1885 – 1949
Sarah Malkhin, one of the first women agricultural laborers of the Second Aliyah (1904–1914), died at the age of sixty-four in the first year of the State of Israel. Since she had been ill for many years, she was not even aware of the dramatic events transpiring all around her. Her death prompted many veteran Israelis to recall the achievements of the small group of trailblazing female laborers of the Second Aliyah, who had faced immense opposition and challenges in their lifetimes and whose influence would be felt only many years later.
Sarah Malkhin, who was born in Dvinsk (now Daugavpils), Latvia, in 1885, became active in the Zionist youth movement Pirhei Zion at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the dream of the “Great Revolution,” both personal and social, gave rise to ideals of a new and better life for humanity as a whole and for Jews in particular. Sarah was led to view her own life both through the prism of Zionist critique of the diaspora and through an analysis of social enslavement.
Sarah Malkhin blossomed in her many activities and exerted considerable influence in her social circle. She organized and taught courses for Jewish workers and participated in discussion groups. Malkhin was also involved in organizing the Minsk Conference (September 4 to September 10, 1902)—the second conference of Russian Zionists held publicly with the Russian government’s permission.
Deciding to pursue the fulfillment of her Zionist beliefs, she prepared to go on aliyah to Erez Israel, in the hope that she would be the precursor of a vast number of young people. She arrived in Palestine in 1905, shortly before the Jews of Russia underwent the terrible crisis of pogroms that followed the aborted Russian revolution. Many immigrants indeed arrived both with Malkhin and shortly thereafter, but the Yishuv did not welcome their arrival. Instead, the newcomers met with suspicion and were accused of being unlike their predecessors of the First Aliyah (1882–1903), settlers and members of the Old Yishuv, who strove to integrate into the life of the country. Mocked as “Yapanzim” who had immigrated to Erez Israel only to escape conscription in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, they were also accused of bringing with them murky notions that were not in keeping with the lofty Lovers of Zion tradition.
Malkhin arrived in the country determined to change her lifestyle and become the first female agricultural laborer, thus simultaneously embodying the Zionist ideal of returning to the Land, the ethic of independent Jewish labor and the emancipation of women. Her first stop was Petah Tikvah, a large moshavah (agricultural settlement) plagued by numerous social tensions. Unable to find employment, she began to roll cigarettes for the workers and also offered her services as a nursemaid, but her unconventional world view did not inspire trust among the local population.
In Petah Tikvah Sarah met Rivkah Zadikov, the daughter of a religious Zionist ideologue whose children were scattered all over the country, enthusiastically engaged in agriculture. Rivkah, who worked as a seamstress, was referred to as “Sister Rivkah” because she refused to be courted by her male contemporaries and viewed all the workers as “brothers.” She maintained that her generation of halutzim (pioneers) must forgo establishing families until the conditions in the country were more favorable. Rivkah, Sarah and several other young women initiated a great revolution: to perceive and present themselves as laborers. Malkhin went a step further by finding work in the fields.
There was great opposition to the new immigrants in Petah Tikvah, whose founders contended that Zionism and particularly Labor Zionism saw the country neither as a refuge from the Haskalah nor as a religious bastion. Women’s rights, free artistic creation, liberty and the equality and camaraderie that existed among the young men and women were all perceived by the settlers as undermining their own weltanschauung and their arduous way of life. The opposition to the new culture was fanatical. Some of the veteran settlers stole library books which they considered too secular and went so far as to ostracize the young laborers. However, the most extreme reaction was against Sarah Malkhin, whose work as an agricultural laborer outside the family framework was perceived by the haredim as a serious sexual transgression. When a baby died in the moshavah, Malkhin was blamed for bringing this disaster on the residents as divine retribution. Word of Malkhin’s working in the field spread like wildfire to all the Jewish settlements in the country, and the farmers pressured their colleagues not to employ the new laborers. Some farmers, however, did not submit to this pressure. Nevertheless, when Malkhin did work she had to do so almost in secret.
