Irena Klepfisz

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Irena Klepfisz in 2017

Irena Klepfisz (born April 17, 1941) is a Jewish lesbian feminist author, poet, academic and activist living in the US.


  • I feel a sense of urgency when it comes to Trump and his administration. I’m here today because I’m beginning to see what my parents saw in the 1930s in Europe. I always tried to imagined how it was like for them, but this is the first time in my life when I feel that I’m experiencing something similar. It has enormous echos for me. ‘America First’ is not substantially different from ‘Deutschland über Alles.’ One of the things that scares me is the global rise of right-wing movements in the United States, Europe and Israel. The American alt-right is in dialogue with similar movements in Israel, and this might pose a danger to both Israelis and Americans.

Dreams of an Insomniac: Jewish Feminist Essays, Speeches and Diatribes (1990)[edit]


  • no theory about American Jews has been able to express quite as well the nature and power of Jewish identity as the moment when I realized I had passed without a second thought a group of homeless people on a New York City street because I was rushing to a Jewish women's vigil protesting Israeli policies against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. I saw myself instinctively redefining geography and distance, experiencing how much closer Israel, the West Bank and Gaza felt than the 59th Street stop of the Lexington line. Moments like these, integral parts of our daily lives, simultaneously embody theory and concrete experience and I continue to trust them most.
  • Unlike poetry, essays have never felt natural.
  • From the age of twenty, my ego has been invested in poetry. For me, the prospect of expression through poetry transforms solitary silence and an empty page into sheer pleasure. I feel unafraid, knowing I can break all the rules, invent my own forms. No matter what persona I take on, my voice remains accessible and recognizable. There is no artifice, no pose, no sense that I have to transform myself into someone else. As a poet, I remain comfortably disrespectful. I experiment, take risks which sometimes work and sometimes don't. For years I have had no such courage in essay writing. It has seemed an iron-clad genre that I could neither escape nor fit into.
  • di bavegung, "the movement," has pushed, encouraged, and given me space, like it has to many women who lacked confidence in their skills and in the value of their perspectives. Above all, it challenged me to present publicly what I discuss privately, to raise issues that I care about and that are central to my experience as a feminist and lesbian, as a Jew sorting out my identity and my relationship to Jewish history, as an American Jew defining my relationship to events in the Middle East.
  • At thirteen I tried silence. At sixteen I tried anonymity. I have since learned these are not the only options.

"Anti-Semitism in the Lesbian/Feminist Movement" (1981)[edit]

  • Repeatedly, I find that I am preoccupied not with countering anti-Semitism, but with trying to prove that anti-Semitism exists, that it is serious, and that, as lesbian/feminists, we should be paying attention to it both inside and outside of the movement.
  • I want the issue of anti-Semitism to be incorporated into our overall struggle because there are lesbian/feminists among us who are threatened in this country not only as lesbians, but also as Jews. If that incorporation simply takes the form of adding us on to the already existing list of problems, then it will be mere tokenism and lip service. But if it includes self-examination, analysis of the Jew in America, and dialogue between Jews and non-Jews, then I think this movement will have made a real attempt to deal with the issue.
  • When the Jews finally staged the uprising in April 1943, the Polish underground refused them almost every form of assistance. Even though they were facing the same enemy, even though their country was occupied, the Poles could not overcome their anti-Semitism and join the Jews in the struggle for the freedom of both groups, and instead chose to stage a separate Polish uprising more than a year later.
  • I think it is time for all of us in this movement, Jews and non-Jews alike, to examine our silence on this subject, to examine its source. And Jews especially need to consider their feelings about their Jewishness, for any self-consciousness, any desire to draw attention away from one's Jewishness is an internalization of anti-Semitism. And if we want others to deal with this issue, then we ourselves must start to develop a sense of pride and a sense that our survival as Jews is important.
  • If someone were to ask me did I think a Jewish Holocaust was possible in this country, I would answer immediately: "Of course." Has not America had other holocausts? Has not America exterminated others, those it deemed undesirable or those in its way? Are there not holocausts going on right now in this country? Why should I believe it will forever remain benevolent towards the non-Christian who is the source of all its troubles, the thief of all its wealth, the commie betrayer of its secrets, the hidden juggler of its power, the killer of its god? Why should I believe that, given the right circumstances, America will prove kind to the Jew? That given enough power to the fascists, the Jew will remain untouched?

