Yiddish: Women's Participation in Eastern European Yiddish Press (1862-1903)
1862 – 1903
Modern-day Yiddish press first appeared in Odessa in 1862, with the publication of Kol Mevasser as a Yiddish-language supplement to Ha-Meliz Hebrew weekly. However, only forty-one years later did the Yiddish press begin to appear on a daily basis in Eastern Europe. With his sharp commercial instincts, Alexander Zederbaum (1816–1893), the editor of Ha-Meliz, assumed that there would be a market for a paper written in a language understood by all. In the first issue of Kol Mevasser, on October 1, 1862, Zederbaum wrote that “the paper is written in simple Yiddish so that all people, even women, will be able to understand what is happening in the world.”
It is no accident that the paper appeared in Odessa. This international port city, over half of whose population at the time was Jewish, was the most modern in terms of Jewish life and constituted a cultural center and a magnet for the new Jewish intelligentsia of all stripes. At the time of the paper’s appearance, Jewish society was already undergoing a process of disintegration—partly imposed from the outside, in the form of Russification, and partly stemming from internal forces, in particular the spread of the Haskalah (Enlightenment) from Western to Eastern Europe.
These processes were accelerated in Odessa as a result of its cosmopolitan nature. The most significant consequence of this development was a constant engagement, at various levels, with modernity. The press, which was a product of this modernization, became the primary platform for the new ideas “imported” by the Haskalah, thereby accelerating the process of change. At the same time, because it was written in Yiddish, it inadvertently became a force for preservation in that it afforded representation to smaller, more conservative localities and, consequently, also to conservative ideas.
Women welcomed the appearance of the weekly Kol Mevasser in 1862, as evidenced by their correspondence with the newspaper. They saw a Yiddish-language newspaper as fulfilling three purposes: enabling the monitoring of the leadership of the communities and the management of their internal affairs; acquiring knowledge of world events and activities in other Jewish communities; and providing a means of expression in their own language—which, unlike Hebrew, was understood by every Jew, not only the elite.
Kol Mevasser also published Yiddish translations of European and Russian literature; among the translators were women who had received a general education, including the languages of their own country and of others. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the maskilim (intellectuals who adhered to the Haskalah movement) became increasingly anxious about the education of their daughters due to their concern that they might be left ignoramuses and therefore subject to superstitious beliefs. As a result, they expanded their educational network to include a number of girls’ schools, so that Jewish girls could henceforth acquire an education by means of private tutors in the home, at general schools and at Jewish schools for girls. Hence it is not surprising that women were among the translators from general (i.e., non-Jewish) literature.
Kol Mevasser met with success, appearing regularly until 1871 when Zederbaum relocated to St. Petersburg (and sporadically for another two years, under the editorship of Moses Beilinson [1835–1908]). The newspaper included an editorial page, political news from the Russian Empire and the world at large, literary works, and a correspondence section to which women also submitted letters. Among the paper’s contributors were Shalom Aleichem, Moses Lilienblum and Mordecai Spector (1858–1925).
For ten years, Zederbaum tried in vain to obtain a license to publish a Yiddish newspaper in St. Petersburg. He was finally granted one in 1881 and on October 1 of that year he began to publish a new Yiddish weekly, Dos Yidishe Folksblat (hereafter, DYF) in a similar format. Although the paper was apolitical, it took a clear stand in several areas, among them support for Jewish settlement in pre-State Palestine, and the attitude of Haskalah intellectuals toward the “productivization” of the Jews. But the paper’s primary importance lay in the fact that it enabled the various sectors of Jewish society to express themselves in a language that was spoken and understood by all.
Women were active contributors to the correspondence section and to the section entitled “Man shreibt unz” (People write to us). In 1887 Zederbaum ran into financial difficulties and was forced to transfer the paper to a publishing house owned by Yisrael Levy, who also served as editor. Beginning in 1888 the paper published a literary supplement edited by Judah Leib Kantor (1849–1915) and Yisrael Levy. It was in this supplement that Maria Lerner (1860–1927) published her novella “Odesser bilder.” The supplement appeared until February 27, 1890 (the paper closed down on March 10 of that year).
