1870 – 1943
Hannah Trager, writer and communal activist, was born in London to Zerah (1843–1935) and Rachel Lea Barnett (1842–1924). Her father, a native of Lithuania, was studying at a yeshiva in Slobodka when Yitzhak Hacohen, a merchant from London, came in search of a husband for his daughter. Barnett’s teacher, Rabbi Chaim Kreuzer, recommended him, but Barnett turned down the match. He could not understand how his rabbi, a lover of Zion who had always encouraged his students to settle in the Land of Israel, could send him to London. Ultimately, with the rabbi’s blessing, Barnett in 1865 agreed to go to London, on condition that it would be only a temporary way station en route to aliyah. And indeed, after seven years in London, during which time Barnett received British citizenship (October 1871), he took his wife and their one-year-old daughter, Hannah, and moved to Jerusalem (December 1871).
Barnett arrived in Palestine with a large sum of money. In London, he had set up a factory for the manufacture of fur products, which (as he testified in his memoirs, published in 1929) had met with great success. Such was not the case in Palestine, where he quickly went bankrupt, returning to London with his family when the situation became unbearable. In 1874, he came back with a new fortune. That year, a group of Jews began organizing to move outside the Old City walls and build a new neighborhood named Me’ah She’arim. Barnett invested his money in building the neighborhood and once again was left without funds. This time, he left his family in Jerusalem, returning one year later with financial resources. Barnett went back and forth between Palestine and London some fifteen times, sometimes taking his family with him, sometimes leaving them behind. Each time, he would transfer money to Palestine, to purchase land, build colonies, and establish educational institutions. He utilized these trips to meet with members of “Hovevei Zion” organizations and with Jewish leaders and philanthropists in Europe and in England—to encourage them to support the Yishuv enterprise. In 1878 he was among the founders of the first moshavah, Petah Tikvah (where the family lived in the late 1870s, and on and off in the 1880s). In the early 1890s Barnett moved with his family to Jaffa, bought land north of the city and founded Neve Shalom (1891), one of the new Jewish neighborhoods which paved the way to the establishment of the city of Tel Aviv (1909). He remained there permanently with his family.
The story of her father’s journeys and his activities in Palestine and London is in essence the story of Hannah Trager’s younger years. She lived in the Old City of Jerusalem (1872, 1874); in the new neighborhood of Me’ah She’arim (1874–1875, 1877–1878); and in Petah Tikvah in its early years (1878–1880), until the colony was temporarily abandoned due to the malaria that claimed numerous victims there, especially children (the family later returned to Petah Tikvah [1885–1887]). During these years, Hannah’s schooling took place at institutions in both Palestine and London. In the summer of 1887 the family once again left for London, where Hannah remained when the others returned to Palestine. In London, she married (1888) a businessman by the name of Israel Gottman and gave birth to two daughters, Sarah (1889) and Rose (1892). Ten years into their marriage, her husband experienced problems with his business and went bankrupt. The difficult financial situation also had a negative effect on his health, and he died a young man. For years she supported herself and her daughters by working as a midwife, even after she married Joseph Trager (a chemist by profession, who contracted tuberculosis and became incapacitated). But the great tragedy of her life was the death of her daughter Rose from pneumonia in 1911, and the suicide of her second daughter Sarah in 1924 (for which Hannah Trager was charged with murder, but was released after two months with the apology of the court).
During all those years and in spite of the calamities that befell her, Hannah Trager persisted. While working as a midwife, she also played an active role in public and cultural life in the London Jewish community. Her earliest involvement dates back to World War I, when she assisted in hospitalizing Jewish refugees who arrived from Europe penniless and infected with severe disease (the Jewish hospital was still in the early stages of development at the time). During the war (1917) she initiated the establishment of the Jewish Free Reading Room in East London, which she ran as its librarian. This project developed as a direct result of her involvement in the Society for the Distribution of Jewish Literature, and partly in response to the comments of an English priest: “If the Christian efforts for proselyting [sic] amongst Jews are resented, why do they not do something themselves for their own religious welfare, and distribute amongst themselves literature appertaining to the tenets of their own faith, and thereby try to inculcate a more spiritual outlook in their midst” (The Jewish Chronicle, Feb. 23, 1923).
