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Second Aliyah: Women's Experience and Their Role in the Yishuv

by Margalit Shilo

Not without reason is the period of the Second Aliyah (1904–1914) held in high regard.

Not without reason is the period of the Second Aliyah (1904–1914) held in high regard. During this decade one can already discern in the New Yishuv and its various sectors (including the laborers) the beginnings of the Israeli milieu and most of its components: an active leadership in the fields of settlement, education, policy making, defense, and law; high schools and institutions of higher learning; and cultural organizations and institutions—Bezalel, the Hebrew Theater Lovers’ Circle, the Institute for Songs of Israel, the Hebrew Musical Society and Maccabi, to name but a few.

The belief that this period also saw the achievement of women’s equality in the labor sector has long since been proven false; however, a fresh look at the Second Aliyah reveals the following:

  1. In the “civil sector” (the accepted term for the non-labor segment of society), there was noticeable involvement, initiative and activity on the part of women, with the objective of achieving economic independence.
  2. Non-labor women were aware of their status as women in society and their role in building the land. Immediately after the imposition of the British Mandate (1920), some of them led the overt (or covert) struggle for women’s suffrage.
  3. Non-labor women did not consider masculine characteristics as the embodiment of the new Hebrew woman; rather, it was her involvement in all aspects of building the land that defined her identity.

The question of women’s identity in Jewish society in general and Yishuv society in particular has attracted some scholarly attention. The majority of the studies offer an approach that depicts the adoption of masculine characteristics by the new Hebrew woman and the excessive admiration for masculine labor as opposed to feminine labor. Nationalism, Zionism and masculinity were considered virtually synonymous. In her important article on gender and “Israeliness,” Billie Melman has already made the argument that “both femininity and masculinity were central components of the cultural model of the new individual in pre-State Palestine” (Melman 1997). The following is a description of the experience of non-labor women during the Second Aliyah and an elucidation of their feminine identity.

WOMEN’S INVOLVEMENT IN WORK OUTSIDE THE HOME

Among the women who immigrated to pre-state Palestine during this remarkable decade were several persons of initiative who sought to change the local reality and leave their imprint on the nascent cultural scene. Attempts to chart their worldview and their road to the Zionist movement have heretofore met with the familiar stumbling block with respect to women’s studies: a lack of sources. The following is an attempt to present the accomplishments of the outstanding urban women of the Second Aliyah, who fall under the definition of “civil,” or non-labor-affiliated. Most of them have yet to receive an in-depth biographical treatment.

Fania Metman-Cohen, a kindergarten teacher, schoolteacher and principal of a Zionist school prior to her aliyah, arrived in pre-State Palestine in the autumn of 1904 with her husband Yehuda Leib and their son. In 1906, together with her husband, she founded the Herzlia Hebrew Gymnasia in Jaffa—an act which was, in fact, the goal that inspired their aliyah. This educational institution was a “first” in several areas: the first Hebrew secondary school in Palestine, the first educational institution that identified itself as religiously neutral, and the first co-educational post-elementary institution. The fact of Fania Metman-Cohen’s involvement in the founding of the school doubtless had an influence on the institution’s approach to gender. While the standard of equality was not always realized (it was Fania who washed the school’s floors; Judith Harari, a young teacher who gave birth, was temporarily suspended from teaching; and Cila Feinberg (1894–1988) , a student, was forced to fight for the right to wear trousers in gym class, the Herzlia Hebrew Gymnasia did succeed in introducing the notion of equal education for males and females into the Hebrew educational system of pre-State Palestine.

In December 1907 Sarah Thon, who was involved in Zionist circles even before her marriage to Ya’akov Thon, immigrated to pre-State Palestine, where she represented the Women’s Association for Cultural Work in Palestine. Founded at the Eighth Zionist Congress in the Hague in 1907, the association set itself a double objective: to provide young women both with a means of livelihood and with a Hebrew education. Sarah Thon, who studied the promotion of handicraft skills both in Germany and in monasteries in Palestine, was successful in bringing this venture to fruition, founding craft workshops for hundreds of young women throughout the country, in Jaffa, Jerusalem, Tiberias, Ekron and Safed. Thon was considered the person who “founded this industry in our country for impoverished young maidens” (Hacohen 1922). She managed the project and was aware of the important message she was disseminating—economic independence and Hebrew culture as characteristics of the new Hebrew woman.