The greatest fear of the members of the First Aliyah and the Old Yishuv centered on the corrupting influence the free-thinking immigrants and their “new ideas” might have on their own younger generation of men and especially on the women. They feared that their children might join this forbidden, poor community. They were afraid of undesirable matches, even though their children, like the young newcomers, were already marrying without the intervention of matchmakers. The tension between the laborers and the farmers created unemployment, anger and mutual ostracism.
It was at this time that Sarah Malkhin met, and found an ally in, Aharon David Gordon (1856–1922) who, although a contemporary of the farmers, totally identified with the aspirations of the young laborers. Gordon invested great efforts to convince the women laborers to abandon their notions of celibacy as a way of life. He was able to persuade Rivkah Zadikov to change her mind and marry Nathan Sifris (1883–1953), one of the founders of the Ha-Po’el ha-Za’ir party, who had immigrated to Palestine from Russia in 1904. Malkhin had previously tried to devise a new model: she would be the one to propose to a man whom she loved. When the man of her choice (Yizhak Kvashne) turned her down, Malkhin decided that she would never marry. The man himself, who later married and had a large family, felt responsible for Sarah’s fate throughout his life. After her death, he visited her grave in Deganyah every year to ask forgiveness.
Some months after Malkhin’s arrival in Palestine, news of the pogroms in Russia and of the failure of the revolution began to reach the country. As a result of these events, organized Zionist activity in Russia ceased for a while. For the young immigrants this was a great blow; they felt they were losing their support system. Malkhin and her colleagues decided to hold a memorial evening for those who had been murdered in the pogroms. For the conservatives in Petah Tikvah this was an incitement, since it took the form of a literary evening with readings from modern Hebrew works, rather than a recital of the Yizkor prayer. The organizers were excommunicated and relations between the two groups reached a new low. The young laborers appeared to have come to a dead end: apparently there was no possibility of combining the Land of the Fathers with the dreams of the children.
In 1907, when the laborers, both male and female, began to sum up their achievements in Erez Israel, they reached the sad conclusion that they were about to fail in achieving their goals. The Palestine office of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) was just beginning its work, but its efforts to open up new areas were not yet bringing results. The young laborers decided that they might find a solution by leaving Petah Tikvah and moving to the Galilee, where the moshavot were younger, but the poverty greater. Several scores of them therefore moved to the north. In 1908 the Kinneret Courtyard was established by the WZO as a training farm for women.
Sarah Malkhin began working at the farm, serving as a homemaker for the entire collective. Her enormous capabilities were fully engaged and she worked until she was exhausted; nevertheless, she was critical of the fact that she was not given an opportunity to exploit her capabilities to the full.
She was asked to help in the hospital established in Zikhron Ya’akov by Dr. Hillel Joffe (1864–1936), who specialized in treating the halutzim who were victims of the malaria epidemic that struck the Galilee. Malkhin worked there with great dedication. Later she was an itinerant laborer, wandering from place to place and never settling anywhere. She made an especial contribution to the agricultural-training farm for young women which was added to the Kinneret moshavah in 1912 and directed by Hannah Maisel-Shohat, who asked Malkhin to join the staff of the farm. Maisel-Shohat thought that Malkhin, as a veteran laborer, was a perfect personal example and guide for the young women who came on aliyah a few years after her. At the agricultural school Malkhin met and became a close friend of the poet Rahel Bluwstein and joined the group who instigated the “great rebellion” of the women of the Second Aliyah. She formed an especial relationship with Deganyah, the first kevuzah, founded in 1909 by seven wage-earners from the Kinneret farm. Under the aegis of the Zionist Organization Kinneret was run by a clerk who regarded the Second Aliyah pioneers as wage-earners rather than trainees and preferred the cheaper, more experienced and more pliable Arab laborers. After a strike broke out, Arthur Ruppin (1876–1943), director of the Zionist Organization’s Palestine office, suggested allocating to the group of seven land east of the Jordan, where they then founded Deganyah. The first settlement to be organized under the principles of a collective settlement, Deganyah became known as “the mother of the kevuzot.” Malkhin was at first attracted to the Deganyah group, but although she initially wanted to make this her home, her radicalism and restlessness led her to drift between Kinneret, Merhavyah (founded in 1911) and other places.