In an interview marking the sixth anniversary of the project (1923), Mrs. Robert B. Solomon (the chairperson of the Fete Committee) reviewed the short, problematic, history of the place, emphasizing that the Reading Room could survive only due to the courage and insistence of Mrs. Trager:
It is now six years since the Society was formed, and we are still very fortunate in having Mrs. Trager as our custodian. Were it not for her, the Reading Room would never be the force it is for good in the East of London. She was only telling me today how Rabbis and other prominent Jewish workers in the East End assured her at the start that the movement is doomed to failure, as such a work was one that only men could undertake, and for which women had not sufficient religious knowledge and experience. Many a joke was made at our expense, and one gentleman said if we managed to keep the place open for six months he would give us 25 sterling towards the Society and become a good subscriber. Unfortunately, he died before the six months had expired. Mrs. Trager was told that it was simply impossible that our programme could be carried out, for many societies had started and after a little while had failed. So if the men had failed, how could women succeed, especially if the Society were entirely managed by women? Well I can honestly say we have, and it is our turn to laugh and show that we women have kept the flag flying bravely for six years, in spite of up-hill work, and at times of great deal of discouragement.
Mrs. Solomon also recounted how “during the war Jewish soldiers from all parts frequented the Reading Room. Numbers of letters from the Front were received by Mrs. Trager … expressing their gratitude and appreciation of the pamphlets which had been given to them through the Society, and which they carried with them to the Front.” The Reading Room continued to be extremely popular among the Jews of East London even after the war. In addition to the library, it hosted lectures, primarily on subjects pertaining to literature and history. All of these programs were attended by a large audience of young and old, and on Friday nights a kabbalat Shabbat party would take place for children and young people.
Trager’s continuing interest in education found expression not only in her communal involvement but also in her articles in the contemporary Jewish press (one such item, published in the journal The Sinaist in 1919, promoted the cause of schooling for young Jewish women). With all of her other activities, she managed to publish four books between 1919 and 1926. Three of them were collections of children’s stories, while the fourth was intended for adults. All her writings (both for children and adults) dealt solely with the Land of Israel of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, making use of autobiographical elements from her own life. The three collections for children (Festival Stories of Child Life in a Jewish Colony in Palestine ; Stories of Child Life in a Jewish Colony in Palestine ; Pictures of Jewish Home-Life Fifty Years Ago ) contain stories of Jerusalem children from Me’ah She’arim of the 1870s and Petah Tikvah of the 1880s. Since these stories were aimed at the English-speaking Jewish child, each book opened with an introduction by a prominent personality from the Anglo-Jewish community of the time. In his preface to the first collection, then-Chief Rabbi of Britain, Rabbi Joseph Herman Hertz (1872–1946), placed special emphasis on the volume’s educational content; these were stories that added to the child-reader’s familiarity with Jewish holidays, specifically within the framework of the emergent settlement movement in pre-State Palestine. In other words, they represented a bridge not only between Judaism and Zionism but between Diaspora and Homeland.
The second collection of stories is introduced by Cambridge scholar, Israel Abrahams (1858–1925), who notes that the charm of the collection lies in its narratives as well as in its “truth.” He presents Trager not only as a writer but also as a documenter of the lives of children in pre-State Palestine who conveys, in an authentic and credible manner, the truth of the period and its atmosphere. At the same time, these are narrative stories filled with action, curiosity and playfulness, drawn largely from the life experiences of Trager’s younger brothers and sisters. The wide-open spaces surrounding these “children of nature” provide them with adventures both enjoyable and dangerous: They go down to the Yarkon River to fish, though they don’t know how to swim; climb on a frightened camel which leads them to an unfamiliar Arab village; cope with serious eye disease; journey to Jaffa on foot to bring oranges to a sick friend; and so forth. It should be noted here that these works in fact represented the first Palestinian Jewish children’s literature, recounting what it was to be a young girl or boy at the dawn of the national revival in the Holy Land—amid the arid landscape, the primitive conditions—and at the same time, to be partners with the adults in building a homeland and a people.