Shulamit Ruppin (1878–1912), a singer and music teacher, came on aliyah in 1908 with her husband Arthur Ruppin, director of the Palestine Office. In 1910 she founded the first music schools in Jaffa and Jerusalem. For a professional musician like herself, the fostering of music education went hand in hand with the revival of Jewish society in Palestine. The rapidly changing Israeli reality and the prevailing sentiment that “wonderful things are beginning to take place in this country” (Kolodny 2003) represented an incentive and a challenge to renewed activity. In addition to motivating Jewish musicians to immigrate to Palestine and teach at her institutions, Ruppin persuaded affluent Zionists from Russia to contribute to this project, which was so dear to her heart.

Hasya Sukenik Feinsod began her Zionist activity prior to immigrating to Palestine, fighting to obtain pedagogical training while still in Europe. She came on aliyah in 1912, specifically in order to run a Hebrew kindergarten and train student kindergarten teachers in the institutions of the Hilfsverein organization (Ezra) in Jerusalem. Sukenik Feinsod, who married the archeologist Eliezer Sukenik in Palestine, saw in the profession of kindergarten teaching a national tool of major importance through which “I could mend the rifts among our people, unite Jewish communities of different origins and start to build the nation from the ground up, to begin to educate a new generation” (Sukenik Feinsod 1966). Sukenik, who played an active role in the “Language Wars” over the use of Hebrew (1913), headed the Hebrew Seminary for Kindergarten Teachers founded in Jerusalem before World War I. (Two such seminaries were founded prior to this one by the Ezra organization in Jerusalem and by Hovevei Zion in Jaffa.)

The uniqueness of these four women (three of whom led the struggle for women’s suffrage in the Yishuv, while the other died at its inception) lies in the fact that they dared to create new institutions and develop spheres of activity that were hitherto unknown in the Yishuv. Alongside them came other women with similar goals—some alone, others accompanied by their husbands.

Sarah Azaryahu immigrated from Dvinsk in 1906 and joined her husband in teaching at the girls’ school in Jaffa, later serving as its principal. Following the British conquest of Ottoman Palestine in 1917, Azaryahu was among the leaders who established the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Erez Israel. Sarah Gliklich, a teacher of handicrafts, immigrated in 1908, also in order to teach at the girls’ school in Jaffa. In 1919, Gliklich independently published a pamphlet on the rights of women. Amitah Pinchover, German-born and religiously observant, immigrated in 1909 and was appointed principal of the girls’ school of the Ezra organization in Jerusalem. She was among the first to join the Union of Hebrew Women. Ada Geller arrived in Palestine in 1911 and for ten years ran the crafts workshop founded in Jerusalem by the Women’s Organization for Cultural Work in Palestine. She later became the first female accountant in Palestine (1931) and a member of the Union of Hebrew Women.

Kindergarten teaching, a classic women’s occupation, drew several young women to Palestine: Rivkah bat Levi Taub, a graduate of the Pestalozzi Froebel Haus Teachers’ Seminary in Berlin, immigrated to Palestine in 1908 and later became a major activist in the Jerusalem branch of the Union of Hebrew Women. Shulamit Flaum, who acquired training in Germany in innovative methods of early childhood education, immigrated in 1911. She later stated in her memoirs: “Indeed, I immigrated to Jerusalem to revitalize myself and help others lead a new life” (Flaum 1936). During World War I Flaum founded a Women’s League in Jerusalem. Yehudit Katinka came to Palestine two years later, in 1913. She too worked as a kindergarten teacher and was active in the Haifa branch of the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Erez Israel, along with Dina Mayer Blum, who immigrated from Germany in 1914 and ran the seminary for kindergarten teachers of the Hilfsverein organization (Ezra). Harari (1959) refers to nine additional kindergarten teachers in Haifa. Ira Jan (Esther Slopian) was born in Kishinev and graduated from the Moscow Art Academy. Known for her love affair with Bialik, she immigrated to Jerusalem in 1908, engaging in painting and teaching and publishing her stories in a number of periodicals in Palestine. In 1912 Anna Ticho followed her fiancé, Dr. Abraham Ticho, a well-known ophthalmologist, to Jerusalem where they married in November of that year. She became famous for her achievements as an artist. Dr. Helena Kagan, a pediatrician, immigrated to Palestine in 1914 and quickly earned the trust of Jerusalem’s residents. Some twenty-five years later she declared: “People come here to die in the Holy City; I came here to work” (Haaretz, June 21, 1967). Hannah (Helena) Thon, a journalist and translator who was also very involved in social work, came to Palestine for the first time in 1914. In 1921 she settled in Palestine and edited Ha-Ishah (founded in 1926), the first women’s magazine in Palestine.

