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Shoshana Persitz

1893 – 1969

by Racheli Edelman

Shoshana Persitz, an ardent Zionist, publisher of classical literature for children and a three-term member of the Israel Knesset, was born in Kiev, Russia on November 16, 1893. Her father, Hillel Zlatopolski (b. Yekaterinoslaw, now Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, 1868, d. Paris, 1932), was a wealthy merchant and manufacturer, one of the founders of Hovevei Sefat Ever (Lovers of the Hebrew language), which in 1917 developed into Tarbut, a chain of Hebrew-language schools and kindergartens in Russia and Poland. From 1909 until 1919, Shoshana served as secretary of Hovevei Sefat Ever. Her mother, Fania, née Mirkin, was a homemaker. Her brother, Moshe, died in Israel in 1956.

In order to enter high school, Shoshana had to pass a test of the numerus clausus system, which limited the number of Jewish children who could be admitted into the Russian educational system. One of the candidates, a Russian princess named Wittgenstein, asked Shoshana, who was known as a gifted writer, to write the entrance examination essay for her. Shoshana replied that she would first write the essay for her friend Manya (who later married Hayyim Nahman Bialik) and then for herself. If time allowed, she would also write the princess’s essay. When the angry princess called her a “dirty Jew,” Shoshana slapped her face. As a result, she was expelled from all high schools in Russia and was sent by her father to a girls’ boarding school in Germany. Returning to Russia in 1911, after completing her schooling, she became active in the Social Revolutionary Party, which later developed into the General Zionist movement.

In 1911, Shoshana married Joseph Persitz (1886–1925), a lawyer. Together with her father’s family, the couple moved to Moscow. The Persitz couple spent their honeymoon in Palestine, bringing back to Russia a teacher who would teach their children to become fluent Hebrew speakers. Akiva, the oldest, born in 1912, became a lawyer and banker. Shulamit (b. 1916) married Gershom Schocken (1912-1990), a scion of the famous family of publishers. Rita (b. 1919) was the first woman radio announcer on the Kol Israel station. Yemima (b. 1922), an actress, was one of the founders of the Cameri Theater, and together with her husband Joseph Milo founded a school for actors in Tel Aviv.

In 1916, Shoshana Persitz founded the Omanut (Art) publishing house in Moscow. Her mission as a publisher was to enable Jewish children in Russia to speak Hebrew. In order to achieve this goal she published textbooks for all ages, ranging from kindergarten to teacher seminaries, as well as Hebrew translations of European literature. In addition, she founded a Zionist library for young people, in which she published books about the Land of Israel and all aspects of life there. The publishing house continued to operate in Moscow until 1918.

In 1918 the Persitz family moved to Paris, where Shoshana attended the Sorbonne and gained a master’s degree in literature. From Paris they moved to Frankfurt, Germany, where she resumed Hebrew publishing, and thence in 1921 to Bad Hamburg, where her literary salon for Hebrew authors included Bialik and S. Y. Agnon. In 1925 she went on aliyah with her four children and the coffin of her late husband, who had died of a heart attack a day before the emigration, at the age of thirty-nine.

In the very year of immigration, Persitz re-established the Omanut publishing house in a building she erected on Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv, which also housed a printing press and her own home. Omanut published the works of leading authors such as Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Hugh Lofting, Walter Scott, Hermann Hesse, Edmund d’Amicis, Amaliah Dietrich, Karin Michaels, Vladimir Korolenko, Friedrich Schiller, Carlo Collodi and others. In addition, she again developed a line of school books and the Zionist library, Ha-Noar (For Youth), which included monographs about Jewish cities, villages and kibbutzim in Palestine and on the Zionist history of the quest to establish a Jewish state in the Land of Israel.

From 1926 until 1935 Persitz was a member of the Tel Aviv city council, serving as head of its department of education. In this position she had a very considerable impact on the city’s educational system, ensuring decent pay for teachers, optimal physical conditions and the establishment of schools for pupils with special needs. The Balfour and Ha-Carmel schools were among the numerous modern school buildings erected during her long period in office.

Out of profound concern for the well-being of all pupils, she not only maximally extended school hours but also established after-school clubs, where workshops trained the pupils in various crafts and thus even earned them a small income. In 1968 she was made an honorary citizen of Tel Aviv. Persitz was also a member of the education committee of the Va’ad Le’ummi and, prior to the establishment of the state, a member of the Provisional State Council, representing the General Zionists.

A large woman who frequently sported a broad-brimmed hat at a jaunty angle, Persitz was dubbed Shoshana Rabba (Shoshana the Great) by her friend Bialik—a play on the name of the festival Hoshana Rabba, which falls during the Feast of Tabernacles. Beginning in 1949 and throughout its first three terms, until 1959, she also represented the General Zionists in the Knesset. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion offered her the post of minister of education, but although she herself was religiously observant the religious parties objected to the appointment, since she was a woman. However, throughout her years in the legislature she chaired the Knesset Education Committee and was instrumental in the passing of the State Education Law (1953), which replaced the schools, previously operated in accordance with various political ideologies, with one state general education system and one state-religious system.

Persitz also chaired the Federation of Jewish Relief Organizations of Great Britain (FJRO), which helped to bring clothing and food for new immigrant children and established many kindergartens for them.

In 1968 Persitz was awarded the Israel Prize for her achievements in education. She died of angina pectoris on the eve of Passover, 1969, and was buried on the Mount of Olives, alongside her husband and her father.

How to cite this page

Edelman, Racheli. "Shoshana Persitz." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 31, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/persitz-shoshana>.

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