"Resisting and surviving America" (1982)[edit]

  • As a child, my first conscious feeling about being Jewish was that it was dangerous, something to be hidden.
  • As I grew older, I learned the full breadth of Yiddish literature; but this early introduction with its inherent political vision became as powerful an influence in my life as did the war.
  • Experience has obviously taught me that Jews are not the only ones in danger and that what is "undesirable" in me is not limited to my Jewishness.
  • As a writer I still cherish poetry that tells a story, especially the dramatic monologue. I still value most a poetry that deals with people, especially those alienated and out of the mainstream-the overworked and dreamless, Third World, women, gay-a subdued, earnest poetry that expresses their feelings, their struggles, the conditions of their lives.
  • the Holocaust. I find it almost impossible to write that word because here-in America-the word has lost almost all meaning. And the fault lies with both non-Jews and Jews. It lies with the "American way of life," with the process of Americanization, with American Big Business, with commercialism, with posing, with artificial feelings...I find-and am repeatedly stunned by it-that people (including non-Jews) insist on dredging it up. Writers, for example, who have no feelings or connection to the war, insist on it as literary metaphor, as an epigraph, as some kind of necessary addition. A casual allusion to Auschwitz. An oblique reference to the Warsaw Ghetto. Somehow this "sprinkling" of Jewish experiences is thought to reflect sensitivity, a largeness of heart. And of course it does not. It is simply the literary Holocaust, the Holocaust of words that has nothing to do with fact. It is nothing more than a pose. I must say that my teeth grind whenever I see these gratuitous gestures-usually devoid of any Jewish context, devoid of any sense of the Jewish experience or history.
  • I've been thinking a lot about it lately, about the corruption here in America, how everything becomes big business, how everything becomes diseased. Everything.
  • How can I say to people that for the survivors with whom I grew up the Holocaust never ended? That all my life I will feel the loss of never having known my father, never even having a photograph of him after the age of seventeen. That all my life I will feel the loss of aunts and cousins and grandparents I never knew. That my mother still stacks shelves and shelves of food-just in case. That twenty years after the war, when some plaster fell down from the living room ceiling, she froze with fear because she thought we were being bombed...The Holocaust was not an event that ended in 1945-at least not for the survivors. Not for me. It continued on and on because my mother and I were alone.
  • This is the confusion. Being Jewish. Being a lesbian. Being an American. It all converges. It is like feelings about one's parents. Love and embarrassment. The painful realization that they are not perfect.
  • When it comes to the bottom line, the Moral Majority is Christian. So is the Ku Klux Klan. So is the Nazi Party. And I am completely stymied that large segments of the Jewish population have not absorbed these simple basic facts.
  • I am also angry that Jews have somehow, during this process, gotten stuck-I'm not sure if that's the right word, but I don't know how else to express it. They have been unable to absorb the experience of the Holocaust, have not learned how to transcend the catastrophe. They've mistakenly thought that to transcend means to forget the past, that to think about the present is to abandon the past. That too is a painful mistake, a grave mistake for Jews in America, because it's kept many of them from universalizing their experience, from joining with others who have experienced oppression-not perhaps an exact duplication of Jewish oppression, but nevertheless oppression.
  • This is perhaps the most painful aspect for me of being Jewish, for I identify strongly as a Jew, am proud to be a Jew. And yet I sometimes feel so torn-so torn from the Jewish community, from the Jews I grew up with, who nurtured me, helped me. And yet I don't understand what America has done to them and how it has seduced them. The conservatism is there and really hard to accept. But it is there, definitely there with the mainstreaming.
  • what the Jewish lesbian encounters are the typical conservative stances. Closed doors. Silence. Disgust.
  • Those of the Left, Jew and non-Jew alike, seem to believe what the Right has always maintained-that Jews run the world and are, therefore, most responsible for its ills. The casualness, the indifference with which the Left accepts this anti-Semitic stance enrages me. It is usually subtle, often taking the form of anti-Semitism by omission. Its form is to show or speak about Jews only as oppressors, never as anything else. That is anti-Semitic.
  • I cannot end without affirming as strongly as I can my deep feelings of identification and pride in being a Jew. It was Jews who first instilled in me the meaning of oppression and its consequences. It was Jews who first taught me about socialism, class, racism and what in the fifties was called "injustice." It is from Jews that I adopted ideals that I still hold and principles that I still believe are true and must be fought for and put into practice. It was from Jews that I learned about the necessity for resistance. It was from Jews that I also learned that literature is not simply fancy words or clever metaphor, but instead is deeply, intimately connected to life, to a life that I am a part of. It is really almost impossible to compress this inheritance into a single paragraph. But I know its depth and vitality, and I know that I have absorbed it thoroughly into my consciousness.
  • 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 blend and blur, for in many ways they are the same.

"Jewish Progressives and the Jewish Community" (1988)[edit]