Also worthy of mention in this context are women who immigrated with their families during the First Aliyah (1882–1903) and grew up in Palestine during the decade of the Second Aliyah, among them Judith Eisenberg Harari, a teacher at the Herzlia Gymnasia, and Chaya Braude Brenner and Tirzah Katinka, both kindergarten teachers. The three women traveled to Europe to study and then returned to Palestine. Similarly, the physician Dr. Sonia Belkind (1858–1943), sister of Bilu founder Yisrael Belkind, immigrated to Palestine in 1883, went to Geneva to study medicine and returned to Palestine in 1906. She served as a doctor at the Herzlia Gymnasia. Noteworthy among the outstanding women whose work had already attracted attention during the First Aliyah are the journalist Hemdah Ben Yehuda and the writer Nehamah Pukhachewsky, who were also both active in the women’s struggle for the right to vote.

Despite the accomplishments of these women, two documents pertaining to women’s occupations in Palestine during this decade are instructive: a letter from Menahem Sheinkin (1871–1924), director of Hovevei Zion’s information and immigration office in Jaffa, and an article by Sarah Thon published in the Zionist newspaper Die Welt in 1910. In response to a question about work opportunities for women in Palestine, Sheinkin explained that the occupations available in Palestine were as kindergarten teachers, seamstresses, medical assistants, midwives, masseuses, dentists and cooks. In his words: “Not only in Palestine but everywhere, it is harder for a woman to get by than for a man. Women receive inferior preparation for life’s struggles” (Sheinkin, 1907).

A somewhat more encouraging view was presented three years later by Sarah Thon. In an article entitled “Women’s Work in Palestine,” Thon declared that women’s work in Palestine is “extraordinarily important,” and that the goals of building the land are focused not only on making the desert bloom but also on achieving social reform—a reform that cannot take place without the involvement of women. She offers the following detailed breakdown of the occupations of Jewish women in Jaffa, Jerusalem, Tiberias and Haifa:

Women’s Occupations in Palestine: 1912

Occupations Jaffa Jerusalem Tiberias Haifa
Seamstress 180 1 + many 1 few
Sock maker 20      
Milliner 1 2–3    
Shop girl 2 1    
Cigarette maker 2 few    
Nurse 3 4    
Physician 2 1    
Dentist 1     2
Masseuse 3 3    
Midwife 10 few    
High school teacher 3      
Sewing teacher 2 2    
Kindergarten teacher 10 6 1 few
Music teacher 1 1    
Singing teacher 1      
Lace maker 30–40 150    
Ordinary teacher   10   1
Principal   2 1  
Artist 1      
Journalist 1      

But as vital as Sarah Thon considered women’s work in Palestine, the existing reality was a bitter disappointment. The above table confirms that only a small portion of urban Jewish women worked for a living and that most of these were employed in classically female professions: sewing, handicrafts, nursing and teaching. Thon notes that “at present [1910], there is not even one woman employed in agricultural work in Judea. In Samaria, there are two … And in the Galilee, there are a few women laborers, whose total number does not exceed eight” (Thon 1912).

To date, the available documentation does not support the theory that the number of women workers grew significantly with the rise in immigration up to 1914. Nonetheless, the memoirs and writings of those few women who forged new paths in the area of women’s occupations suggest that in Jaffa and Jerusalem there was a dawning awareness among women of the importance of female labor both for themselves and for the building of the land.

