1887 – 1956
Devorah Baron, who is considered to be the first female to write in Modern Hebrew, was born on December 4, 1887, in the small town of Uzda (50 km SSW of Minsk), where her father served as a rabbi. While a number of women had overcome the odds and written in Hebrew before her, Devorah Baron was the first woman to make a career for herself as a Hebrew writer.
Her family consisted of four daughters and a son. Devorah was the third child, after the first-born Haya-Rivkah and her only brother Benjamin. Two additional sisters, Zipporah and Hanna, were younger than she. Only Devorah and her older sister immigrated to Palestine, while the rest of the family perished. Benjamin, a physician, served in the Russian Army in World War I and died of typhoid in 1919 or 1920. Zipporah, after whom Devorah Baron named her only daughter, married a rabbi and died two years after her wedding. Hanna died in the Holocaust.
Two related facts characterize the unique childhood of Devorah Baron: her non-feminine education and her deep attachment to her brother. As a girl, Devorah resented feminine occupations and games, and demonstrated unusual interest, skill and persistence in studying Torah, halakhah and Hebrew like the boys. Her father, who used to tutor the children of the town in heder, allowed her to follow in Benjamin’s footsteps; thus, unlike her sisters or other Jewish girls, she was able to acquire a thorough Jewish-Hebrew education (even if she later on had to sit behind the partition in the synagogue, in the “women’s section,” during classes), which provided the basis for her emerging literary career. Clearly, it was her father the rabbi, whom she later idealized in her writing, who defied convention when it came to educating his gifted daughter. In doing so, however, he probably helped to create unbridgeable gaps between Baron’s expectations of herself and her social reality, and between her personality and the ‘normal’ men or women of her time and culture.
The unusually, strong attachment between the brother and sister became even more apparent when fifteen-year old Devorah followed Benjamin to pursue secular education in Minsk and Kovno, where she established her reputation as a Hebrew and Yiddish writer. Her independence was highly unusual for a Jewish woman of her background; she completed her high school education as an external student, and made a living as a tutor, often living in her students’ homes. The fact that this transition occurred with the blessing of both parents demonstrates the openness and liberal inclinations of this unusual family.
Devorah Baron started to write short stories in Yiddish in 1902, when she was just fourteen. Her stories created an immediate sensation because of her age, her sex, and the fact that she seemed to be very open on ‘forbidden’ topics such as love and sex, and critical of traditional Jewish family life. Some years later, Baron’s fiancé, the author Moshe Ben-Eliezer (1882–1944), broke off their engagement, supposedly because of the personal autonomy of the young woman and the outspoken manner of her literary expression.
In 1910, after her father died, her shtetl was destroyed in a pogrom and her engagement ended, Devorah Baron immigrated to Palestine. She became the literary editor of the Zionist-Socialist magazine Ha-Po’el ha-Za’ir (The Young Worker) and in October 1911 married the chief editor and famous Zionist activist Yosef Aharonovitz (1877–1937). Their only daughter, Zipporah, was born in Tel Aviv in 1914. In 1915, with the rest of the elite of the Jewish society, Devorah, Yosef and their infant daughter were exiled to Egypt by the Ottoman government. Together with the other exiles, they lived in Alexandria, and were allowed to return to Palestine only in 1919, after the end of World War I and the establishment of the British Mandate.