  • I do not accept the assumption that there exist two distinct Jewish worlds-progressive and mainstream (or traditional)-all of whose values and norms are always in conflict. My experience as a feminist and a lesbian is that the Jewish world we call progressive has been often as slow and reluctant to deal with feminist and gay issues as the mainstream Jewish world. Some advances have been made and many, though not all, Jewish progressives have reached the stage of paying obligatory lipservice and ensuring token representation at progressive events. But a clear-cut commitment to fighting sexism and homophobia and a dedication to gaining full rights for gays have not evoked the same passions which the struggles for rights of other minorities evoke. Most Jewish feminists and gays that I know remain angry and frustrated by Jewish progressives. Deeply committed to progressive causes, frequently in the vanguard of political action, Jewish feminists and gays find ourselves fighting for the rights of others without the secure knowledge that others will fight for us. Most of the time we fight sexist and heterosexist battles alone in both these worlds.
  • Perhaps this experience as a lesbian and feminist is the reason I try to avoid the "us" and "them" division and try to find common ground in both worlds from which to launch various battles. The "us" and "them" division-"us" meaning progressives and "them" being the mainstream-is too simple and veils a more complex reality. It also smacks of smugness and self-righteousness, which I find alienating. It assumes that the progressive world has everything to offer the mainstream and the mainstream's main activity is to unlearn its evil ways. This is neither useful nor accurate. I am, for example, often pained by the ignorance of many Jewish progressives in relation to Jewish history, culture, and religion and wish we would have more contact with the mainstream community and get our Jewishness on firmer ground.
  • there needs to be greater communication between Jewish progressives and the Jewish mainstream, there needs to be an exchange, bartering if you will. If such exchanges do not take place we will still be progressives, but not Jewish progressives.
  • There needs to be among us a greater sense of an exchange between equals rather than between givers and receivers. If this sense of mutual respect does not exist, then we progressives will surely be forever seen as outsiders.
  • As a feminist and lesbian, as a Yiddishist and a cultural Jew, I often feel alienated from Jewish progressives who do not share my cultural concerns, who do not worry about Jewish cultural survival... I have found, in fact, that my concerns about Jewish identity and culture often form the bridge to the mainstream Jewish community and enable me to get progressive issues such as women's and gay and lesbian rights a more sympathetic ear.
  • We Jews are living in a strange historical period in which our sense of history is often quite warped. For many American Jews, the Holocaust and Israel have reduced Jewish history to the years 1939-1945, or 1948 to the present. This extremely limited view of Jewish history naturally narrows the concept of Jewish identity and that narrowness is one which we as progressives ought to be countering.
  • Let us not take the attitude that because of our politics we must remain pure and not mix with the Jewish rabble-the mainstream. Let us be as willing to meet with Jews in small community centers in our neighborhoods as we are to meet with Palestinians. The work to be done at these centers and synagogues is as critical as the work needed to resolve the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

Interview (1997)[edit]

in Meaning and Memory: Interviews with Fourteen Jewish Poets by Gary Pacernick (2001)

