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Ulinover, Miryem

(1890–1944), Yiddish poet. Miryem Ulinover, originally Manya Hirshbeyn, was born in Łódź. Her father, learned in both Jewish and modern secular culture, was a connoisseur of languages. Her parents divorced in 1905. A childhood visit to her maternal grandfather in the shtetl of Krzepice, near Częstochowa, marked Ulinover’s only recorded experience of the shtetl life that later became the central subject of her poetry. As she reported in an interview, her actual grandmother was a “Jewish aristocrat” and nothing at all like the folkloristic, old-fashioned grandmother in her poems.

Encouraged by Sholem Aleichem during his 1905 visit to Łódź, when he inscribed a book to her as “a future sister-writer,” Miryem first began publishing at age 15 in Polish, and shortly thereafter in Russian and German. In 1912, she married Wolf Ulinover, whose widowed father had married Miryem’s divorced mother, and Miryem worked in the family import shop until she bore her first daughter in 1915. Her second daughter was born in 1922. Although she and her husband adhered to a traditional Jewish life, Ulinover was cognizant of modern Yiddish literature and culture.

From 1915 on, Ulinover’s prose and first Yiddish poems, which she characterized as steeped deliberately in the language of the taytsh-khumesh (Yiddish translation of the Torah), appeared in Łódź’s Yiddish journals and collections Folk, Yetstike tsayt, Heftn, Di yugnt, and Der yidisher zhurnalist, as well as in the daily newspapers Lodzer tageblat and Lodzer folksblat. After showing her work to David Frishman, Ulinover began publishing poems in Warsaw’s Yiddish periodicals and almanacs in 1920, and in 1922 her book Der bobes oytser (My Grandmother’s Treasure) was published by a religious press in that city. Although Ulinover prepared a second book manuscript, titled Shabes, the Nazi occupation of Poland prevented its publication, and this second manuscript did not survive the war. However, a small selection from Shabes was published in Ezra Korman’s anthology Yidishe dikhterins (Yiddish Women Poets; 1928).

In its appearance, Der bobes oytser deliberately invoked traditional Jewish texts, contrasting with the modernist design of many contemporary Warsaw publications. The dust jacket, by Yoysef Zaydnbaytl, depicted a havdalah spice box and a kiddush cup, bordered by carved wooden columns and flowers. The font consisted of large letters resembling those of a handwritten Torah scroll. The poems themselves, divided into two cycles—“Der bobes oytser” (My Grandmother’s Treasure) and “Kale-yorn” (Bridal Years)—bear titles reflecting devotional life, such as “Dos yikhes brivele” (The Genealogical Document), “Hovdole-vayn” (Havdalah Wine), “Di khales” (The Challahs), “Der alter sider” (The Old Prayer Book), “Baym taytsh-khumesh” (Reading the Yiddish Torah), and “Ester hamalke” (Queen Esther). Each of these poems, though, delineates a tension between the tradition invoked and the modern speaker.

Typical of literary critics such as Tuvye Kats and Yankev Shatzky, Frishman lauded the “authentic” Jewish folk character of Ulinover’s poems. He praised her work as “so genuine, and so—Jewish!” in contrast to modernist Yiddish poets who, “more European than Europe,” wrote poems like “lotus blossoms from the Ganges.” Instead, he maintained that Ulinover’s poems came directly from traditional Jewish culture and, evincing no influence by modern European literature, spoke with the “voice of the people” as “simple as life itself.” After the war, readers continued to perceive Ulinover as naive. Even Kadia Molodowsky, writing in her column on great Jewish women in Der forverts in 1955, conflated the poems’ persona with Ulinover herself.

After 1922, Ulinover’s poems became popular in secular as well as religious circles. Two were set to music, and several were reprinted in publications of both the Beys Yankev religious girls’ school and the secular Yiddish folkshuln in Vilna and New York. From the 1920s on, Ulinover was active in the Yiddish literary life of Łódź. She attended Yitsḥak Katzenelson’s well-known literary gatherings and hosted her own, encouraging younger writers from traditional backgrounds, including other women poets.

However, by 1930, Ulinover’s poems had been forgotten. Her work resurfaced after the Holocaust when her role in the Łódź ghetto became known. From 1940 until the spring of 1944, when the ghetto was liquidated, Ulinover had held literary gatherings in her home in defiance of the increasing dehumanization of the Jews. On 18 August 1944, during the liquidation of the Łódź ghetto, Miryem Ulinover was deported to Auschwitz and murdered.

Mistaken by readers and literary critics for a naive folk poet, Miryem Ulinover wrote poems designed by a modern sensibility that sought to preserve the folk diction, sayings, and customs of premodern Jewish life in Poland. Her best-known poems place a pious shtetl grandmother into dialogue with the girlhood self of the poet’s persona in mock-ballad stanzas and archaic, idiomatic diction that gave urbane Yiddish readers in Poland an impression of the supposed innocence of traditional, small-town Jewish life.

Suggested Reading

Kathryn Hellerstein, “Songs of Herself: The Lineage of Women Yiddish Poets,” Studies in American Jewish Literaure 9 (Fall 1990): 138–150; Kathryn Hellerstein, “Beyond the Purim Shpil: Reinventing the Book of Esther in Modern Yiddish Poetry,” in Jews and the Creation of Modern Jewish Culture in Eastern Europe, ed. Gabriella Safran and Benjamin Nathans (Philadelphia, forthcoming); Natalia Krynicka, ed. and intro., “Araynfir” (Introduction [in Yiddish and French]), in A grus fun der alter heym: Lider / Un bonjour du pays natal: Poèmes, by Miriam Ulinover, trans. Batia Baum (Paris, 2003), pp. xiii–lxxxvii and 13–94; Miriam Uli[a]nover, Der bobes oytser (Warsaw, 1921/22); Miriam Ulinover, Der bobes oyster / Ha-Otsar shel ha-savta, trans. Yehoshu‘a Tan Pai (Jerusalem, 1975), see in particular these articles: Dov Sadan, “Shomeret ha-otser: ‘Al Miryem Ulinover,” and David Frishman, “‘Al shiratah shel Miryem Ulinover.”