The last two decades of the twentieth century saw considerable changes in the historiography of the First Aliyah period, which presented different views of the period, cast new light on it and brought about a new understanding of the developments in settlement which occurred at the time. As a result, the view of the role of the moshavah in the history of land settlement underwent a complete change from that expressed in the classic early studies. Similarly, the roles played by both Baron Edmond James de Rothschild’s administration and the ICA (Jewish Colonization Association) are now perceived differently from the way in which historical memory recalled them. A better-founded and more balanced picture emerged as the result of an understanding of the respective roles of private and public capital in the process of modernization, settlement and land purchase.
In this new look at the First Aliyah, research on women and gender perceptions have not been neglected. In recent years, there have been many studies that focus on the female “voice” and on women’s view of the processes and occurrences connected with this immigration. Such research has successfully met two important criteria of the gender studies paradigm: first it adds to existing knowledge by presenting new material that emphasizes women’s participation in the development of the Jewish Yishuv with all its characteristics; and secondly, it complements the first criterion by further stressing the exclusion of females in the historiography of the period.
The moshavah, the Hebrew version of what is known world-wide as a village, was the pioneer settlement type of the Jews in Palestine. It was based on private ownership of the land, one-family based agricultural homesteads and free patterns of marketing, consuming and economic organization. Cooperation or collectivity, such as that of the moshav or kibbutz, existed only on the basis of good will and was not compulsory. Over the years 1882–1914, the moshavah was the dominant type of Jewish settlement in Palestine: about thirty moshavot and other similar settlements comprised some 12,000 out of 12,500 Jewish rural settlers, while there were only one or two kevuzot and as yet not even one cooperative moshav.
Regarding women’s status on the moshavot, one can propose the following typology:
- The “invisible” majority—wives of settlers, who bore the burden of housekeeping and assisting the farmer in daily chores, and educating the children;
- The “independent settlers”—women who ran independent homesteads, whether by farming or by offering services;
- “Strong women,” who stood beside their partners and strengthened them by their own initiative and drive;
- Professional women—those who had accredited professional training (teachers, nurses, physicians, etc.);
- Creative women—who actively participated in the revival of Hebrew culture in the country
Most of the farmers’ wives fall into this group, whose burden was divided between housework, agriculture and child care. Literature and first-person accounts of this group are few because these women left almost no writings of their own and remained anonymous.
A little about their lives, fates and hard labor may be gleaned from moshavot anniversary books, for which personal recollections were required. Thus we know of the trials of the first women in Haderah, who buried husbands and children, or the exhausting daily routine of the women in various agricultural settlements in the Galilee.
The tasks these women undertook were many and varied. The various pioneer groups that came to the “settling sites” included women who came to help with cooking, laundry and maintenance of the huts or shacks in which the first settlers lived. In Zikhron Ya’akov, women were among the first groups that alternated every few weeks; there was one woman among those who went to Gederah; and those who lived in the meager lean-tos in Yesud ha-Ma’alah included women who for many years dwelled in dire poverty with their husbands. There was one woman among the three people who came to Hartuv to clean the first dwelling building, and it was the same in each of the other “aliyot” to the settlements.
As time went on and the settlements were firmly established, women provided the solid basis for family life, which was the most important social basis in this kind of settlement. This found expression in housework, work in the farmyard, child care and supervision of various jobs performed by laborers. It is not difficult to imagine the magnitude of the change which women experienced in their lives when they arrived in Palestine from countries in which they had already enjoyed many of the conveniences of the modern home. After all, many families came from cities and towns in which modern services already operated, commerce was developed and the physical infrastructure included railroads and improved sanitation. The new immigrants came primarily from the petit bourgeoisie, and women from this developing world found themselves on barren hilltops, cut off and inaccessible, on shifting sands, in settlements without paving, stores or running water, in a country with a harsh and unfamiliar climate, wracked by disease and other dangers.
Under these conditions, which involved sacrificing everything they had hitherto known, they bore their gray, everyday burdens heroically and indefatigably. Most of them paid a high price: premature aging, burnout, the sacrifice of the possibility of self-development, miscarriage, deaths of children and spouses—all without knowing whether their sacrifices would bring the longed-for result: building Jewish settlements and villages in Palestine.