In 1899, the biweekly Der Yid, a periodical on literature and society, was launched. It was edited in Warsaw by Yehoshua Hana Rawnitzki (1859–1944) and M. Berkovich and published in Cracow to circumvent the censors. Like the DYF, this paper included literary works, feature articles, some Jewish and general news, and a correspondence section to which women contributed, albeit less than to the DYF. It was in this paper, which was shut down in 1902, that Rokhel Brokhes published three short stories: “Yankele” (issues 7 and 9, 1899); “Noch Der Arbeit” (After work, issues 19 and 20, 1899); and “Ervartung” (Anticipation, issues 22 and 23, 1901). In 1901 Salomea Perl (1869–1916) published her short story “Patke mit di Bremen” (Patke with the eyebrows) in this paper (issue 5), and Zelda Knizhnik her poems (issue 39, 1900; issues 5 and 8, 1901).
Yidishe Folkstsaytung, a weekly on Jewish affairs, first appeared in 1902, with Mordecai Spector as its literary editor and Dr. Hurvits as its editor in charge of commentaries and science. In 1903 the paper added a new section called Froyenvelt (Women’s world), to which women contributed articles, most of which dealt primarily with practical matters. Women writers were conspicuously absent from the commentary section; even in the section dedicated specifically to them, most of the contributors were men. However this section enabled women to take their first hesitant steps in commentary writing. It was also in this paper that Salomea Perl published her short story “Haykl Latnik” (Haykl the Patchmaker).
Published concurrently with these newspapers were periodicals, collections and one-time editions, in accordance with the capabilities and initiative of individual editors and publishers. One such quarterly was Hoysfraynd—A Historish-Literarish Buch, published in Warsaw, also under the editorship of Mordecai Spector. Three women writers published their works in this quarterly: Soreh Familiant, author of the short story “Hayntveltike chusen-kallah” (A modern bride and groom) (volume 3, 1894); Izabela (Izabela-Baile Fridberg, 1863–1938), the story “In der fremd” (Far from home) (volume 2, 1889); and Maria Lerner, who published her play Di aguna (The deserted wife) (volume 2, 1889), the only drama among the literary works.
In 1891 I. L. Peretz began publishing a biannual periodical in Warsaw on literature, society and economics, entitled Di Yidishe Bibliotek. Three poems by Rosa Goldshtayn (1870–n.d.) (in volume 1, 1891, and volume 2, 1892) and a novella by Izabela, entitled Nisht oysgehalten (Unbearable) (volume 1, 1891), appeared in this periodical.
Another vehicle for publishing literary and reference works was through special calendars issued at Rosh Hashanah. These included not only literature and articles, but also the addresses of professionals (doctors, lawyers and the like), addresses and advertisements for businesses, railway timetables and other essential information. One such calendar, published in Warsaw in 1894, Di Yidisher Familien Kalendar: A Bukh fir Literatur un Gezelshaft (The Jewish family calendar: A book of literature and society, edited by Mordecai Spector), included a short story by Bas Malka (Malka-Zlate Kotik) entitled “Dos fidele” (The little fiddler). Her long novella Srulik der protsentnik, oder Yankenyu (Srulik the middleman, or Yankenyu) was published as part of a collection entitled Dos heilige land (The Holy Land), edited by Berte Flekser and Yisroel Naroditski (Zhitomir 1891), which appeared in Berdichev earlier that same year. Another collection with a Zionist orientation, edited by Moses Leib Lilienblum, was Der Yiddisher Veker (The Jewish Awakener), published in Odessa 1887, in which Maria Lerner’s Zionist novella Ahaym appeared. Thus writing by women played a not insignificant role in the development of modern Jewish literature, although academic research in this area is sorely lacking.
