top of page


Zun, O Zun
A personal essay

Kvel, gzuntheit, shmutz, shmatta, these were all words heard regularly around my Jewish home growing up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in the early 2000s. And while I know how to use around twenty Yiddish slang words in common conversation, that knowledge is not enough to keep alive my great-grandmother’s Yiddish literature written almost a century earlier in the 1920s in Chicago, Illinois.

Thankfully, about a year ago, Jessica Kirzane, a scholar of Yiddish studies at the University of Chicago, reached out to my grandmother on my father’s side, Fradle Pomerantz-Freidenreich, to ask permission to translate and publish the work of my great-grandmother and poet, Pessie Pomerantz-Honigbaum in the Yiddish Book Center’s magazine Pakn Treger. As written in Kirzane’s email to my savta Fradle, “I believe the family are the copyright holders to her work.”

According to David E. Fishman’s book, The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture, “The use of Yiddish has been a feature of Ashkenazic Jewish life for approximately a millennium.” At the turn of the twentieth century, a group of Jewish intellectuals in Russia formed the Diaspora Nationalists, sharing the desire to find a medium between Zionism and assimilation into Russian society. Fishman writes about the goals of the Diaspora Nationalists, “For [cultural wing leader, Chaim] Zhitlovsky and his disciples, building the Yiddish cultural infrastructure - literature, the press and periodicals, schools (including, eventually, universities), theater and the arts - and expanding the use of Yiddish in Jewish social and communal life were the primary tasks of modern Jewish nation building.” According to them, the continuation of the Yiddish language was essential for the livelihood of Jewish society.

This pillar of thought remained overseas amongst Jewish immigrants in the United States, specifically amongst the writers, and especially the female writers. In his book Exiles on Main Street: Jewish American Writers and American Literary Culture, author Julian Levinson writes, “A striking pattern emerges when we survey some of the representative literary works of American Jews from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the men tend to be melancholic while the women are exuberant.” Fradle highlighted this concept in an interview when she told me that, “in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, there were at least 70 published Yiddish female poets, of which I don’t know any other language that could even come close.” Female authors were passionately recording their experiences as Yiddish-speaking American Jews.

Pessie Pomerantz-Honigbaum was the only woman in her literary group Yung-Shikago (Young Chicago) in the 1920s. As described by Fradle, her mother was “poetic in everything she did. From the meals she created to the decor of the house.” The decor in their Brooklyn apartment, as Fradle remembers it, was “bookshelf after bookshelf and painting after painting. Those were the things [her] parents really prized the most.” Fradle remembers that her parents subscribed to multiple Yiddish newspapers, and were very aware of the lives of Russian Jews under the Stalin-regime. 

My great-grandparents' home, Fradle tells me, was a cultural salon of sorts. “We didn’t have piano recitals, but we had writers, artists, and entertainers that would come from Europe, right before and then during the second World War.” Pessie had correspondence with many Russian-Jewish writers before they arrived in America, and she and her husband would meet them at their arrival in the New World, invite them into their home, and help them get started in their new lives.

Following after her parents and always heading these efforts was my grandmother, Fradle Pomerantz-Freidenreich. Fradle was deeply involved in the Habonim Labor Zionist Youth Movement, a Jewish-Socialist Youth Movement that was founded in 1929 in the United Kingdom and shortly thereafter spread to all English-speaking countries. She was very engaged in writing educational curriculum for Jewish summer camps under the movement in Montreal and Annapolis. After graduating high school and spending a year in Israel, Fradle returned with her first husband, Chaim, and they were sent to Montreal to, as Fradle puts it, “run the movement.” A culmination of her life dedicated to Yiddish education was published in 2010 in her book Passionate Pioneers: Yiddish Secular Education in North America, 1910-1960.  

In the book, Freidenreich defines the term: “Yiddish is thought to have originated in the twelfth century AD and is derived from a Judaized amalgamation of central European languages.” A short summary of the initial influence of the language is addressed by Einar Haugen in his book, Linguistics in Western Europe, Part 2: The Study of Languages, when he says, “The first major turning point in the history of the Yiddish language was the extension of the Yiddish speech area during the late Middle Ages, when Central European Jews were persecuted and forced to move eastward.” The Yiddish language acts as a footprint of the Jewish people as they have been historically persecuted and forced to move over and over again, bringing with them the speech that is a culmination of their experiences.