A fairly large group of women in the moshavot were in fact settlers in their own right, who acted as heads of families without a man beside them. This type can be divided into two: widows and farm owners.
Widows: The many victims that pioneering in the first moshavot claimed left numerous women as heads of their families, who had to manage their farms or find sources of income. In Haderah, there were many “swamp widows,” while in Zikhron Ya’akov an original solution was found for families in this situation, when the administration gave them stores and trading services. In other instances, the widows cried out to the administration for help in supporting their families: for example, the appeal of Mrs. Nahumovsky of Yavne’el, whose husband was killed following an internal quarrel at the moshavah during its very first days and who was left helpless. In Kefar Tavor, Widow Kraus ran the household for many years. In all these cases, the burden of housekeeping fell on the widows’ shoulders until their sons were old enough to help.
Farm Owners: These were women who arrived in Israel with their sons and daughters, with the aim of running their own farms. In the southern moshavot, women such as Batia Makov and Golda Miloslavsky, who became shining examples for their generation, stood out. Batia Makov was a Polish businesswoman who joined the Menuhah ve-Nahalah movement, left her home and husband and came to Erez Israel alone with the first settlers of Rehovot. There she established her own farm and nurtured a generation of settlers on her own. Her household and farm were on the whole well established, and the founders of the moshavah willingly heeded her advice in the course of various discussions on the desired direction of development. Nevertheless, Batia Makov could not be elected to office in the moshavah, since such liberal ideas as women’s suffrage had not yet arrived even there.
Golda Miloslavsky (1853–1907) arrived in Palestine as a widow and bought an estate in Nes Ziyyonah. She was one of the first settlers there, and together with her son-in-law ran a farm there to the end of her life. Hayyim Hisin (1865–1932) describes her as follows:
I was amazed by the few settlers in this tiny settlement, who tenaciously fight the crabgrass. A lean old woman with sunken cheeks and a sharp nose and sparkling, alert eyes ran hither and thither among the workers. She was a widow … and once she had saved up two or three thousand after her husband’s death, she intended to buy a small plot of land in the country. She had already invited her daughter and son-in-law and they too were in the field. Still, she did not rely upon them but supervised everything herself, running from worker to worker, gathering the pulled-up weeds in a basket. It was a wonder that such a withered body could stand on its feet at all.
In time, one of the terrible things she experienced was the death of her youngest son. With no doctor nearby, she ran through the sand all the way to Rishon le-Zion with the child in her arms, hoping to revive him.
Another farm owner—though not on a moshavah—was Sarah-Itta Fellman (1861–1936), whose husband Dov died in 1884, immediately on arrival in Erez Israel and after they had settled in Sumeil, near Jaffa (today in the center of Tel Aviv). She raised her children, ran the household by herself until her children were able to help her, and did not abandon “Pardes Fellman” when she found herself alone, having to deal with the daily burden in a completely strange environment.
This scenario repeated itself on the moshavot in the Galilee, where women in Yesud ha-Ma’alah, Rosh Pinnah and Mishmar ha-Yarden ran the family farms with the help of their grown-up children. In the lower Galilee, women stood out as an important component of the family farms because the second generation was now settling in the moshavot, and these included women who were accustomed to agricultural work or had been trained in it and could supervise complicated tasks not only in their yards but also in the fields at harvest or fruit-picking time. They did this while raising their children and running their households. Their contribution proved important to the great success of family farms in the lower Galilee moshavot, mainly in the tenancy system used there.
