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					Ida Maza
                Canadian Yiddish Writer                                    &       Activist




D
By Rebecca Margolis                                                        family at age 14. In her thirties, she began to devote
                                                                           herself to Yiddish literature, in particular poetry. With
          uring the interwar blossoming of Yiddish let-                    the encouragement of Canada’s best-known Yiddish
          ters, poet Ida Maza (Massey) was at the fore-                    poet and journal editor, J. I Segal, she made her liter-
          front of its Canadian branch, both as a writer                   ary debut in the Kanade literary journal in 1925 with a
          and an activist. Today, however, her writing                     poem called “Zunen shtral ” (Ray of Sun). This poem
remains largely untranslated and thus inaccessible in                      reads:1
an increasingly non-Yiddish reading world. This brief
survey of her literary and cultural activity offers an                     a zamdik bergl,                    A sandy hill,
introduction to a key figure in Canadian Jewish cultur-                    a kleyner kval,                    a small spring,
al achievement.                                                            afn zamd a zunen shtral.           on the sand a ray of sun.
   For a millennium, Yiddish language and its culture                      shmeterlingen flien,               Butterflies flutter,
served as a portable civilization for the Jews of Ashke-                     shpringen,                         bounce,
naz in their migrations across Europe, and most                            dreyen zikh arum in ringen;        spin in circles;
recently, to Canada and other new centres of settle-                       shimerirn di kolirin               the colours shimmer
ment. With the emergence of modern Yiddish culture                         af di fligl fun di                 on the wings of the
in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that includ-                       shmeterlingen.                      butterflies.
ed a popular press, theatre, educational institutions,                     yeder zemdl vi                     Every grain of sand like
and a spectrum of ideological movements, Yiddish                               a diment                           a diamond
writing became an important expression of modern                           shpiglt zikh in kval                reflected in the spring.
identity for Ashkenazi Jews. For many Eastern Euro-                        vi an oysgus fun .                  Like an outburst of
pean Jews, speaking, reading and writing Yiddish                               kolirn                             colour
became a primary marker of what it meant to be a                           shpreyt af alts                     spread over everything:
Jew. This period was characterized by an international                     der zunen shtral.                   the ray of sun.
explosion of new movements in Yiddish culture,
notably in the intersecting areas of literature, politics,                    This simple and elegant poem offers one of the




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and education.                                                             recurring motifs in Maza’s writing: a snapshot of
   In the Canadian context, the onset of mass immi-                        nature’s beauty. Like the modernist poets who influ-
gration of Jews from Eastern Europe after 1900 trans-                      enced her, in particular New York’s Di Yunge (the
formed the existing Jewish community into one that                         Young Ones), her poem captures a moment that is at
was almost entirely Yiddish-speaking. This immigrant                       once personal and universal.
community created a variety of institutions that func-                                aza went on to publish widely in literary and
tioned in Yiddish to meet their needs in their new                                    children’s journals, anthologies, and in book
home, from synagogues and charitable organizations                                    form. She appeared in the lavish ground-
to unions. Across Canada, in particular in the cities of                              breaking anthology, Yidishe dikhterins antol-
Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg, a group of Yiddish                        ogye (Yiddish Women Poets, Chicago, 1928), edited by
writers actively promoted literature in newspapers,                        Detroit Yiddish poet Ezra Korman, which highlighted
schools, libraries, and literary clubs. The group includ-                  the contribution of some seventy women to Yiddish lit-
ed both major and minor writers, most of them recent                       erature from the sixteenth through the twentieth cen-
immigrants who developed their literary careers in                         turies. Korman featured a series of Maza’s poems on
their adopted homes in Canada: H. M. Caiserman, N.                         family and motherhood, including one titled “Kinder”
J. Gotlib, Benjamin Katz, Mordkhe Miller, Sh. Nepom,                       (Children) that opens:
Shabse Perl, B. G. Sack, J. I. Segal, M. M. Shaffir, A.
Sh. Shknonikov, Sholem Shtern, H. Wolofsky, Yudika                         veynen kinder durkh                Children cry through
(Yudis Tsik), Yaacov Zipper, to name just a few. The                          di nekht,                           the nights,
hub of this activity during the interwar period was                        un shlofn in                       sleeping in the
Montreal, with Ida Maza one of the most prominent fig-                        frimorgn;                           morning’s sun;
ures in its dynamic Yiddish cultural community.                            vakhn mames                        mothers keep vigil during
   Born Ida Zhukovsky (1893-1962) in Ogli, a small                            lange nekht,                       long nights,
town in Tsarist Belorus, Maza received a traditional                       shlofn nit un zorgn.               unsleeping, their worry
Jewish education, and settled in Montreal with her                                                               has begun.