The children’s stories from Me’ah She’arim offer narratives that are no less riveting. The book is structured as a collection of letters sent by a brother and sister in Jerusalem to their cousin in London. Now, thirty years later, when the ‘young Londoner’ had become a father himself, he began reading those old letters en famille on Friday nights after supper. Each letter provokes a discussion about children’s lives in both locales, and the comparison between Jerusalem and London is eye-opening, especially in the insights it provides on how different environments produce a different lifestyle and customs, even within the overall framework of Jewish culture. The introduction to this book is also by an educator: Leo Jung, editor of The Sinaist and later rabbi of The Jewish Center in Manhattan and professor of ethics at Yeshiva College.
Pioneers in Palestine: Stories of One of the First Settlers in Petach Tikvah (1923) is aimed at the adult reader. In fact, Trager dedicated it to Lord Balfour for his efforts on behalf of “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” (as stated in the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917). Part memoir, part documentation, part literary adaptation, the book presents incidents from various periods during which Trager lived in Palestine. These sketches, especially the early ones, are a rare and authentic firsthand report from a young woman whose father was one of the four founders of Petah Tikvah and who had lived this early history as part of her own personal and family narrative. Through the device of stories of her childhood, Trager reveals episodes from the history of the Yishuv that cannot always be found in official history books, such as her father and his friends going off to points unknown in search of land to purchase; life in a tent shared with other founding families; the construction of mud houses; the role of women in the first attack on Petah Tikvah, and the like.
A unique recollection, which likewise cannot be found in any other source, is the early rebellion of young women seeking the right to vote (1886). Feminist criticism makes the claim that if women wrote history, the historical narrative would be different; one such example is this recollection. As we know, in the Palestine of the early waves of aliyah women lacked basic rights. It was only in 1926, after a persistent and painful struggle by women of the New Yishuv, that women were granted the fundamental civil right of electing and being elected.
Writers of history date the dawn of the controversy over women’s suffrage as 1903 (at the “first assembly,” held in Zikhron Ya’akov), with a subsequent phase in 1918 (the end of World War I). According to Trager, the debate actually began in Petah Tikvah in 1886, when the young women of the community complained about being excluded from elections to the moshavah’s administrative committee solely because they were women. These young women read in the contemporary press about the struggle of the suffragists in the United States for the right to vote and the reports spurred them to proceed in a similar manner:
“Now,” broke in another girl, “is the time for us colony women to take a stand for our fair share in communal matters. Here we are, helping to build up a new commonwealth in a country where we are all really free to do as we like. Are we going to build on a basis of equality or not? Have not we women taken our part in the founding of this colony as fully as the men have? Did not our mothers suffer and struggle as well as our fathers? Have we girls ever refused to help in any kind of work, indoors or out? … Let us go forward together.”
The young women went from house to house with these questions, intent on convincing the men to change the law and grant them the right to vote. The men offered no response, while the mothers—who were opposed to their demands—attacked the daughters, arguing that they were young and lacked independent thinking and were therefore carried away by every foolish fashion. Some day, when they married and settled down, they would undoubtedly stop getting involved in matters that were none of their business.
Trager, who was one of these young women, did not cease her involvement; in later years as well, as part of the Jewish community in England, she continued to fight for civil rights, schooling and improved status for Jewish women. In recounting the history of Petah Tikvah, she did not forget this youthful incident, describing it as one of the formative events that shaped her consciousness as a woman. Unlike all the volumes of documentation and memoirs, which omit this episode, Hannah Trager provided this surprising piece of historical information, which had been missing from our collective memory.
The first part of the book encompasses the years 1878–1887, while the second part takes us to a later period. In 1911, Trager visited Palestine, spending weeks roaming the country, living with her parents in Neve Shalom, visiting the sites of her childhood in Jerusalem and Petah Tikvah, and getting together with old personal and family friends. This later homecoming yielded new memories while paving the way for Trager to adapt episodes from her past into such stories as “A Judean Romance,” “Shmuel” and “The Fireband.” An added benefit of this book is the preface by Israel Zangwill (1864–1926), novelist, essayist and leader. In a lengthy introduction (twelve pages), Zangwill praises the stories, asserting that they should serve as material for future historians. He compares them to the head of a river—the river of history—whose source is narrow but which broadens with time. Trager’s stories are the sources of the new Jewish history being written in Palestine, a history that begins with the efforts of the first settlers, whom he terms “the pilgrim fathers of the new Hebrew race.” Zangwill also takes this opportunity to examine the new political map of the Middle East, which took shape with the entry into the region of the British Empire, explaining the role of the Jewish people and their contribution to the progress and development of the region.