In 1922, both Devorah and Yosef resigned from their positions with the magazine. For Devorah, this was the beginning of her seclusion from the outside world, which lasted thirty-four years, till her death in 1956. During the last twenty years of her life, she rarely left her bed, and did not even attend her husband’s funeral. Her daughter cared for her, ushering into her mother’s bedroom old friends and admirers who were allowed to visit on some afternoons. Thus, we can see Baron’s life as divided into two very different halves: her first, active, daring, autonomous phase as a young woman, and her second passive, ailing and dependent life-style as a mature woman. The common thread throughout her life was her dedication to the art of writing, which characterized the author during her seclusion no less than before it. It was during the later part of her life that she also did some important literary translations into Hebrew, among them that of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
What may be the reason for this self-imposed seclusion? This is a riddle which cannot be completely resolved. Devorah Baron explained her withdrawal with reference to her weakness or bad physical health, yet none of the physicians who attended her could diagnose her ailment, or find a medical remedy for her situation. In fact, she scorned the medical profession, and followed her own very strict vegetarian dietary regimen, which she also imposed on her daughter. On other occasions, she attributed her seclusion to her deep mourning for her brother, her father and her whole family of origin. On the other hand, basing oneself on Baron’s views as expressed in both her private life and her work, it is conceivable to see this extreme step as a subversive act, such as a rebellion against the institution of marriage and the traditional role of wife-mother, or resistance to participating in the social-political life of her time and society, which had no place for independent female artists. Whatever the reason, clearly Baron’s withdrawal to her own private sphere provided her with the space for a bold literary identity which she developed in opposition to the dominant cultural climate of her period in Palestine and in the State of Israel. In her art she refused to deal with the normative nation-building topics, such as life of the local pioneers, and dedicated almost all her work to telling family stories which took place in her long-vanished childhood world of the Eastern European shtetl.
Baron’s seclusion is not the only riddle of her life. It is striking that a woman who —in much of her work—idealized motherhood and demonstrated extreme sensitivity to the Jewish family and to the fate of the weak members of society, took advantage of her only daughter. From early on, and especially after the death of Yosef Aharonovitz in 1937, Zipporah became her mother’s major caretaker, and the mediator between her and the external world. Zipporah, who died as a single woman in 1971, was totally devoted to her mother’s needs. She was probably an epileptic from early childhood (the medical evidence is not clear on this point either), but this can hardly explain why she never attended school or made her own circle of friends.
Devorah Baron lived in Tel Aviv till her death on August 20, 1956. While feminism and socialism colored most of her work, Baron is currently considered one of the finest modern Hebrew authors, characterized by the highly detailed realism which presents the singular life of the East European shtetl without sentimentality.
Devorah Baron published about eighty short stories and a novella entitled Exiles. Her early stories, published in Hebrew or Yiddish magazines, presented family life and events from a rare female point of view, in a style and language which demonstrated her thorough Hebrew-Jewish education. Her early stories can be characterized as angry and blatant, especially in their exposure of women’s place in Jewish society. In later years, Baron referred to these stories as “rags”, and refused to include them in the various collections of her stories that started to appear in 1927. Her later stories—most of which appear in her collection Chapters (Parshiot), (Jerusalem 1951)—are indeed more subdued and accepting in their tone.
Devorah Baron: The First Day and Other Stories. Translated by Naomi Seidman and Chana Kronfeld, Berkeley, CA: 2001
Aharonovitz, Zipporah. By the Way (Hebrew), Merhavyah: 1961.
The daughter’s version of her mother’s brief biography, with a collection of short episodes of her mother’s life and sayings. This book also includes some unpublished stories of the author and friends’ recollections of her.
Govrin, Nurit. Devorah Baron, Early Chapters (Hebrew), Jerusalem: 1988.
A detailed biography of the first half of Baron’s life, with complete list of her stories and a thorough literary review of her work. In this volume, Govrin rediscoverd and published Baron’s early uncollected stories in Hebrew and Yiddish, which allows for a comparison with the author’s later, better known, work.
Lieblich, Amia. Embroideries (Hebrew) Tel Aviv: 1991.
A literary psychobiography of Baron, written as twenty-four (fictional) conversations between Baron and Lieblich, which supposedly took place during Baron’s last year of life in Tel Aviv. Using the available historical evidence, and assuming the autobiographical nature of most of her stories, Lieblich reconstructed Baron’s life story, cultural background, views and experiences.
Lieblich, Amia. Conversations with Dvora: An Experimental Biography of the First Modern Hebrew Woman Writer, Berkeley, CA: 1997.
An English adapted translation of the above, translated by Naomi Seidman.