Ita Kalish, Zionist activist, Jewish Agency employee and Israeli civil servant, journalist and memoir writer, was born April 5, 1903 in Maciejowice, Poland. Her father, Rabbi Mendel of the Warka Hasidic dynasty, at that time rabbi of the town, later succeeded his father Rabbi Simha Bunem of Warka as Rebbe of Otwock. Private tutors educated the young Ita, who evinced an early interest in religious education. As a child, she witnessed life in the Hasidic court of her father and grandfather and heard from her paternal grandmother much of the lore of the Warka dynasty going back several generations. These stories found expression decades later in her memoirs. Despite her father’s objections, Ita also pursued secular studies, with cousins and others in the extended household secretly providing her with books and newspapers in Polish and Yiddish. This continued even after Ita had been married off to a young Talmudic scholar from a wealthy family, as part of her father’s strategy for dealing with the winds of secularism that he saw threatening Judaism in general and his own household in particular. As Kalish tells it in her own words, this plan proved futile:
Father had great hopes for his young and beloved son-in-law and believed that the pure and naive scholar would know how to quiet the passion of his daughter to deviate from the way of life of her surroundings and take another path of life. … My father did not imagine that his daughter had long deviated from the narrow area set out for her …; Father had not considered that his daughter learned a foreign language and read “outside” books, even at the time she put her young daughter, who was born in the interim, to sleep. And then came the day that all his illusions melted away: he came to visit me in my apartment—a wing of his apartment on Dzielna 14—and there appeared to him, to his amazement, a pile of books in Yiddish and Polish. … In his storm of emotions he accused me with harsh words, confiscated my books and condemned them to be burnt.
On this occasion Ita stormed out of her father’s family compound, only to return after her father’s pleading. Her thirst for independence, however, was not quenched. As long as her father was alive she remained with her husband, but continued her secret secularization. Upon her father’s death in 1919 she left her husband and daughter and moved with her two sisters to Warsaw, where their apartment became a refuge and meeting place for young men and women who had fled from noted Hasidic families to pursue secular careers. Kalish supported herself by work as a clerk in the Warsaw office of the American Jewish immigration organization HIAS.
In 1923 Kalish kidnapped her daughter from the Kielce home of her husband and in-laws and left for Berlin (the Warsaw rabbinical court eventually awarded her custody of the daughter), where she continued to work for HIAS and also took courses in German literature and x-ray technology. She had a number of friends and acquaintances among Zionist leaders and Hebrew and Yiddish literary circles there. For a short time, during the hyperinflation in Germany, she moved temporarily to Paris and worked in the HIAS office there as well. After the Nazi rise to power in 1933 Kalish once again fled to Paris, where she stayed for a month at the home of the writer David Fogel and his wife. In May 1933 she arrived in Palestine. From 1935 until 1948 Kalish worked for the Jewish Agency and with the coming of Israeli independence transferred to the civil service of the new state, where she worked until her retirement in 1967. In Palestine too she continued to move in the social circles of writers and journalists, and contributed articles to the Labor daily Davar.
Ita Kalish’s memoirs, published first in Yiddish under the title A Rebbe’s Home in Long-Ago Poland (Tel Aviv, 1963) and later in an expanded Hebrew version under the title My Yesterday (1970), are a treasure-trove of information about the Jewish community in Poland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She possessed a keen eye for detail and her descriptions of the denizens of the Warka Hasidic court, her fellow “refugees” who had fled the Hasidic world, or the literary circles of Berlin are full of rich personal portrayals of the famous and the anonymous who crossed her path. Particularly worthy of note is the parade of strong women from the rebbes’ households whom Kalish describes, some of them independent businesswomen who ran the court behind the scenes, others strong enough to defy the rebbes. All of this was on the background of the Warka court, where in theory the rebbe dictated practically everything in the life style of the children, down to the shape and style of the dresses and head covering of the women of all ages in the household. Though on occasion Kalish refers to the differential treatment of young girls and boys in traditional Jewish society and her own opposition to it, it is difficult to term these memoirs a feminist document with a feminist agenda. The central theme of the memoir, as expressed in the title of the fourth chapter, is the “path of independence” as experienced by Kalish herself and her friends and acquaintances, male and female alike, who sought a way out of what they considered the stifling atmosphere of the Hasidic world. On that score, the author felt that women had an easier time making the transition, having been more exposed to secular culture, in contrast to the men who had little such contact, many of whom remained tragically homeless in both the religious and secular worlds.
Despite this central theme of escape from the religious community, Kalish’s portrayal of that community is a highly nuanced and non-stereotypical one. Even within the strict boundaries of the rebbe’s court, some men and women managed to assert their independence in varying ways. It was one of her father’s trusted assistants who introduced the young Ita to the Torah commentary of Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786), maintaining that he respected Mendelssohn’s intellect even if he disagreed with his religious views. During visits to her parents in ?ód?, one of the women in her grandfather’s court found a way to escape the stifling dress code imposed by the rebbe through the collusion of one of the rebbe’s beadles, who would surreptitiously inform her of his upcoming visits to ?ód? on missions from the rebbe to check up on her attire in the big city. With all the opposition on the part of the rebbes to secularization, Kalish presents a memorable account of an “interview” for a prospective bride conducted by women from the strict Gerer Hasidic court, where the topic of discussion was none other than the works of the Polish novelist Gabriela Zapolska. All in all, Kalish’s memoir is a rich source on the inner life of the Hasidic courts of Poland at the turn of the twentieth century. In its respectful, sometimes nostalgic, yet critical portrayal of that world, it stands in contrast to the more sentimental, if also informative, memoir of her contemporary Malkah Shapiro, published in English translation under the title The Rebbe’s Daughter (Philadelphia, 2002).
Ita Kalish also published Conversations with [Hayyim] Hazaz (Hebrew; Tel Aviv, 1976), in which she reconstructs her conversations with the noted Hebrew author in the years 1936–1938. The conversations revolve mostly around literature and literary figures of the era, with some comments on contemporary events.
Halamish, Mordecai. From Here and from Near (Hebrew). Tel Aviv, 1966, 399–402. (Excerpt from the memoirs and portrait of the author); Hyman, Paula E. “East European Jewish Women in an Age of Transition, 1880–1930.” In Jewish Women in Historical Perspective, edited by Judith R. Baskin, 270–286. Second edition; Detroit: 1998; Idem. Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representation of Women. Seattle: 1995, 62–64; Kalish, Ita. “Life in a Hassidic Court in Russian Poland Toward the End of the Nineteenth and the Early Twentieth Centuries.” YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science 13 (1965): 264–278 (excerpt from memoirs); Lexicon of Modern Yiddish Literature (Yiddish). New York, 1981, vol. 8, col. 54; Personal communication. Civil Service Commission, Jerusalem, March 2004; Personal communication. Human Resources Department, Jewish Agency, Jerusalem, January 2004.
How to cite this page
Bacon, Gershon. "Ita Kalish." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 26, 2015) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/kalish-ita>.