REBECCA MARGOLIS is an Assistant Professor in the Vered Jewish               Universal themes of love, motherhood, family, and
Canadian Studies Program at the University of Ottawa, with a special-      death intimately exposed and expressed recur
ization in Yiddish language and culture. In 2008, she will be teaching a
course called “Yiddish Canada in the Twentieth Century” (winter) as
                                                                           1 All translations are by Rebecca Margolis, with cooperation from
well as an intensive Yiddish language and culture course (spring).
                                                                             Deirdre Brown on “Vi blimelekh in regn.”

18 / Outlook
throughout Maza’s published work. She went on to              were closely involved with Jewish institutional life.
publish five books of poetry and prose. Her first, A              Like many Yiddish writers of her time, Maza was
mame (A Mother), appeared in 1931 after the death of          both an artist and an activist. She was active in local
her first son, followed by Lider far kinder (Poems for        Yiddish cultural life, heading an informal “literary
Children,1938), Naye lider (New Poems, Montreal,              salon” beginning in the 1930s in her home in Montre-
1941), and the posthumous Dineh: autobiografishe dert-        al’s Jewish quarter where local and visiting writers and
seylung (Dina: Autobiographical Story, 1970).                 poets would gather and share their work. Nicknamed
   At the same time, Maza wrote widely for a readership       “di mame” (the Mother), Maza nurtured a broad com-
of children and young adults. Her final volume of verse,      munity of Yiddish writers. She opened her home to
Vaksn mayne kinderlekh: muter un kinder-lider (My             local authors and artists on a regular basis, fed them,
Children Grow: Mothers’ and Children’s Poetry, 1954)          and listened to their work. As Maza’s son, Irving
contains selections of her many children’s poems              Massey, recalls in his book, Identity and Community:
because, as Maza writes in her introduction to the vol-       Reflections on English, Yiddish, and French Literature in
ume, “children are the reason that I started writing. I       Canada (1994), the family home on Esplanade Avenue
wrote both my happy and my sad poetry to children.”           hosted a constant stream of visitors seeking aid, advice,
The volume contains work taken from her earlier               or simply dropping in. There Maza hosted and enter-
books, children’s journals as well as unpublished poet-       tained the many international stars of the Yiddish
ry. The opening poem, “Vi blimelekh in regn” (Like Little     world—poets, writers, actors, artists—who visited Mon-
Flowers in the Rain) from which the book’s title is           treal from New York and abroad. Regulars at the salon
taken, reads:                                                 included an array of poets: J. I. Segal, Esther Segal,
                                                              Gotlib, Shkolnikov, Perl, Shaffir, Yudika, New York’s
orim iz mayn shtibele,   Humble is my little house,           Kadya Molodovsky, alongside painter Louis Muhlsotck,
mit an altn dakh,        its roof is very old,                and, in the 1940s and beyond, Melech Ravitch, Rokhl