  • The way things have played themselves out makes me feel grateful to the lesbian/feminist movement because it really did help me get out there. I'm not sure whether I would have ever really been picked by a university press or by other presses to be published. The one thing about the lesbian/feminist movement is that we had a lot of room to do whatever we wanted to do, and so I'm very grateful because the movement really gave me the impetus
  • There's a whole tradition of immigrants, Jewish and non-Jewish, looking at America in a certain way-as a hope and a promise fulfilled. I don't look at it that way. I view it as a place where a lot of people have been ripped off. They don't have full liberties; they don't have economic opportunities.
  • I am still a socialist, though I despair at how to express that these days. It's simple, so utterly simple: there ought to be fair distribution of wealth. I think the kind of economic disparity we're seeing now is obscene. I'm not saying anything radical or new. You can read it in the New York Times; the chasm between the rich and the poor has increased endlessly in the last two decades and that's a terrible, terrible thing. It's terrible when you consider what people's basic needs are-whether it's the vaccination of their children or affordable housing and the obscenity of what basketball players or corporation people or HMO presidents get. Nobody needs that much money.
  • I think poets are our most important defenses against linguistic corruption. They are the reinventors of language, the defenders of language, who insist that how you express yourself, how you convey your experience, actually matters in the world.
  • I think Yiddish is something the Ashkenazi Jews really turn to to help them define themselves in terms that existed before the war rather than in relationship to the Holocaust or Israel. They're pointing to the issues of language and what language can express and mean and especially if it's a language that is a national language. I think writers have an important function here, and I think some of them are accepting it. (GP: Writing in Yiddish?) IK: Well, at least talking about Yiddish or using a little bit of Yiddish even to make their English less mainstream, to make their English more Jewish. People are beginning to study. I think these small steps are significant. (GP: So in some way you're memorializing that tradition.) IK: I'm hoping that I'm not so much memorializing it as taking it into the present…Through my writing and through encouraging other people-not just writers. I want to "activate it," so that Jews will feel that they're connected to this culture, that they can claim it as their legacy, their heritage. It's what shaped their parents-well, at this point, I'd have to say their Eastern European grandparents and ancestors.
  • There was a thousand-year-old tradition in Poland that I feel far closer to than the religious traditions based on Torah and Talmud and halakha. Now much of that tradition is religious. But it represents my history, my Polish Jewish ancestors. Poland is the center of my Jewish cultural roots, and the destruction of that center in Eastern Europe has created the deprivation of my life. My mission is to try to figure out how to continue here. So in that sense I don't accept the Zionist premises of Diaspora and homeland-that dichotomy. I feel Jews can be Jews anywhere. They might have to work on it in different ways depending on the contexts, hostilities, support, and so on. But they have to figure it out. So, yes-neither Israel nor the Bible is the core of my Jewish Identity. (GP: Can you say what it is? Is it memory?) IK: For me it is language and culture. What the Jewish Labor Bund called national cultural autonomy…Language by itself really doesn't mean anything to me. It's because a language is the medium of a whole culture, of a literature, of a politics (socialism) that language-Yiddish-takes on meaning. Now the question for me is what happens to that combination of language and culture here in the United States. I'm someone who is currently active in translating. I don't want that Yiddish heritage lost to the Jews here who can't read Yiddish. So simultaneously when I translate I'm also proselytizing for people to study Yiddish so that they can read the original. What I don't know is whether we can in fact have a secular culture-meaning one not based on religious practice and ritual or on religious texts-here in the United States as they did in Europe. They had the Yiddish language to define it, we do not. Of course, I'm hoping we can and will.
  • Outside of Israel and Russia, we have our own realities, and Yiddish is "The Language That Won't Go Away." I often talk about this longing for Yiddish despite Israel, despite all the Holocaust memorials, despite all the Jewish activities that are part of American Jewish life. There's a lot of feeling about Yiddish both among an older generation and a younger generation that never even got to hear it. As I myself get older, I encounter young students whose parents don't remember Yiddish or never knew it, but perhaps whose grandparents spoke Yiddish. Yiddish for most is increasingly a vague memory. And yet this younger generation has this yearning. It's an interesting phenomenon. What is it that's missing in Jewish American life that makes Jews think that Yiddish could fill a void? Clearly, something is missing. We don't know whether for them Yiddish is the answer or not; something is happening among that generation. What I would like people to think about is why at a time when there's a frenzy about the Holocaust, about memorialization, about interviewing survivors, and so on, there is a rich revival of klezmer music. Is it a desire to focus on the joy that was there before the war?
  • (If you could do it again, what would you do differently?) IK: As a student, I was a purist (or so I thought). I was only focused on literature and poetry. When I was young, I resented being forced to read history. Now, I wish I had studied it more. I'm trying to catch up. In my younger years, I had a keen kind of intuitive personal sense of history, but I really didn't focus on it in a more disciplined way, and I think that that would have been a real enrichment to me, intellectually.
  • (What is the most amazing thing about life?) IK: That it persists despite its fragility. Everything sort of hangs by a hair's breadth and yet somehow it manages.... You hear such horrible stories about people's lives...war, abuse, poverty-that anybody survives is remarkable. Audre Lorde once said, "None of us were meant to survive." There's truth to that, and I remain amazed that so many of us do. It's extraordinary that we can even walk around and function in a minimal way, much less in a productive way. For whatever turmoil goes on internally with people and the pain that they experience at night in their dreams, they still manage somehow to construct lives during the day which are meaningful to other people and to themselves.

Interview with Yiddish Book Center (2017)[edit]