There was nothing new about women writers in Yiddish. The significant innovation lay in their being published, which marked a fundamental change in their participation in public life and their desire to influence their community and society through their writing. Thus the Yiddish press enabled women to step out of their traditional domestic space into the public space which, for them, represented a new domain.
Correspondence was the first section in which women wrote for the press. A decade later, they began to express themselves in literary works as well, primarily in prose. In chronological terms, the articles offering practical advice were the last to appear, some forty years after the women began their “love affair” with the Yiddish press. This sequence illustrates the growing rifts in traditional Jewish society in the late nineteenth century, the transition from a collective to an individual identity, and the increasing range of identities available to the individual within Jewish society.
Due to the vast differences between these three forms of expression—correspondence, literature and articles dealing with practical matters— each of them needs to be explored separately.
The correspondence section in the Yiddish press of the late nineteenth century was multi-faceted (specifically in DYF and Der Yid). The section contained a combination of letters to the editor (at times, of a personal nature), reporting, gossip, social criticism, individual opinions and emotions, along with a smattering of responses to the paper’s contents. This type of press was close to its audience, engaging in an almost “familial” dialogue with them. Those who wrote to the correspondence sections did so on their own initiative. Many of them were from out-of-the-way locations—small towns and even villages, as opposed to the large cities.
The editor decided whether and where to include these contributions. In DYF (on which the present section is based; Der Yid received fewer submissions and consequently had fewer women contributors), the correspondence appeared in two places: in a section by that name and in the aforementioned “Man shreibt unz.” There is no difference between them in the nature of the correspondence.
As stated, those who contributed to the correspondence section, about whom nothing is known beyond their names and their place of residence, wrote to the paper of their own accord, despite the difficulties they encountered, particularly in small localities that were, by nature, much more traditional than the cities. Nevertheless, the women correspondents made up roughly one quarter of the contributors (in the case of DYF, some sixty items out of all the correspondence were from women). Although the subjects of the women’s submissions were highly diverse, they were interconnected to some degree, providing a vivid portrait of Jewish life in the late nineteenth century.
Under the newspaper’s influence, the women became more critical of their communities. Their criticism related not only to matters of zedakah but also to the management and allocation of community funds; the local rabbis; hasidim and their courts; wealthy donors; and various other phenomena in their towns. Just how daring they were is evident from the correspondence of Rosalea Gershonowicz (issue 9, February 29, 1884), in which she complains of the rigidity of the rabbinic court in her city of Vilna, inasmuch as it prohibited the “koshering” of glassware and pots for Passover, which other cities permitted in such difficult times, when poverty was rampant and income was scarce. She noted that this ruling primarily affected the poor. The paper’s editor sided with her, calling on the esteemed rabbinic court of Vilna to alter its decree.
The women are particularly harsh in their criticism when the matter at hand touches them directly. Rivke Gershuni offers severe criticism of the religious disputes in her town of Kovel, specifically between the various hasidic courts, and of hasidim’s attitude toward women (issue 41, October 21, 1882). Regarding the latter, she relates that the women’s section of the synagogue is used to house goats driven there by synagogue members.
Especially shocking is correspondence from Chana Rosenberg of Zinkow (issue 40, October 14, 1883). She writes in great detail of a fire that broke out on Yom Kippur in the only synagogue in her city with a women’s section, which attracted worshippers from all the surrounding villages; thirty-two women and two children perished there on that day. As she describes it, the victims were trapped in the women’s section, the sole access to which was by way of a broken, neglected stairway. There was no ladder there to save them, and the door, which opened inward, was blocked by the panicked women pressing against it. She placed the blame on the mistaken sense of priorities of the affluent members of her community.
The state of the mikveh, according to the correspondents, was even worse. M. M. (as she identified herself) offered a particularly revolting description of the mikveh in her city of Siedlce (issue 36, September 12, 1884). She called upon the women not to rely on the men but to band together and build themselves a clean and proper mikveh.