                                                              M
vaksn in im kinderlekh   but my children grow within,         Korn and other refugees and survivors from Nazi
kinderlekh a sakh.       children strong and bold.            Europe. Most concretely, Maza provided a second home
                                                              to the many poets who had immigrated to Canada
geyt in gas a regndl,    Rain falls softly in the street,     alone, worked in factories and lived lonely lives in
vert in shtibl nas—      the damp invades my home,            rooming houses.
loyfn mayne kinderlekh   and my children run out doors,                   aza played an important role mentoring
shpiln zikh in gas.      to play, jump and roam.                          emerging writers, and encouraging estab-
                                                                          lished ones. In her essay titled “Mrs. Maza’s
geyt in gas a regndl,    A little rain falls in the street,               Salon” published in Apartment Seven:
geyt er zey antkegn—     it comes to entertain.               Essays Selected and New (1989), English-language
vaksn mayne kinderlekh   And I see my children grow,          writer and poet Miriam Waddington describes her fami-
vi blimelekh in regn.    like flowers in the rain.            ly’s regular visits to Montreal from Ottawa when she
                                                              was a teenager and a budding poet in the 1930s. She
   This poem forms part of a wider tradition in modern        recalls that Maza read her poetry as a 14-year-old with
Yiddish letters of writing for children, and linking edu-     the same seriousness as she did the writing of the great
cation with literature. Many prominent writers world-         Yiddish poets who gathered in her home. Waddington
wide were teachers in the vast network of Yiddish             discusses the important role Maza played in the lives of
schools, or authored pedagogical materials. In the case       her guests:
of Montreal, Ida Maza was not alone. Both Sh. Dunsky,             “To these artists, most of them middle-aged and
author of translations of biblical works into Yiddish         impecunious, and all of them immigrants, Mrs. Maza
(Midrash Rabbah, 1956-1973), and poet J. I. Segal             was the eternal mother—the foodgiver and nourisher,
were teachers in the Yiddish schools and authors of           the listener and solacer, the mediator between them
poetry and other reading material designated for chil-        and the world. There she would sit with hands folded
dren: Dunsky collaborated on a revised version of a his-      in sleeves, her face brooding and meditative, listening
tory text based on the writings of Simon Dubnov called        intently with her body. As she listened she rocked back
Yidishe geshikhte in fragn un entfers (Jewish History in      and forth, and, as it then seemed to me, she did so in
Questions and Answers, 1935, 1939); a selection of            time to the rhythm of the poem being read. She gave
Segal’s poems for children that appeared in the daily         herself entirely and attentively to the poem; she fed the
Keneder adler (Canadian Jewish Eagle) were published          spiritual hunger and yearning of these oddly assorted
posthumously under the title of Lider far yidishe kinder      Yiddish writers whenever they needed her.”
(Poems for Jewish Children, 1961).                                The Maza home served as a clearinghouse of infor-
   Maza’s poetic voice, with its intertwined intimate and     mation as the Depression and War years progressed. It
universal themes, reflects the venture of modern Yid-         hosted a constant stream of visitors seeking aid, advice,
dish poetry as a whole. During the first half of the          or simply dropping in. During this time, Maza became
twentieth century, both in Eastern Europe and its             personally involved in rescue work among Jews
immigrant centres, Yiddish poets were respected as            trapped in Nazi Europe. Along with fellow activists and
community spokespeople. Many wrote for the popular            Yiddish writers Hirsch Hershman and Melech Ravitch,
Yiddish newspapers that were read by hundreds of              Maza worked tirelessly to bring refugees and Holocaust
thousands of readers, and were household names. In            survivors to Canada, and to help them get settled once
the world of Yiddish of the 1920s and 1930s culture           they arrived. She was also instrumental in publishing
and politics overlapped, as did literature and activism.
Writers allied themselves with political movements, and                          continued on page 38

                                                                                                        Sept./Oct. 2007/ 19
                                          minority language. To some extent,              language that has been with us for
 MAZA...                                  she had no choice: Yiddish was her              a thousand years of exile.
 Continued from page 19                   creative language, and the tongue                  Due in large part to the massive
                                          in which she was inspired to                    decline of Yiddish in the last fifty
the work of Yiddish authors, in           express herself artistically. At the            years, Yiddish writers like Maza
particular of the group of writers        same time, writing in Yiddish was               are largely unknown outside select
who settled in Canada after the           a political statement, in particular            circles. It is my hope that Maza’s
Holocaust.                                after the destruction of so many of             writing will enter the pantheon of
   Like so many Yiddish writers of        the world’s Yiddish speakers in the             recognized Canadian cultural fig-
her generation, Maza made her             Holocaust: we are here, and we will             ures as well as the canon of Cana-
career as a writer in Canada in a         continue to write in our Jewish                 dian literature.


