Interview with Hannah B. Wickham
Sarah Biskowitz: How were you introduced to the spiritual
traditions of Yiddish-speaking women, trans, and gender
Hannah B. Wickham: I started learning Yiddish with a friend
around the same time that I was working on my undergraduate
honours thesis, which was on creating a new queer Jewish theory
through crafting. She shared with me her Tkhine that she had
adapted for herself and her now wife, and strongly encouraged
me to get my own copy of The Merit of our Mothers [by Barbara
Selya and Faedra Lazar Weiss] (1992). It's a really lovely
anthology and it's still my favourite; I think it does a really good job of retaining the feeling of the Tkhines included in their English translations while also having them be readable. I did discuss this in my thesis but genuinely felt like I did them a disservice by only discussing what they could do for us instead of what's in them.
The second “place” was my great aunt Jeannette. Jeanette is 96, and extremely cool. She is a founding member of the women's reading circle that ended up working on the Anthology Arguing with the Storm, which was edited by my cousin, Rhea Tregabov. I often ask Jeannette about her life, especially growing up. One of the things she mentioned, around the same time I was starting to read Tkhines, was one of her mother's folk practices which was boiling crappy Manitoban weed in a pot and steaming her face in it. My dad mentioned this as well, that Mrs. Grosney would often steam “hash,” but that eucalyptus works fine, which is what he would make my brother steam for his chronic colds. Turns out, steaming herbs, not necessarily weed, but herbs is an old folk practice, and it's discussed in Ashkenazi Herbalism (2021) [by Deatra Cohen and Adam Siegel]. That book has a beautiful introduction that talks about the connection between herbalism and spiritual practice. It started me thinking that the distance between Tkhines and steaming my brother's face with eucalyptus was very, very small.
This was very strange for me. My family is very not religious, and very consciously so. For example, we didn't do Chanukah in the house growing up explicitly because my parents felt that it was anti-revolutionary. There was this idea that religion, in the way that they defined it, was always patriarchal, reactionary and oppressive. This is not a belief I have personally held, but even so, finding a connection between my family's habits and folk spiritual practices was really startling, and eye-opening for how powerful even small things could feel.
SB: Did anything in this tradition especially speak to you, and if so, why?
HW: Yes! Tkhines are (and have been mocked for being) rich emotional texts. On a personal level, I am always extremely moved by these texts and have cried while writing about them. There is a real power to someone offering their tears “like a jug.” Tkhines often leave me amazed at the way a community can be created across time, and their power to be a vessel for the real commonality of grief.
I have to also say that for me, reading a tkhine makes me feel like I have met the various people behind them. As much as it is a reminder of the commonality of feeling, it's also a really intimate experience with the original writer(s) and the various redactors on the way. Writers leave little clues to themself that make you want to reach across time and cry with them. For example, Sarah bas Toyvim lets you know her particular grief around children. As Queer people, finding community across time is an important part of how we construct our selves, and for me, this is a similar experience to infer a queer past beyond heterotemporalities.
SB: Did these experiences illuminate any surprising discoveries or conclusions for you?
HW: Yes! Perhaps the biggest one is that despite their fluidity as texts, tkhines have a pretty consistent philosophy to them that appears to me intentional, internally understood, and replicated across different styles of tkhines.
And this was a surprise, despite an understanding that Tkhines “have merit.” I think there's an underlying assumption that tkhines are emotional because of the difficult lives of the readers and writers, and not because of any pronounced philosophy. While the personal lives of the writers and readers no doubt inform the metaphors, imagery and content used and contribute to their resonance, this is not in opposition to their philosophy of grief and redemption as a deliberate choice.
SB: Are you interested in reclaiming and reviving any of these practices? If so, how?
HW: I think that's a really interesting question. I wonder what you mean by reclaiming? If it's for these texts to be in use, they are, but their use has evolved significantly. If you mean more similar to how they were used, then I have a more complicated answer.
My knee-jerk reaction is that these texts were a popular understanding of grief and emotion that is not easily translated on a widespread level to our current society, and that you can't really revive something on its own without reviving a whole culture of supporting traditions and attitudes.
However, I will say that it is impossible for me to read these texts and not be moved. I have naturally started reaching for tkhines in my personal life. My family, who has heard my very impassioned arguments for why these texts deserve more from us, have asked on occasion if there's a tkhine for x situation. There may not be the conditions currently for a mass revival, but the qualities which made them resonate with generations past are still very much working,
Finally, it’s not exactly a revival, but I am very much an advocate for taking the tkhines seriously. Tkhines are not normally considered relevant in, say, a history of Jewish thought, but I think they are. They were extremely popular and had a very consistent internal philosophy that was argued over. I think someone like Leah Horowitz should be taught!
SB: How can this legacy be incorporated into the contemporary progressive neo-Hasidic movement, and Jewish practices and communities at large?
HW: Leah Horowitz, a Tkhine author, argues that it's the act of crying that is the ultimate redemptive power of women's prayer. The type of crying she is referring to is a moving, incompressible sort of crying. That for her is the true spiritual experience. This is an argument that I'm still working on, but I think that is a call to refusal. Crying like you are drunk is the refusal of neat clear expectations, a refusal of the request to explain yourself or to be presentable.
As feminists, we can understand that the demand to be presentable in grief, to package your emotions without making demands or bothering anyone else, can be a tool for oppression. The demand for a perfect response to harm, big or small, reduces our ability to confront it and redirects our anger and attention to the control of the Cryer.
Conversely, the internal demand to make ourselves presentable reduces our ability for honest and clear relationships. Being a cop in our heads limits our ability to be a person. Recognizing the universal power of an honest gut-wrenching cry in ourselves is also recognizing the capacity for it in another, and invites a non-hierarchical relationship on an honest Common understanding to be built. Yet, there is only the expectation in Tkhines that this moves god. The only demand on other people is recognition. Tears are not a tool to make demands of another person, which can be as dangerous as not crying at all, but are a demand for recognition.
I think if anything should be taken as a legacy here it should be a philosophy of tears. Cry with other people so they can cry with you.
Hannah B Wickham
Hannah B Wickham is a Masters student in the Yiddish stream of the Germanic Languages and Literature Department at the University of Toronto. From Toronto, they graduated from Mount Allison University in 2022 with a BA in religious studies and a minor in history. Their honors thesis explored how crafting can embody a uniquely Queer and Jewish theoretical approach. Currently, their major research project is exploring how grief works in Tkhines. They recently presented an early portion of their masters project at Farbindungen 2023, under the title “The Gates are not Locked: Understanding Tkhines Beyond Boundaries.” A recording can be found on the Farbindungen YouTube channel.