WOMEN’S AWARENESS OF ECONOMIC INDEPENDENCE AND THE IMPORTANCE OF FEMALE LABOR IN BUILDING THE LAND

Already during the First Aliyah, men had cited the importance of women’s Zionist awareness to the success of the national revival. The historian Joseph Klausner, who paid a lengthy visit to Palestine in 1911, noted the connection between the women’s intellectual level, in particular their knowledge of Hebrew, and the success of their families’ integration into the country: “… because most of them have not learned Hebrew, and they are the ones unable to bear the ‘tribulations of the Land of Israel’ since they have not been infused with a love of the Land, it is they who typically cause many families to leave the country …” (Klausner 1912–1913). Like many others, Klausner emphasized the importance of the women’s Hebrew cultural base, but did not make any reference to the question of their occupations.

The most noticeable change among the women immigrants of the Second Aliyah is their awareness of the need to devote themselves to working outside the home as well, as a path to both self-actualization and economic independence. The latter is cited by Arthur Ruppin as a goal that his wife Shulamit set for herself even prior to her immigration to Palestine. Hannah (Helena) Thon also emphasized that she began to work immediately upon completing her studies. Coupled with the desire for economic independence was an oft-cited additional factor unique to Palestine: the realization of the importance of working outside the home to the entire endeavor of building the land.

It is no coincidence that a number of women who left autobiographies with detailed accounts of their activities and ideas, related candidly to their personal development as working women in the Land of Israel. Sarah Azaryahu, a teacher who penned her life story when she was in her eighties, summed up her life in these words: “From the earliest days of my youth, I began to ponder two problems in particular: (a) the bitter fate of my wandering, persecuted people; (b) the downtrodden status of women in the family” (Azaryahu 1957, 12). Azaryahu asserted that she did not feel any sense of discrimination in her own family, but her concern for the status of women in society led her “intuitively” to the conclusion that “the independence of women in the material sense could raise their status” (ibid.). Like the male and female laborers of the Second Aliyah, Azaryahu saw her immigration to Palestine as a revolutionary act: “I am going to join a rather small group of eager and courageous revolutionaries” (ibid., 59). Her educational work, which centered on teaching girls in Jaffa, Jerusalem and Haifa, and her later role as head of the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Erez Israel, were directed towards solving the problems of the nation in general and women in particular. To her way of thinking, self-actualization, economic independence, social reform and national reform were inextricably interwoven.

The revealing autobiography of kindergarten teacher Shulamit Flaum, Bat Yisrael Nodedet (Wandering Daughter of Israel), offers a rare glimpse into the world of a young woman blessed with profound self-awareness. In her words: “I also believed in awakening the ‘I’ of women” (Flaum 1936, 48). While still residing in Germany, she read a great deal about famous Jewish women of both the recent and distant past. Flaum, who saw her life as “a holy mission of humaneness” (ibid., 30), stressed that in her youth she felt she had a threefold goal: achieving economic independence, educating the younger generation, and participating in the building of the Land. Flaum, who studied pedagogy in Germany, saw the care of children as a mission, but also as a means of “maintaining my independence with my own two hands—something I have always striven for” (ibid., 26). According to Flaum, her aliyah to Palestine originated in a “recognition of my responsibility to the history of my people and my desire to tie my destiny to that of the Jewish people” (ibid., 30). She admitted that she was eager to make the journey to Palestine, both because of her desire to get to know new worlds and her desire to “participate in the building of the new land of Israel and in educating the generation of the revival” (ibid., 34).

Judith Eisenberg Harari (1885–1979), who arrived in Palestine at the age of one year, experienced a crisis as the result of interrupting her work at the Herzlia Gymnasia upon the birth of her only son, Yizhar (1908–1978). Harari gave clear expression to her feelings, asking why her son and her husband did not occupy her entire world. She dreamt of activity, of deeds, of independence, of participating in the building of the Homeland. For Harari, these three values—educational activity, economic independence and building the homeland—were interconnected.

As stated, the desire of non-labor women for economic independence and the awakening of their feminine awareness were uniquely connected with their wish to play a significant role in the building of the land—and this theme recurs again and again in their writing. Aliyah to Palestine is frequently perceived as a transformation, a rebirth, the ultimate opportunity for self-actualization. In her letter to Bialik on the eve of her aliyah, the artist Ira Jan expressed this hope: “… because I wish to live the life of a free artist. There, in the Land of Israel, which has begun to attract me more and more each day …” (Kolodny 2003). And after her aliyah, she declared: “Something new is coming into being here. It is so uplifting when you see new things blossoming here.” In the non-labor sector of the Yishuv, a new Hebrew woman was being shaped; not a male Eve, as the identity of some of the prominent labor women, but as a new female Eve.

