1839 – 1920
“I am attempting to enter the sanctuary of your honor.” In this way did Miriam Markel-Mosessohn (née Wierzbolowska) express her desire to penetrate the world of Hebrew letters—a world created and inhabited by and for men in a language traditionally restricted to that sex. In 1868, when she penned these words in a letter to Judah Leib Gordon (1831–1892), the foremost poet of the Jewish Enlightenment movement (Haskalah), Markel-Mosessohn was among a handful of unknown women attempting to join in the Hebrew revival. Some men did indeed appreciate the female touch. Leaders of the Hebrew literary world had begun to subscribe to the notion that the female sex—as prescribed by gender standards of the European Enlightenment—possessed a unique emotional style that would enhance the quality of their resurrected language and make it competitive in the modern-language marketplace. Miriam Markel-Mosessohn, above all other female Hebraists of the day, basked in the admiration of her male colleagues. In fact, it was to her that Gordon dedicated “The Tip of the Yud,” (Kozo shel Yod–1876) his famous poem satirizing the treatment of women in traditional Jewish society. Markel-Mosessohn would indeed come to play a key role in the resuscitation of the ancient tongue. She did so not only through her Hebrew translations and brief journalistic career but through her influence on Gordon, who sought her advice on matters both personal and professional—everything from educating his daughters to possible themes to be incorporated into his poetry.
Miriam Wierzbolowska was born in 1839 in Volkovyshki (Vilkaviskis), a town in SW Lithuania. Like her biblical namesake, the girl had two brothers, Yosef and Shemuel (though she also had a sister, Devorah). From early on, their parents, Hayyah and Shimon—a wealthy merchant—introduced their children to the study of Hebrew. In a letter written in 1875, Markel-Mosessohn recalled:
When I was seven years old, my mother sent me to the local Jewish school to study there how to read and write Hebrew. Boys and girls studied together as was the custom in small cities. From my youth, there awakened within me a strong yearning to study and to understand and I became envious of the young boys who were in heder who studied humash (Pentateuch) and wrote Hebrew. So my father hired a tutor so that I, too, who thirsted for the fount of the Torah, could learn.
By 1851, when the family moved to Suvalk (Suwalki—114 km NNW of Bialystok) in Congress Poland, Markel-Mosessohn had undertaken a rigorous course of Jewish study, with an emphasis on acquisition of Hebraic skills. In a strange irony—because she was a girl and thus not engaged in traditional Jewish learning which exposed boys to Hebrew merely as a byproduct of immersion in sacred texts—she was free to pick up the rudiments of the language with the help of tutors secured for that very purpose. Likewise, as her skills developed, she was given the freedom to satisfy her desires by reading the secular publications of Hebrew authors and poets that began to appear with great frequency by the late-nineteenth century. Moreover, because of her socio-economic background, she received a thorough grounding in secular subjects. Like other daughters of the Jewish merchant class living in the Russian Empire, she was versed in both German and French. Indeed, Markel-Mosessohn’s eclectic training laid a sturdy foundation for her subsequent literary achievements.
That she was exceptionally well-prepared for the task of writing in Hebrew is borne out by the fleeting correspondence of Markel-Mosessohn and the first Hebrew novelist Abraham Mapu (1808–1867). The handful of letters that passed between the two in 1861 and 1862 testifies that her unconventional education provided her with a felicitous style that garnered her lavish praise from one of the great men of Hebrew literature. Upon receiving an original piece of her writing, Mapu replied with many thanks and compliments to the “maskelet, who speaks so lucidly.”
Markel-Mosessohn’s love of literature also played a role in her choice of a mate. She married Anshel Markel-Mosessohn (1844–1903) in 1863, when she was twenty-four and the groom nineteen. Their marriage appears to represent the ideal of conjugal bliss then being promoted by maskilim: a relationship based on companionship, love, and intellectual parity rather than the traditional, arranged (mis)matches made during adolescence that were rapidly reduced to housekeeping and childbearing. They were united in mind as well as heart, common intellectual interests constantly a mainstay of their marriage. The couple shared an abiding love for the ancient tongue and its revival, writing letters to each other in Hebrew. Anshel even supported his wife’s calling, assisting her with and listening attentively to the details of her literary compositions. He also granted her freedom and presumably financial backing to travel to important centers of publishing to inquire about the feasibility of printing her works.