 STEIN...                                 it out. I needed to go to Poland first,            Last year a concert featuring
 Continued from page 27                   smell the air and touch the ground             musicians from the former Soviet
                                          where my grandparents came from                Union was so successful the Festi-
                                          and that tells me where I come                 val will be doing it again this year.
nent of cross-cultural creation and       from, as sad and bitter as that his-           “We’re bringing some Klezmer and
of the various shades within the          tory is for Jews in Eastern Europe.            Yiddish musicians from Israel—
Klezmer and Jewish music world.           And now I’m at another stage                   which is unusual in itself—to per-
Part of my agenda with Ashkenaz is        where I ask myself, ‘How do I incor-           form here. So it’s going to be a mix
to expand the mandate, to do more         porate Israel into my identity?’ ”             of Jews from the former Soviet
with other styles of Jewish music,            Stein also feels the need to pull          Union and Jews from Israel, some
and more cross-cultural creation.”        Israeli Yiddish culture into the               of whom themselves are from the
   The 2008 Ashkenaz Festival will        Ashkenaz tent here in Canada, and              former Soviet Union.”
be the Bar Mitzvah year—thirteen          abroad. “There’s a certain discon-                 At the time Stein spoke to Out-
years since the festival began. Next      nect between Israel and Ashke-                 look in early June, he had just
year also coincides with the 60th         naz/Klezmer/Yiddish music on                   returned from a Klezmer Heritage
anniversary of the founding of the        both sides. The whole history of               Cruise in Ukraine, from Kiev to
State of Israel, and Stein feels it is    Yiddish being depressed and cast               Odessa via the Dnieper River.1
important to help bridge the gap          away in Israel, the fact that                  Stein was surprised to visit Jewish
between the Yiddish revival in            Klezmer music died and the Yid-                communities of as many as forty or
Europe and North America and the          dish language and culture kind of              fifty thousand. “I didn’t know there
traditional spurning of Yiddish cul-      died for a time and it’s only in the           were that many Jews left in that
ture in Israel.                           last generation or two that there’s            part of the world. It’s an amazing
   “I myself haven’t identified that      been a revival. It’s interesting the           story of survival. A lot of the Jews
much with Israel until the last year      revival has been in Europe and                 who survived did so by fleeing to
or so, when I visited Israel. I never     North America. Israel still has a lot          the East, and they went as far East
knew where to place it in my own          of ambivalence and ambiguity in its            as all the ‘Stans’—Uzbekistan,
identity and I’m still trying to figure   own attitude about Klezmer music               Kazakhstan—and then gradually
                                          and Yiddish culture in general, and            migrated back westward and now
      HAPPY NEW YEAR                      that’s what I hope to be part of—a             they’re in Ukraine. It’s very differ-
                                          broader world-wide solution in                 ent from Poland. I was expecting
                                          terms of bridging that gap.”                   that Ukraine would be more like
 RANKIN &                                     Another bridge Stein has
                                          planned for the 2008 Ashkenaz
                                          Festival is welcoming Jews from
                                                                                         Poland, where there would be more
                                                                                         of an echo, a shadow of what once
                                                                                         was, but we were also meeting full
  BOND                                    the former Soviet Union, who are
                                          the fastest growing Jewish commu-
                                          nity in Toronto. “Jews from Central
                                                                                         communities that are growing.”
                                                                                             Stein feels privileged to be in a
                                                                                         position to use his musical and
                                          [and Eastern] Europe are still grap-           history background to make others
                                          pling with their own identities, still         appreciate the Yiddish cultural
 Legal services including:

                                          grappling with making a living;                identity that resonates so strongly
 • Immigration

                                          they’re still dealing with that immi-          for him. “My Master’s Degree was
 • Wills
                                          grant experience. In some ways                 in history, so I’m a trained histori-
 • Estates
                                          they’re still going through what my            an. A methodology that is similar to
 • Criminal
 • Injury Claims                          grandparents were going through                that of a historian has served me
                                          seventy years ago. As far as the               well in my approach to learning
 Phil Rankin and Ellen Bond               Klezmer music scene, and the Yid-              about playing this music and about
                                          dish culture world, in many ways               the culture. It’s made me culturally
                                          that’s the most dynamic magnet                 and historically savvy, so I think it’s
 Tel: 604-682-3621
                                          drawing this Jewish renaissance                an asset and part of who I am.”
 Fax: 604-682-3919
 2nd Floor, 157 Alexander Street          out.”
                                          1 For more information on this cruise, see Marc and AC Dolgin’s article, “Seeking Our
 Vancouver, B.C. V6A 1B8
                                            Roots in the Ukraine,” Outlook May/June 2006. –Eds

38 / Outlook

				
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