  • The Jewish Labor Bund began as a kind of socialist movement aimed at Jewish workers and evolved into -- very quickly, actually -- it evolved into a kind of socialist, self-consciously culturally identified movement, so that they weren't just -- that it wasn't only interested -- or understood that just either having better wages or better working conditions was really not enough, and that people needed schools and libraries and sports organizations and theater and art and literature in order to lead a kind of enriched life. So, it's not a typical kind of just socialist -- you know, kind of union organizing movement the way I perceive it.
  • I was born in Warsaw during the war. And I was -- survived partly because I was hidden in a place in a Catholic orphanage. And my parents arranged for that. My father was killed in the uprising. He was one of the people involved in the uprising -- in organizing it.
  • It wasn't an age in which people explained a lot of things to kids. Really. I mean, we're so careful now about, is this gonna traumatize the child and all of this. Nobody even thought about it.
  • I think my introduction to loving poetry and literature came from Yiddish
  • The '50s were so culturally different than what -- anything that we have now. I mean, there was no bridge between that public school and that shule. In public school, we did Easter -- even though it was, like, ninety-eight percent Jewish, we did Easter, we did Christmas. There was not one mention of anything Jewish. And in the shule, it was like the rest of the world didn't exist.
  • I sort of liked the kind of Yiddish poetry of like, Morris Rosenfeld. I liked somebody telling a story -- narrative. I liked narrative in poetry.
  • When I write, I will say it out loud to myself over and over again. I want to hear it. I want to hear how it sounds. Not only -- I like to manipulate it on the page and how it looks, but I also want to be able to hear it.
  • I experienced a lot of homophobia when I came out, around 1974
  • What happened was that Jewish feminists decided to either reclaim some stuff or -- they pushed into the Jewish community -- and people who had been outside of it, suddenly, women saw that there was a way in because of these other Jewish feminists...Every minority woman did this. They went back to their communities and they said, Where are the women? Let me see where they've been hidden, where they've been buried, who's forgotten, who should be remembered. We all did that with our own communities of origin, and I did the same thing with the Yiddish. And so, when I did with Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz -- when we did "The Tribe of Dina," we highlighted Fradel Shtok, who I'd never heard of before, and Kadia Molodowsky, who I had, but I didn't even know that she wrote prose. And we published -- I translated two short stories by both of them. And aside, I think, from Rokhl Korn, it was, like, the first time that these people's prose was being shown.
  • There's an enormous amount of protectiveness -- of sort of like, the three classic writers. You're not -- can't say that they were sexist. Why? I mean, why were they -- were they really, I mean, the only three men in the last century who were not sexist? It just doesn't make any sense.
  • In the '80s, when I -- I've written about this -- I was rooming with Gloria Anzaldúa, who was a Chicana lesbian writer from Texas. And we were teaching in a program in Santa Cruz -- a summer three-week -- I think it was a three-week program. It was called Women's Voices, and it was about -- it was a writing program,...We sort of introduced ourselves to each other, and -- she did ask me how come I never used Yiddish, and I thought that was sort of an interesting (laughs) question, since it had never even occurred to me. I mean, I think I used two Yiddish words up until then.
    • "At what point did Yiddish come into your writing?"
  • I took my first trip to Poland; it was in '83; it was the fortieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. And I went with my mother -- the only time she returned. And that had a profound effect on me, also. I think that also pushed me more towards trying to reclaim a Yiddish legacy, because I was sort of very -- I was particularly moved by the cemeteries, which were -- the two larger cemeteries that I saw were in Łódź and in Warsaw. And that, I think, also pushed me, because in some ways, that trip and those cemeteries made very clear to me the Holocaust in a way that it hadn't been before. Because the tombstones reflected the life that had been sort of destroyed in a very concrete way. I mean, you -- it wasn't abstract words; it wasn't a photograph; it was -- these were really burial places of actual people and an actual life. And it was something -- I once said it was like looking at a negative -- instead of looking at the photograph, you're looking at the negative. And that was very profound.
  • One of the things that I did when I went to Poland this summer was, I insisted that there were lesbian -- because I know what's going on over there -- that I insisted that the word "lesbian" be in my bio. And it was interesting -- in Kraków, three young people came up to me, one of them in tears, just ecstatic that I had done it, and that I actually -- I had talked about it.
  • At the time, it was not an easy process to come out in the Jewish community. And very often, I voluntarily was a token. I mean, I knew I was being used as a token. But I think that that's also part of the process. I think you allow yourself to be a token just so often, you know. But I think it's part of a process of people getting adjusted and having a token out there that they can -- that makes it easier for somebody else not to be a token.
  • I'm a person who's interested in history in general. I think we should have accurate history, and I think we should look at people that have been erased, histories that have been erased.
  • The translation of Yiddish literature into English by the -- beginning with, like, Irving Howe, and that totally erased women, so it was even worse in English than it actually was in Yiddish.
  • The Bund was always -- was very strongly, before the war, anti-Zionist, and I was raised -- I don't know if I was raised anti-Zionist, because already by the time I was conscious, Israel already existed and the Bund made its peace with the fact that there was an Israel, but I never had the Zionist idea that I was -- that my home was there. I always felt that my home was in Poland...I want to make sure that it gets remembered. I want to pass it on to other people.
  • I felt that by translating, first of all, I made something accessible that was inaccessible and would remain inaccessible. And in some cases, it actually inspired other people to learn Yiddish, by reading the -- then they said, I want to read the original and I want to read more. What's not translated?'s not like the real thing. It never is. But it's either you get this, or you get nothing. And I feel that a good translation -- it's not the original -- gives you a lot...I wish more stuff was available in English. I mean, I wish I could put stuff in my classroom. But I can't, unless it's translated. And then, that means that students remain ignorant of it.

Interview (2018)[edit]