Indeed, the publication in England (1923) of these stories of the Holy Land, in close proximity to the momentous political events of the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate, stirred and inspired the English-speaking Jewish reader—witness the many letters found in the archives of Hannah Trager, in particular those from such Jewish intellectuals and Zionists as Dr. Max Nordau, Nina Salaman, Henrietta Szold, United States Supreme Court Judge Louis Brandeis and others.
As stated, following the publication of her final book (in 1926), Trager moved alone to Palestine. She was welcomed by her many family members (her father, her brothers and their offspring), and it was they who supported her throughout the years. She resided in Tel Aviv and later in Bene Berak. She continued to write, but the literary community in Palestine apparently expressed little interest in her work. Only in a review of her book Pioneers in Palestine (Haaretz, July 2, 1926) did a literary critic by the name of B. Peri seek to draw attention to her writing:
“Hannah Trager’s book,” wrote Zangwill in his introduction, “is written with a simplicity and charm that should make it a favorite reading-book … Christians should be equally entranced by this picture of the latest development of the people whom they first met in the Bible.” But while Mr. Zangwill is concerned with the Christian reader, I pity the Hebrew readers in the land of Israel for whom this important book remains inaccessible—a book that sheds light on a period that is, at once, so near and yet so far from us.
For many years, Trager’s work was unknown in Israel and it was only in the 1970s that her stories appeared for the first time, in the children’s magazine Haaretz Shelanu, and later, in the collection Sippurei nashim benot ha-aliyah ha-rishonah (Stories of the Women of the First Aliyah, 1984).
Hannah Trager died in September 1943 and was buried in Nahalat Yizhak. In 2004 the city of Petah Tikvah named a street after her.
“The Gardeners.” Translated into Hebrew by Yaffah Berlovitz. Haaretz Shelanu 3 (September 1982); “The Gate of Hope.” Adapted and translated into Hebrew by Yaffah Berlovitz. Haaretz Shelanu 15–16 (January 1979); “The Gate of Hope” and “Votes for Women.” In Sippurei nashim benot ha-aliyah ha-rishonah. Edited and translated into Hebrew by Yaffah Berlovitz. Tel Aviv: 1984, 2000; “The Jewish Girl in England.” The Sinaist 3 (February 1919): 19–26; “Votes for Women.” Foreword and biographical note by Yaffah Berlovitz. Journal of Women’s History. vol. 2, no.1 (Spring 1990).
“The Jewish Free Reading Room.” The Jewish Chronicle. February 23, 1923; “Law Cases: The Trager Tragedy—Judge’s Sympathy”, The Jewish Chronicle, Feb.13, 1925; Barnett, Zerah. Memoirs of the Founder of Petah Tikvah and Builder of Neveh Shalom (Hebrew). Compiled and published by Yehuda Halevi Shachter. Jerusalem: 1929; Berlovitz, Yaffah. “‘Our Time Has Come’: Feminine Identity, Feminine Writing” (Hebrew). In Le-hamzi erez, le-hamzi am: tashtiyot sifrut ve-tarbut be-yezirah shel ha-aliyah ha-rishonah, edited by Yaffah Berlovitz, 47–62. Tel Aviv: 1996; Idem. “Hannah Trager, Forgotten Writer of the First Aliyah” (Hebrew). Iton 77, vol. 25 (June 1981): 32–33, 45; Idem. “The Women of Petah Tikvah Demand the Right to Vote” (Hebrew). Eth-mol, vol. 6, no. 3 (35) (January 1981): 14–15; Katz, Sheila H. Women and Gender in Early Jewish and Palestinian Nationalism. Florida: 2003; Peri, B. “The First Ones” (Hebrew). Haaretz, July 2, 1926, Literary Review section; Shilo, Margalit. “Gender Perspective on the First Aliyah through the Stories of Hannah Trager” (Hebrew) (forthcoming).