Married for forty years, the couple never had children, which left Markel-Mosessohn time and energy to pursue her literary ambitions. By the end of the 1860s, she decided on translation as a route to publication. Surely she realized that since the beginnings of the Haskalah, the two-pronged goal of the maskilim was to enliven Hebrew with works that originated in foreign languages and in disciplines and genres never before expressed in the ancient tongue, while introducing their readership to new areas of knowledge. With the encouragement of Gordon, with whom she maintained a regular correspondence over the course of twenty years, the first volume of her Hebrew rendition of the German history book Die Juden und die Kreuzfahrer unter Richard Lowenherz by Eugen Rispart (Isaac Asher Francolm) appeared in 1869 as Ha-Yehudim be-Angliyah. A quarter of a century passed before the second volume of the translation was published in 1895.
In the decades between the publication of the two volumes, Markel-Mosessohn was on the move, wandering from one European city to another and finally settling in Vienna in 1881. As her letters to Gordon reveal, she was plagued over the years not only with poor health but with financial ruin when her husband was incarcerated as a result of dubious business dealings in the late 1870s. Perhaps her need for a steady income compelled Markel-Mosessohn to take up the challenge of becoming a writer in her own right, finally, at the age of forty-eight. In 1887, she reluctantly accepted Gordon’s repeated invitations to become the Viennese correspondent for Ha-Meliz, the newspaper he then edited. Qualified for the task and encouraged by this titan of Hebrew literature, she edged into her writing role slowly and with constant apprehension. She was, however, comforted by the fact that additional women had joined her ranks in the years since the first part of Ha-Yehudim be-Anglia had appeared. As she expressed in the introduction to the second volume of the book:
Since the time that the first part [of the book] was published, a new generation has come of age. I brought my firstborn near only to my brothers [but] then the love for our language grew among our people . . . and it found a route into my sisters’ hearts . . . Many of the daughters of Zion have come to enjoy reading and writing in Hebrew. So now I bring my baby near as well to my sisters who delight in [it].
However, her doubts quickly returned, and after submitting only four articles to Ha-Meliz, Markel-Mosessohn abruptly renounced authorship, explaining to Gordon:
Sin begets sin, and a person who sins and does not repent immediately keeps procrastinating. I have collected sins in my soul [for] I see the shoddy writings I was submitting to Ha-Meliz and it has become loathsome to me. I see the works of accomplished writers who come to you, and I want to be like them. But my desire and my ability are not one and the same.
Despite her unfavorable evaluation of her writing, which was not shared by others, and even her sparse literary output, Markel-Mosessohn did indeed succeed in entering the “sanctuary” of Hebrew literature. Her strong links to individuals who made up the leadership of the Haskalah meant that she, too, was involved in their network and enterprise.
Miriam Markel-Mosessohn died on December 18, 1920 in Grajewo, a town in Poland, at the age of eighty-one.
Ha-Yehudim be-Anglia o ha-Yehudim ve-Nosei ha-Zlav be-Mlokh Ricard Lev-Ha’ari (The Jews in England, or The Jews and the Crusades under the Reign of Richard the Lionhearted). Part 1. Warsaw: 1869; Part 2. Warsaw: 1895.
[Correspondents’ Column]. Ha-Meliz 97 (May 1 (13), 1887): 1029; “[Correspondence from] Vienna.” Ha-Meliz 111 (May 21 (June 2), 1887): 1168–1169; “[Correspondence from] Vienna.” Ha-Meliz 122 (June 3 (15), 1887): 1296–1298; “From the Summer Heat.” Ha-Meliz 157 (July 14 (26), 1887): 1659–1662.
Balin, Carole. “The Makings of a Maskilah: Miriam Markel-Mosessohn (1839–1920),” in To Reveal Our Hearts: Jewish Women Writers in Tsarist Russia, 13–50. New York: 2000.
Two copies of Markel-Mosessohn’s letters to Yehudah Leib Gordon are housed at the Jewish National and University Library Archive, Hebrew University, Jerusalem. One set is filed in the Schwadron Collection under her name. The other identical set is in the Yalag archive, 40 761. There are additional materials on Markel-Mosessohn in the Schwadron Collection.
Yalag’s letters to Markel-Mosessohn appear in: Yaari, Avraham, ed. A Collection of Yehudah Leib Gordon’s Letters to Miriam Markel-Mosessohn (Hebrew). Jerusalem: 1936).
Mapu’s three extant letters to Markel-Mosessohn are found in: Dinur, Ben-Zion, ed. The Letters of Avraham Mapu, 160, 164 and 183–84. Jerusalem: 1970.
Markel-Mosessohn, Miriam. The Friend of the Poet: Miriam Markel-Mosessohn’s Letters to Yehudah Leib Gordon. Introduction and Notes by Shmuel Verses (Hebrew). Jerusalem: 2004.