Kathryn Hellerstein explains that this collection grew out of Molodowsky’s experiences teaching impoverished Jewish children in Warsaw. (Hellerstein. Paper Bridges. p26)
As Molodowsky writes, “My tales and poems for children…saved me from dejection. I wrote one poem about how a poor family passed a coat from one child to the next. Theirs was the ultimate poverty. When I read that tale to the children in my class, they enjoyed it very much and clapped their little hands […] Without intending to, the children taught me something that made sense […] The children taught me how to survive in difficult times […] They managed to squeeze a drop of joy out of life […] (Trans. Hellerstein. Ibid. p26)
These poems seem to have been a sort of gift to her students, and indeed to herself. A way to give them, and herself, a poetic “drop of joy.”
In the poem “Efnt dem toyer,” it seems that Molodowsky was attempting to give her students, and us, much more than just a drop of joy.
Indeed, this apparently simple poem for children is rich with Hebrew/Yiddish intertextual symbolism.
But most importantly, as Hellerstein points out, “The poem […] celebrates the golden chain of Jewish tradition and ends with a image of delicacies […] as though the poem were intended to to provide the food that its child readers actually lacked.” [My emphasis]. (Ibid. p28)
Molodowsky was gifting her students with artistic and spiritual nourishment, in an attempt to replace that which was so sorely lacking in their lives.
What were some of the intertextual sources of the gifts offered in this deep and moving poem?
Anyone familiar with the Psalms, or with the Hallel liturgy, will be reminded of Psalm 118, verses 19 and 20: “Piskhu li shaarey tsedek, avo vam odeh Yah. Zeh hashaar l’Adonai, tsadikim yavo-u vo.”
“Open for me the gates of righteousness, I will enter them and thank God. This is the gate of Hashem; the righteous shall enter through it.” (Trans. by Scherman, Rabbi Nosson.The Complete Artscroll Siddur. Mesorah Publications, Ltd. Brooklyn, NY. 2004. p641.)
And perhaps Molodowsky also had a particular trilingual (Russian/Yiddish/Loshn-Koydesh) religious song in mind. Here’s an excerpt:
“Efnt mir di tirn fun ganeydn! Dunay, dunay, dunay!
Kh’vil dem beyre Hashem leybn! Dunay, dunay, dunay!”
“Open for me the gates of the Garden of Eden! I want to praise the Creator, Hashem.” (Trans. Warschauer)
I’ve only heard this song sung in Litvish-yidish, which was undoubtedly Molodovsky’s dialect. It seems quite possible that she knew the song.
(Note that Dunay is the Russian word for the Danube, but here it’s almost certainly functioning as a pair of nonsense syllables, similar to “ay, ay.”).
This song is in itself intertextual, in that it translates and interprets several passages from the Psalm.
But who are the righteous in the Psalm, in the song, and in Molodowsky’s poem?
In the Psalm, and in the religious song, one would assume that “righteous” signifies those who are considered worthy, in the traditional Jewish religious sense.
I would propose that in “Efnt dem toyer,” Molodowsky is making a radical point, and perhaps injecting a note of social commentary.
She’s opening up the definition of “righteous” to include the impoverished children in her care, along with their families.
Were these children from traditional religious families? Did their parents and relatives immerse themselves in Torah study and mitzvot?
My guess is that Molodowsky considered those qualities irrelevant for the purposes of this poem.
By broadening the definition of “righteous,” by throwing the gate “wide open” (“…efnt im breyt…“) Molodowsky is giving these children and their families a great gift:
The gift of inclusion. Inclusion in the “goldene keyt” (the “golden chain”) of tradition. Inclusion among the righteous. A deep sense of worth and belonging.
A few more points:
Notice how that cast of characters opens and opens, widening the circle of inclusion. From ”..der tate, di mame, der bruder, di shvester, khosn-kale in mitn…” through “…der zeyde, di bobe, der feter, di mume, di eyniklekh in mitn…”
And notice also all the golden images. ”…a goldene keyt […] a goldenem shlitn”
One can surmise that the pear and maybe even the apple are golden. The honey and thelekakh are golden. And all are presented “…af a goldenem teler,” on a golden plate.
What a golden fantasy of abundance Molodowsky is giving her students!
And what a golden gift Molodowsky gave to us and to the world.
(With thanks to Michael Alpert and Peggy H. Davis, who taught me the trilingual song.)