  • I only really became familiar with religious aspects of Judaism when I became active in the Women’s Movement, and I was forced into it. I was working with women who were observant, and I wanted to be sensitive, so I started learning. A friend and I did a feminist Haggadah. I have a whole bunch of xeroxed Haggadahs with all kinds of goddesses on them.
  • I feel I was very lucky, though, because when I came out, which was in 1973, New York was just hopping. It was exploding. It was after Stonewall. Lesbians started getting organized. I belonged to a group of lesbian writers. There were four of us who decided to start Conditions magazine, for example, and before that we had a group called Di Vilde Chayas [the wild animals], which was a group that had Adrienne Rich, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, Gloria Greenfield, and Evelyn Torton Beck, who did Nice Jewish Girls.
  • The Jewish Labor Bund was a non-Zionist organization, so I barely thought about Israel. But if you’re going to be involved with the Left, you’ve got to start thinking about Israel. Melanie and I became very committed to supporting the Women in Black in ‘87. I formed a group here, the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation (JWCEO) with Clare Kinberg and Grace Paley. We wanted to be identified as Jews protesting.
  • When I published my first book, I had lesbian poems in there. Some people got it, and some people didn’t. There were people who only wanted to look at my Holocaust poetry. They pretended like there was nothing else. On the other hand, there were lots of lesbians who were just interested in my lesbian poems and could care less about the Holocaust ones. It was very difficult for me to give readings because I never had an integrated audience. It was only many years later, in the ‘90s, when I became better known and would be invited to campuses, for example, that my readings would be co-sponsored by an English department, a women’s center, and an LGBT committee or group. When I did these things, people would always say, ‘Gee, we’ve never had such a mixed audience before.’ In the ‘70s… this was still too raw. Some of it was quite ugly, and it was very disappointing for me to see the community that I had come out of be so bigoted.
  • You’re sort of one person at one moment and another person at another moment. I suppose the only time that you’re ever really complete is when you’re by yourself or in an environment in which you’re not hiding. In the gay community, I was not hiding my Jewishness. Not everybody was interested in my Yiddish work, but nobody was hostile to it. But in the Jewish world, I had to be shut down in certain ways.
  • I feel connected to Jewish history. I feel a part of the Jewish community, in all of its variety. As a Jew, my fate is bound up with other Jews. That could be Hasidim, Sephardim...people who are very different from me. In addition to that sense of bond and commitment, I also feel an obligation to contribute to Jewish culture, and that could take different forms. That could be my own writing, or it could be translations from Yiddish, so that people who don’t speak Yiddish can connect with Ashkenazi tradition. I don’t want Yiddish to disappear because nobody can read it. I also spend a lot of time on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I feel very much that it’s a part of me, in a way; I can’t totally distance myself from it, but I’m deeply disturbed by what’s happened there. I recognize the existence of religious texts, but I don’t necessarily believe them. I appreciate some of them from a literary or historical perspective, and I understand that they’re part of my history as a Jew, but I’m not moved by synagogue. I’m not even sentimental about it.
    • "You write that you have always identified as a secular Jew. What does that mean to you?"
  • There’s got to be a greater knowledge of diversity in Jewish life.
  • I don’t think there is an ideal community—there are different kinds, and it shifts. One of the things we make a mistake about is that we want things to be static. You have to recognize when it’s become confining or rigid or prescriptive. You know, people always forget, Hasidim were considered rebels only 250 years ago. They were excommunicated! Everyone thinks they were around, walking in the desert in Palestine. They weren’t! They don’t realize that it’s much more dynamic. That gives me hope, that things change.
  • I think there’s a strand of people who say you have to speak Yiddish, and you have to speak it correctly. I don’t want the movement to become elitist. It used to be that Hebrew was the loshon ha-kodesh [holy language]. I don’t want Yiddish to become a holy language. I want it to be of the people, which is the way that it always was. I think that’s something to guard against.

Interview with Forward (2019)[edit]

  • One of the nice things I like to do is to get bilingual books, both in Yiddish and now in Polish...I have, like, poetry which is in Polish on one side and English on the other. And that's sort of an interesting way, also, for me to think about poetry and look at things.
  • It seems to me that there are sort of multiple American Jewish identities. One is the Zionist identity -- that I'm a Jew because I'm a Zionist, and I don't have to do anything else, but I can support Israel and I'm a Jew. And then, there's the observant one -- the one that's -- you know, you go to the synagogue. And the secularists -- I mean, when my -- when I first wrote my essay, "Secular Jewish Identity: Yiddishkayt in America" in "Tribe of Dina," which was, like, in, I don't know, '83, '84, people came up to me and said, I didn't realize I was a secularist...there was also this other identity which had to do with the Holocaust, and it had to do with either identifying yourself as a survivor or identifying yourself as the first generation or second and now third, where your identity is Jewish because of your connection to the Holocaust.
  • The arts, I think, are very affirming -- affirming, even when they're depressing.
  • My students always -- when they want to talk about activism, are always worried that they're not -- you know, Well, we only have four or five people. And I tell them, "Don't worry about that." You know, four or five people can do a lot. And you don't know where you're gonna end up.
  • I did teach, and I may start again next semester, for ten years at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. And I always sort of considered that part of -- I don't know where the desire came to do that. It's something that I really love doing, and it -- you know, it made me see and opened up a whole part of sort of American justice system and society. But I felt it was very much in keeping sort of with my Bundist connection, even though it had nothing to do with Yiddish or Jews necessarily, or anything else. But it did have a lot to do with fairness and justice.