A unique type of woman stood out among the settlers and thereby rated some attention in literature, since they supported their husbands in settlement activity and did not hesitate to influence them and encourage them when times became difficult. One of the better-known of these was Olga Belkind-Hankin, the wife of Yehoshua Hankin (1854–1945). A midwife by profession, it was she who took things in hand upon the arrival of Vladimir Tiomkin (1861–1927) and the ensuing crisis. Not only did she urge Hankin to take risks by buying land in Rehovot, but also, as many businesses failed when the crisis erupted, she was the one who pushed to complete the purchases of areas such as Haderah, and helped her husband stabilize his business dealings. A similar case was Feige Lehrer, the wife of Reuven (1833–1917), who founded the farm in Wadi Hanin which later became Nes Ziyyonah. From their arrival in Erez Israel in 1882 until the settlement of workers nearby in the later 1880s, Feige stood beside Reuven during the hard times of isolation, difficult struggles to keep the independent farm going, and the absence of the living conditions they had been used to on their farm in Russia. For days on end, Feige was left alone in the farm at Wadi Hanin, unwilling to retreat even at times of famine and crisis. Feige kept the household going, and along with Reuven she developed beekeeping, in which they were pioneers, and labored on the farm for many years after his death (she herself lived to the age of 106). Bertha Feinberg, wife of Yosef (1855–1902), supported her husband in their wanderings and during the difficult time when they had to leave Rishon le-Zion, which they had helped to found. Fanya Feinberg, mother of Avshalom Feinberg (1889–1917), who was co-founder of the Nili pro-British espionage group in Palestine during World War I, ran her household alone for eleven years. Baila Eisenberg, wife of Aharon (1864–1932), headed the women settlers of Rehovot in their confrontation with the Turkish soldiers who had come to supervise the building of the moshavah. Baila Meller was “the mother of the moshavah” of Mazkeret Batyah. All these women are examples of the strong woman, who fought fearlessly for her rights but whom history failed to remember for posterity.
Many farmers’ daughters, who arrived in the country at various ages, received professional training in several essential fields such as medicine, pharmacy and education. In most cases, Baron Rothschild’s administration helped by sending the women to Europe for training. In some cases, the profession, such as midwifery, was passed down from generation to generation. Indeed, it is hard to imagine daily life on the moshavah without midwives, kindergarten teachers, schoolteachers, medics and pharmacists. Only a few of them are known from the literature about this period, and most of them have remained anonymous. Mili Hochberg, known as “the saint,” was from Nes Ziyyonah, but when her husband’s crop and her own failed, she supported the family as a medic in Mikveh Israel and even traveled to the United States for additional training in the field—but committed suicide there. Naomi Shapira came from Zikhron Ya’akov to Kinneret and worked with Hefetz, a medic and pharmacist. The diary she left is a rich source of information on the daily life in the moshavot and in the kevuzot that worked at Kinneret.
The schoolteachers and kindergarten teachers are better known. They took upon themselves one of the most difficult jobs in the national revival enterprise other than that of settling the land; the task of teaching Hebrew as a day-to-day language to the young generation on the moshavot. Much has been written and documented about these teachers, and names like Epstein, Gur, Vilkomitch, Ehrlich, Antebi and Yudilovitch are known as the foundation stones of Hebrew education in Erez Israel. But no less active in teaching and education were Hannah Drobin of Rishon le-Zion, Mina Fuchs of Ekron, Dinah Grinker of Petah Tikvah, Elisheva Bassvitch of Metullah, and Marie Koffman of Zikhron Ya’akov. The latter’s arrival at the moshavah and her appointment as school principal caused the resignation of the writer and teacher Ze’ev Ya’avetz, who could not bear the idea of such sacrilege.
The first Hebrew kindergarten teacher in Rishon le-Zion, Esther Shapira, was educated at the Evelina de Rothschild school in Jerusalem. Elisheva (Gissin) Efrat worked with her briefly before taking a job first in Petah Tikvah and then in Jerusalem. Other kindergarten teachers whom she trained were Yehudit Harrari of Rehovot, Shifrah Kumarov of Nes Ziyyonah and Leah Mazeh of Tel Aviv. In 1911, a group of kindergarten teachers who had trained in the Pestalozzi-Fröbel system in Berlin returned to the country: Sarah Epstein, Temima Sokhovolsky, Tirza Katinka, Haya Broide, Shulamit Flaum and Hasya Sukenik-Feinsod. They laid the foundations of the Hebrew kindergarten and made an enormous contribution to the development of a revived Hebrew culture throughout the Yishuv.
The following women became well known in midwifery and medicine: Olga Belkind-Hankin, Fanya Belkind, Sarah Silberman of Petah Tikvah and Dr. Esther Ginsburg (the sister of Ahad Ha-Am, 1856–1927), who worked in Haifa and also took care of members of the moshavot.
Thus, on the moshavot and in the social circles connected to them there developed a unique class of women who engaged in the free professions and whose economic status was unaffected by their marital status. Their work, usually as salaried employees, allowed them to establish themselves on their own, move freely from place to place and develop their personalities as they saw fit. In this way they were very different from the rest of the women of the moshavot.