WOMEN’S INVOLVEMENT IN BUILDING THE LAND AS TYPIFIED BY THE NEW HEBREW CIVIL WOMAN

The importance and success of women in their work also demonstrated to the men that “it was folly to separate the two sexes and to accord men the highest status in public work,” as Klausner stated in his eulogy of Sarah Thon (Hacohen 1922). Women’s success contributed simultaneously to an awareness of equality between the sexes and an appreciation of their contribution to the building of the land. The inseparable link between the two emerges also from Hasya Sukenik Feinsod’s eulogy of Sarah Thon: “The attitude of the departed towards the women’s emancipation movement and her participation in public life stemmed not only from a desire to bring about equality between men and women in the new society being built before our eyes; she approached our work totally imbued with national feeling and Zionist awareness” (Leaves 1922).

The participation of women in the building of the land was the outstanding feature of the new Hebrew civil (i.e., non-labor) woman, of which Sarah Thon was the model par excellence. Both Thon and Harari clashed with women workers of the Second Aliyah, who took on masculine characteristics. In the words of Harari: “I am fearful of the excessive desire among our young women to resemble men” (Harari 1947). Thon was concerned about a similar process taking place “… out of their desire to be like men in all things” (Thon 1935). Likewise, the teacher Sarah Glicklich Slouschz, in her pamphlet “El ha-Ishah” (To Woman), published after World War I, made it clear that women should not deny their femininity: “Women must finally understand that their characteristics are indeed different from those of men. And in keeping with those characteristics, their activities are also different; but with respect to their worth, they are equal.”

The exclusion of non-labor women from the history of the Yishuv is a recognized fact. The accepted explanation grew out of the perception that the areas in which they worked were considered “feminine.” Tami Razi (2003) refers to the perpetuation of women’s inferiority precisely through the adoption of the familiar paradigm regarding the distinction between the public and private spheres, which in essence distinguishes between work that is considered “feminine” and work that is perceived as “masculine.” However, a study of women’s accomplishments and of women’s perceptions of these accomplishments in the decade of the Second Aliyah indicates the adoption of a different gender perspective. The non-labor women referred to above saw their educational, administrative, artistic and healthcare work as a public activity of major importance, aimed at charting new paths in the building of the nation and the land. The new women’s perspective succeeded in identifying every aspect of the new life in Palestine, including those aspects identified as feminine, as a communal-national achievement which was not defined as masculine. As Hasya Sukenik Feinsod stated in her eulogy of Sarah Thon: “[Her] private life merged with this work and became one. May she serve us as a symbol in our work” (Leaves, 10).

In the labor sector during the decade of the Second Aliyah the prevailing view favored the adoption of men’s work and masculine qualities as authentic features of the new Hebrew woman. Contrariwise, the intent here has been to demonstrate that in the civil sector women saw every Yishuv occupation, including those that were unmistakably feminine, as work of national importance, and they identified the qualities of the new Hebrew woman accordingly. In the view of the women of the civil sector, Zionism was not identified exclusively with masculinity. Examination of the experiences of non-labor women of the Second Aliyah demonstrates the complexity of the feminine experience in Yishuv society.

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More on Second Aliyah: Women's Experience and Their Role in the Yishuv
Union for Equal Right - still image [media]
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The Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Erez Israel was established in 1919 to campaign for women's suffrage in Palestine. Pictured here are the founders and leaders of the organization, which continued to battle for equal rights for women until the establishment of the State in 1948, when it merged with the WIZO organization. (L to R, seated): Hannah Berachyahu, Rosa Welt-Straus, Sarah Azaryahu, Hasya Sukenik-Feinsod, (standing):Masha Skivin, Nehel Golomb, Fania Metman-Cohen, Adah Twersky, Adah Geller.

Institution: Ha-Keren le-Ezrat ha-Isha, 1977

How to cite this page

Shilo, Margalit. "Second Aliyah: Women's Experience and Their Role in the Yishuv." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 18, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/second-aliyah-womens-experience-and-their-role-in-yishuv>.

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