During the early 20th century, when many Jews, including those from my lineage, fled Eastern Europe for a new life in the United States free from persecution, they brought Yiddish with them. It was spoken in my grandfather’s childhood home in the Bronx, and in my grandmother’s summer camps in Montreal. It is the language in which my great-grandparents wrote literature, and the language about which my grandmother Fradle Pomerantz-Freidenreich wrote her book Passionate Pioneers. My savta Fradle sings Yiddish songs recalling the pogroms in which her grandfather was killed to me and my brother each year during Pesach. 

Pessie’s husband and my great-grandfather, Chaim Pomerantz, was born in the Ukraine, the country in which his family has been traced back to the 1700s. He fled with his mother and younger brother, from their town outside of Kiev called Brusilov, to America after his father was killed in a pogrom - a Russian word meaning “to wreak havoc, to demolish violently” and historically used to describe violent attacks on Eastern European Jewish communities in the 19th and 20th centuries. The pogrom came a day earlier than announced - the day before Chaim’s family was planning to leave for Palestine, where his father had been invited to help pioneer the formation of Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem. Chaim, having to leave everything behind, brought with him the Yiddish language which he passed on to his daughters and in which he and his wife wrote poetry documenting their experiences.

The language, claimed by many to be a dying one, holds much of the foundation of my family’s history. I suspect the same to be true for many Jews all over the world. The role of Yiddish, therefore, is a language that carries with it the history of its people. 

The Holocaust, the decimation of Jewish life by the millions, was the biggest threat to the Jewish people in world history, and effectively the largest threat to the Yiddish language. Fradle painfully recalls the emotional consequences that the genocide had on her mother:

The events of the Holocaust were emotionally devastating for her. I remember coming home from school to find her weeping over the news in the Yiddish newspapers. Her poems during this period and the period following the war reflected her horror, fear and sense of despair, not only at the loss of human life in general, but at the loss of the world Yiddish culture that was so important a part of her life and was now destroyed, as well as what the destruction of European Jewry meant for the future of the Jewish people.

The events were devastating, and they acted as a driving force for Pessie to continue to write: “She felt part of a worldwide Jewish nation (long before the creation of the State of Israel) and that feeling of being tied to fellow Jews all over the world was a defining element in her life and her view of herself,” Fradle reflects.

When I ask my father, Fradle’s son, about his relationship to the Yiddish language, he tells me he had a Yiddish tutor when he was young, but it did not stick: “The effort wasn’t very strong, sort of a token attempt, and I was just a kid who wanted to do other things.” He and I discuss our shared feelings of guilt for not making a stronger effort to keep the language alive amongst the next generations of American Jews, but how thankful we are for scholars like Jessica Kirzane who continue to discover Yiddish literature and are working to ensure that it will still be accessible through translation. 

Although I do wish I could read my great-grandmother’s poetry in the language in which it was written, the language so intertwined with the history of my family, I feel lucky to know that there are others who share my feelings about the importance of keeping alive her work and the work of other Yiddish writers. Hopefully not, but maybe Yiddish will be obsolete in a few generations. At least the experiences and art of so many speakers of the language will be preserved, which in a way shares the sentiments of the language being passed on.

Zun, O Zun

Pessie Honigbaum-Pomerantz

Zun, O Zun!

Kh’volt veln umblondzshen

in frayen feld,

zikh ontrinken mit likht

dem gantsn tog,

es zol fun mayne oygn


dayn likhtikeyt,

dayn varemkeyt.

Tsvishn enge vent

kukn mayne oygn mat.

Tsvishn enge vent

red ikh beyz tsu mentshn.

Eng iz mir der veg

af velkhn zey tretn!

Zun, O zun!

Nor durkh dayn likhtikeyt

ver ikh gelaytert.

Nor durkh dayn varemkeyt

ver ikh derhoybn

To the Sun

Translation by Barnett Zumoff

Sun, O sun!

I’d like to wander

in the open fields

and drink up the light

all day,

so my eyes

would radiate

your light,

your warmth.

Between narrow walls

my eyes look dull.

Between narrow walls

I speak angrily to people —

the path they walk

seems narrow to me.

Sun, O sun!

Only by your light

am I purified.

Only by your warmth

am I exalted.

bottom of page