Interview (2021)[edit]

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • the role of poetry in the women’s movement and during the second wave, was just so important and so visible.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Quotes about Irena Klepfisz[edit]

  • Jewish poet Irena Klepfisz writes in the mame-loshn, Yiddish, the mother tongue, even her fragmentary version of it, as an act of reclamation, to salvage what is left, "this echo of a European era and culture in which I never lived and about which I have only heard second-hand like a family story."
    • Bettina Aptheker Tapestries of Life: Women's Work, Women's Consciousness, and the Meaning of Daily Experience (1989)
  • Endurance, repression, survival, exclusion, absurdity, and work are the themes which drive this relentless poetry. Klepfisz is more than equal to the task of translating her formidable consciousness into splendid language. The poetry takes many forms: narrative, sonnet, journal entry, prose....The mood of the poetry is grim, cynical, ironic. The clarity and simplicity of her language are breathtaking.
    • Cheryl Clarke, Conditions (blurb cited in Different Enclosures (1985))
  • The venerable Polish-Jewish culture that Irena Klepfisz was born into was destroyed by Nazi genocide. She has committed herself to the cause of keeping Yiddish (the mother tongue) and Yiddishkayt (the Yiddish way of life) alive. Much of her poetry, essays, and plays as well as lectures, teaching, and social and political activism is devoted to this end...At the margins of poetry and prose she writes with clarity and precision about cataclysmic moments that occurred in her very young life, bringing the reader into her nightmarish world. Klepfisz's harsh view of America comes from the poet's loyalty to the socialism of the Jewish labor movement; her vision is that of a secular Jew. "I was taught that capitalism oppresses the working masses and all poor people, that it has to be smashed, and that we are to work toward building a classless society."
    • Gary Pacernick, Meaning and Memory: Interviews with Fourteen Jewish Poets (2001)
  • What Klepfisz is: a survivor who studies survival, who lays out the cost of surviving in her poems and bears witness to those who did not survive. The accounts of which she is the keeper are the accounts of a destroyed small world in Jewish Poland, a culture, a civilization that is no longer extant...She operates from a stark but deep compassion. Nothing is stated in these poems; all happens. I've never read a better sequence about political prisoners."
    • Marge Piercy, The American Book Review (blurb cited in Different Enclosures (1985))

Introduction to A Few Words in the Mother Tongue: Poems (1990), by Adrienne Rich[edit]

  • Irena Klepfisz's work is an essential part of this poetry of cultural re-creation. It begins with a devastating exterior event, the destruction of European Jewry in the Nazi period through the technologically organized genocide known as the Holocaust, or, in Yiddish, der khurbn. (Klepfisz has written: "The Yiddish word was important, for, unlike the term Holocaust, it resonated with yidishe geshikhte, Jewish history, linking the events of World War II with der ershter un tsveyter khurbn, the First and Second Destruction (of the Temple)."
  • The great flowering of Yiddish literature took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, along with the rise of Jewish secularism and the Jewish labor and socialist movements. It is from out of these traditions that history uprooted Irena Klepfisz, depositing her into a community of survivors in New York.
  • If I speak here, then, of experiences from which Klepfisz's poetry has been precipitated, it's because a historical necessity has made her the kind of poet she is: neither a "universal" nor a "private" stance has been her luxury.
  • because "history stops for no one," Klepfisz has gone on to write a poetry of uncompromising complexity, clothed in apparently simple, even spare language-simple and bare as the stage of a theatre in which strict economies of means release a powerful concentrate of feeling.
  • There is extraordinary vitality in Klepfisz's early poems on women in the Holocaust...In them, Klepfisz takes the considerable risk of trying to bear witness to this part of her history without compromise and without melodrama. She succeeds because she is a poet, not only a witness.
  • "Bashert" is a poem unlike any other I can think of in American, including Jewish-American, poetry, in its delineations not only of survivor experience (in the skin of the mother "passing" as gentile with her infant daughter) but of what happens after survival: the life that seems to go on, but cannot persevere; the life that does go on, struggling with a vast alienation, in a state of "equidistance from two continents," trying to fathom her place as a Jew in the larger American gentile world,
  • Klepfisz has written one of the great "borderland" poems-poems which emerge from the consciousness of being of no one geography, time zone or culture; of moving inwardly as well as outwardly between continents, land-masses, eras of history, or, as Chicana poet Gloria Anzaldúa expresses it, in "a constant state of mental nepantilism, an Aztec word meaning torn between ways." A consciousness which cannot be, and refuses to be, assimilated. A consciousness which tries to claim all its legacies: courage, endurance, vision, fierceness of human will, and also the underside of oppression, the distortions quarantine and violent deracination inflict on the heart. When I say that "Bashert" is a poem unlike any other I mean this through and through: in its form, in its verse and prose rhythms, in its insistence on memory without idealization, its refusal to let go.
  • Klepfisz's bilingual poems do not-and this is significant-drop Yiddish phrases in a cosy evocation of an idealized past, embodied in bobe and zayde, or as a kind of Jewish seasoning on an American tongue.
  • In white North America, poetry has been set apart from the practical arts, from political meaning, and also from "entertainment" and the accumulation of wealth-thus, pushed to the margins of life. Klepfisz, the inheritor of both a European Jewish Socialist-Bundist political tradition, and a Yiddish cultural tradition, naturally refuses such "enclosures."
  • Klepfisz is one of those rare North American artists who, within and by means of her art, explores the material conditions by which the creative impulse, which belongs to no gender, race, or class, can be realized or obstructed.
  • In a different vein, Klepfisz's poems to women lovers probe with a questioning scrutiny what happens in bed, in relationship. Sometimes, as in "periods of stress" dry humor laces vulnerability; always there is compassion for both self and other.
  • Throughout, and in its very last lines, this book asks fundamental questions about the uses of history. That it does so from a rootedness in Jewish history, an unassimilated location, is one part of its strength. But history alone doesn't confer this strength; the poet's continuing labor with Jewish meaning does. The other part, of course, is the integrity of its poetics. A Klepfisz poem lives amid complex tensions, even when its texture may appear transparent. There is a voice, sometimes voices, in these poems which can often best be heard by reading aloud. Her sense of phrase, of line, of the shift of tone, is almost flawless. But perfection is not what Irena Klepfisz is after. It is the tension among so many forces: language, speechlessness, memory, politics, irony, compassion, hunger for what is lost, hunger for a justice still to be made, that makes this poetry crucial to the new unfoldings of history that we begin, in 1990, to imagine.

