by Bundists, but according to Wikipedia it was founded by a coalition of socialists and labour Zionists in 1910. And it wasn’t until 1914 that the Bundist faction gained control.
Sam: And that is why you come to the Treyf podcast, for this kind of thoroughness and attention to detail.
David: Yeah, please deflect all hate mail related to that assertion. (laughs)
Sam: For everything else, I guess just check out the show notes.
David: Yeah, we covered a lot of ground in the interview, referenced a lot of things, if you’re interested in reading more about any of it, the show notes will have links for most of the things that we referenced.
Sam: Treyf podcast is Sam Bick and David Zinman. A huge thanks to CKUT 90.3FM, where we generally record this podcast, under the shadow of the giant cross of secularism, on occupied Kanien’kehá:ka territory.
David: Thanks as always to Saxsyndrum and Socalled for the music you heard in the episode, and to everyone who helps make Treyf podcast happen.
Sam: You can follow us on all the social medias at Treyf podcast, T-R-E-Y-F. That would include Facebook dot com, Twitter dot com, and Instagram dot com.
David: And you can always send us comments, suggestions, or hate mail to Treyf podcast at gmail dot com.
Sam: Shout out to the person who sent us a nice piece of hate mail, which by the way doesn’t count as hate mail.
David: I think it’s just a nice email.
Sam: Yeah, thank you for that.
David: And that’s it!
Sam: More episodes soon.