It is worth relating separately to a small group of moshavot women who laid the foundations for the revival of Hebrew culture, particularly literature, even if only to stress the fact that they were active even in the earliest days of settlement. There has already been considerable literary and historical analysis of their work, and it reveals that the work of Nehama Pukhachewsky, Yehudit Harrari, Hannah Barnett and Esther Raab reflect the revival of Hebrew culture in the country. Their work provides the research on this period with both its prosaic and poetic aspects, but also excels in describing the discrimination against women and their inferior status at the time.
The women of the moshavah were not, therefore, some homogeneous and anonymous composite, made from a single mold to be defined as “the farmer’s wife.” They were different types of people who performed varied activities, even if most of those have disappeared among the generalizations of historiography on the period. The real image of the woman is reflected precisely in the bright light of her gray daily grind of building the Yishuv. Unlike the approach that seeks to gauge women’s accomplishments by political and organizational standards, for example by considering whether they rose to the level of public leadership and visibility, the different “types” of women on the moshavah reflect their practical roles and tasks in building the Yishuv at its very beginning, as well as their essential and important contribution to achieving its success. Because the women’s role was ignored not only in leadership and public representation but also in the general historiography of the Yishuv, it was hard for anyone researching women’s part in building the Yishuv to discern the full impact of women’s function and their contribution to it. The researcher was often dazzled by the exaggerated overemphasis on the few but dominant women activists, and tried to project that image onto all the women of the time, thus contributing to the disappearance of other women from the written history of the beginning of the Yishuv. Similarly, the emphasis on the question of women’s equality detracted from research and description that would provide more basic and inventory-like information about women from which it would be possible to draw conclusions about their functions and their role in the settlement enterprise.
Whoever scrutinizes the development of Jewish settlement and discerns women’s contribution in that field not from a social or political perspective but from that of their practical contribution to the creation taking shape in the country will reach different conclusions. Revelation of the role and activity of many women shows us the practical, day-to-day reality of the time, enabling us to see a fabric of settlement in which women play a decisive role due to their ability to withstand the difficult tests of settling down under the country’s harsh conditions. Their share in the project finds expression in the simple support they gave to their husbands, in shouldering the burden of housework and farmyard, raising and educating the children, and performing a long series of vital professional tasks in teaching, medicine and the services.
Perseverance, keeping the home and family life going and raising the next generation—all these fell upon the shoulders of women in the moshavah. The test of settlement lay not in political or business leadership but in daily life, steadfastness, holding onto what existed under severe conditions—things that could not have been successfully accomplished if not for the women.
Women added farm work and professional skills to their other tasks, which allowed them to participate actively in achieving the most exalted goal of rural Zionist settlement at its outset: the creation of a new Jew, who lives on his land and derives his livelihood from it. Not only was woman in the moshavah herself such a new human being, and not only did she herself participate in the general pioneering enterprise, but she became the rearer and shaper of a new generation, a generation of farmers and Jewish workers of the land in Erez Israel.
Aaronsohn, Ran. “Women and Everyday Life at the Beginning of the Jewish Settlement in Erez Israel.” Proceedings of the World Jewish Studies Congress 10 (B), Jerusalem: 1989, 305–311; Berlowitz, Yaffa. Stories of First Aliyah Women. Tel Aviv: 1984; Ben-Artzi, Yossi. “Between Farmer and Laborer: Women in Early Jewish Settlements in Palestine 1882–1914.” In A Window on the Lives of Women in Jewish Societies, edited by Yael Azmon, 309–324. Jerusalem: 1995; Ben-Artzi, Yossi. “Have Gender Studies Changed Our Attitude towards the Historiography of the Aliyah and Settlement Process?” In Jewish Women in the Yishuv and Zionism: A Gender Perspective, edited by Margalith Shilo, Ruth Kark and Galit Hassan-Rokem, 26–44. Jerusalem: 2001; Shilo, Margalith. “Contribution of Women in the First Aliyah to Agriculture and Hebrew Education.” Contemporary Jewry 9 (1995): 121–147; Smilansky, Moshe. Family of the Land. Tel Aviv: 1943.