Introduction to Dreams of an Insomniac (1990), by Evelyn Torton Beck[edit]

  • The extraordinary power of Irena Klepfisz's work lies in the force of its moral and artistic integrity. These essays interweave and overlap (not only with each other, but also with her poetry) in entirely unexpected ways. Who else but Klepfisz could make us understand so clearly (and always in a framework that is Jewish, lesbian, feminist, and conscious of class) the imperative to speak out against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza? Against anti-Semitism and homophobia? Against compulsory motherhood? Against the commercialization of the Holocaust? And to speak as loudly for the strengthening and preservation of secular Yiddish culture in the United States? For the demystification of writing? For the celebration and joy of creative work? At a time of repression, when progressive politics are eroding and hate crimes are on the rise, Klepfisz's essays make plain that the political is personal, and that the personal must continue to be understood as political. Klepfisz's sharp critiques of many movements and communities lead us to take action, which is her way of keeping hope alive. Although I have gladly accepted the task of writing the introduction to this volume of essays, it was through her poetry that I first came to know Irena Klepfisz. I can still call up the rush of excited recognition that came over me when, after browsing through the lesbian poetry section of a women's bookstore sometime in 1977, I casually opened periods of stress and recognized myself. Here was a woman writing as a child survivor of the Holocaust, as a lesbian, as a feminist, and as a Jew. At the time I knew of no other lesbian/feminist who had also somehow managed "to escape that fate."
  • Experiments, she calls her essays. Attempts at solutions. But Klepfisz has never used the lack of certainty as an excuse to avoid taking action. In addition to her theoretical writings, she has been an organizer in both Jewish and lesbian/feminist communities, lecturing and giving workshops on feminism, Yiddish culture, anti-Semitism, and the Middle East. Taking my cue from the author's preface, I have allowed myself to respond to these essays in a nonlinear associative way, which is also my preferred mode of writing. Klepfisz's essays are freeing and engaging because of the honesty she brings to the processes of writing, thinking and rethinking, questioning, reexamining a decision that may seem to be correct today but may prove to be disastrously wrong tomorrow.
  • By means of her advocacy of a new Jewish secularism, Irena Klepfisz calls to our attention the seriousness of the break and in so doing begins the necessary work of repair.
  • Klepfisz is emphatic that "non-observance the choice made by the majority of American Jews is not the same as secularism, that consciously chosen pre-Holocaust secularism was always political and cultural, and always associated with a "fierce determination to preserve Jewish identity." She is equally emphatic that "a true commitment to Jewish secularism inevitably means that we must make decisions-just like observant Jews-about how to structure our lives and our relations with Jews and non-Jews-how to incorporate the past.... A true commitment to Jewish secularism inevitably also means a commitment to establishing and supporting secular Jewish institutions that provide us with a sense of community and common purpose."
  • Klepfisz insists on maintaining the integrity of each individual culture as it joins others. This is a vision worth emulating.
  • In a 1989 speech at a public event sponsored by the Jewish Women's Committee to End the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Klepfisz articulated what motivates her to action-to organize workshops, co-found the Committee, and travel to Israel to connect with the women's peace movement there: "We are told that history is made by other people.... We are told this because we are women.... Over and over again the message is monotonously the same: you have no power, you have no power to change anything. But I don't believe this. I believe common, ordinary people are not passive participants in historical events. How each of us shapes our life, shapes history.
  • One of the most striking characteristics of so many of Klepfisz's essays is her ability to develop a bilingual mode of writing, a mode that transplants Yiddish into English, thus preserving mame-loshn (the European mothers' tongue), making the language more immediate, less strange. The deep resonances and childhood memories that surfaced when I first read these essays remind me that for Klepfisz, as for me and many other Ashkenazi Jews dispersed throughout the world, Yiddish serves a vital function-it is "the mirror that made me visible to myself." Klepfisz knows that language is a significant carrier of culture, something that is especially true of Yiddish, which in the context of Jewish history "summons a world beneath the words."

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