At the end of World War I, when Palestine was smitten by famine, disease and death, the women laborers faced a desperate challenge: not to lose sight of their dreams during the struggle for survival but to implant their ideals of mutual aid even under conditions of terrible hardship. Their response was to found women’s groups that were the first “open groups” in the country; members were not elected but comprised only volunteers, the only limitation being lack of accommodation. These groups took it upon themselves to grow vegetables to help underprivileged children and to care for sick people who had no one else to assist them.
Their plan was implemented when economic assistance reached the Yishuv in Palestine from the United States through the diplomatic efforts of Henry Morgenthau Sr. (1856–1946) the U.S. ambassador to Turkey (1913–1916) and the Zionists in the population suggested that the aid not be distributed in the manner of the traditional “halukkah” (distribution) welfare payments, but should instead be used to organize work that would provide an income for the laborers, in return for farming or other public work. A number of such groups of laborers, established in places such as Kinneret, Ben Shemen (founded 1906), Merhavyah and Petah Tikvah, received tools, seeds and plots of land. Sarah Malkhin was active in establishing and instructing these groups.
In 1915 Sarah Malkhin was appointed to head a Jerusalem institution for young women and girls, aged eleven to twenty-four, who supported themselves by growing vegetables. This institution, targeted at girls of the Old Yishuv and from oriental Jewish families, was intended to save them from the prostitution that had spread throughout the city as a result of the dire economic straits. After Jerusalem’s capture by the British in 1917, the school was reorganized under the patronage of Helen Bentwich, wife of Norman Bentwich (1883–1971), the first attorney-general in Palestine (1930–1931), to cater to fifty young women. Malkhin turned to her old friend Rahel Bluwstein to help her run the institution. Rahel, who had just left Deganyah due to failing health, integrated well into the position, her charisma and leadership endearing her to the girls. One of the projects that Malkhin and Rahel introduced was the collecting and drying of wildflowers for export to the Jewish-Zionist public abroad. However, when Rahel’s declining health compelled her to resign, Malkhin also left and the school was closed.
An attempt to establish settlements and groups of women only was undertaken during the dramatic years of the famine in the country (1915–1917). The women, who were unclear as to whether their projects would become permanent features or whether they would prove to be only temporary responses to the situation, turned to Malkhin for advice, but there is no trace of her reply. Meanwhile, the arrival of new Third Aliyah immigrants (1919–1923) made it clear that training camps (hakhsharot) needed to be established to prepare the new women immigrants for agricultural work and that these hakhsharot would be directed and managed by the handful of experienced women agricultural laborers of the Second Aliyah.
There are gaps in our knowledge regarding Sarah Malkhin’s subsequent life. Her personal documents indicate that she spent a short time in Germany studying agriculture. We know that at a certain point she accompanied her old friend Rivka Zadikov Shifris, who underwent psychological treatment in an Austrian institution. In 1927 Malkhin was later again asked to direct an agricultural school for girls in Afulah, where she worked for the longest period in her life and established long-standing relationships with both pupils and teachers.
The waves of halutzim who arrived in the 1930s and 1940s turned Malkhin and her life experiences into a legend, but her health deteriorated to such an extent that she could not continue her beloved work. As a result, the members of Deganyah, who recalled the activities of her younger years and their own, invited her to return and settle there. Malkhin was very moved, although she warned them that she was not the same as they remembered and was no longer capable of working seventeen hours a day. By the time she arrived in Deganyah there was already an organized women’s movement in the country and Deganyah decided to employ the ailing Malkhin in supporting this movement.
Sarah Malkhin was hospitalized as she neared the end of her life, at the same time as Deganyah fought its life-or-death struggle against the Syrian army in the War of Independence. Although the kibbutz successfully repulsed the Syrians in May 1948, Malkhin was unable to win her own personal war. For many people, her death in 1949 symbolized the changes that had taken place in Israel. Sarah Malkhin and her handful of women colleagues of the Second Aliyah were unable to make the impact they desired. They had created a model, but only later did its influence bear fruit.
Malkhin, Sarah. “My Ways in the Land.” In The Book of the Second Aliyah (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1947.