The women correspondents are further infuriated when they are accused of responsibility for every local disaster that takes place. The same Chana Rosenberg who wrote of the terrible fire adds that the crazy fanatics in her city are looking for additional sins to heap on these wretched women, claiming that the catastrophe befell them because they wore strange head-coverings. Soreh Mikoczinski expresses her anger at the “zadik” (hasidic rabbi) who in his sermon on Shabbos Shuvah called upon all pious women to throw mud on the heads of women who do not shave their heads. Soreh Goldin recounts a similar case, in which the unshaven heads of the women were blamed for a children’s epidemic in her town. She adds that the women appealed to her to write to the paper about this matter (issue 40, August 9, 1884).
The women’s criticism was also directed at the heart of the communal-religious framework—the synagogue itself. In a letter from Tula (issue 26, June 25, 1887), Rosa Lifshits criticizes the granting of aliyas in the synagogue (when the men are called up to bless the Torah) to the highest bidders and to those who have ties with the gabbai (sexton), and also refers to the general atmosphere of mockery due to the numerous mistakes of the haftarah reader. The women’s rebellion against being blamed for tragedies and their biting criticism of the community’s elite attest to the effects of modernity on the fabric of traditional Jewish life even in the smaller localities.
The few references to education in the women’s letters demonstrate just how traditional and conservative this society still was. Of the four items of correspondence on education, two are from Odessa. One speaks of the establishment of a girls’ school in the city, initiated and run by women (issue 1, October 1, 1881), and the other describes a wealthy woman who contributed large sums to education despite her modern-orthodox home (issue 6, February 7, 1889).
While the women also express their approval of affluent men who donate money to the community’s charitable institutions, and rabbis who attend to the poor, they are quicker to offer criticism rather than praise.
No portrait of community life would be complete without the trivia—the gossip and the associated scandals. The women write about these as well. They tell of a killing which may or may not have been intentional; various swindlers, including a rabbi who takes money for healing the sick by beating them with willow branches; the daughter of a hasidic family who became pregnant by a goy (non-Jew) and whose father took her to a different city to have an abortion; love affairs, generally involving parents who are opposed to the marriage of their children; a romance that ended in a violent dispute between two families, which in turn involved the entire community as a result of the families attacking each other with shouts and blows in the synagogue during prayer.
The overall portrait that emerges is a harsh one, of poverty and economic insecurity, religious fanaticism and disputes between various religious streams and sects, misplaced emphases in the allocation of charitable contributions, an inadequate educational system and discrimination against women, expressed physically in the neglect of facilities intended for them, and socially in the casting of blame when catastrophes strike the community. In addition to all these negative phenomena, there are also indications of change in the women’s awareness of their status and their impact on the community, of their considerable involvement in community life and in charitable activities, their great sensitivity to poverty, and their shouldering of the burden of the struggle for survival, both personal and communal, in the face of two enormous, interconnected threats from without: the pogroms and emigration to America.
In 1881, in the wake of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, pogroms and anti-Jewish harassment began to spread, primarily in the south of Russia. They continued into the following year, gradually abating by 1884. The violence served to accelerate various processes that were already under way, among them emigration to America, whose inception has been fixed in the Jewish historical consciousness at 1881. The women’s correspondence includes detailed descriptions of pogroms and their consequences in various localities. A representative example is the letter from Miriam Kireh (issue 16, April 22, 1882), who describes a pogrom in Dubossary. She writes as the pogrom is actually taking place, noting that one thousand Jewish families have fled the city. (It was in Dubossary, interestingly enough, that a Jewish self-defense group was organized which actually managed to block the rioters and hold them off for two evenings.)
As with any minority amidst a larger community, there were also mixed marriages and love affairs that proved problematic for both sides; these, too, prompted letters to the paper as well as reports to the authorities. But these cases of Jewish-Christian romances were extremely few compared to the number of cases of anti-Jewish plotting and violence described in the letters. It is therefore not surprising that emigration to America was seen as a tempting solution.
Despite the small number of letters concerning emigration to America (four), their contents touch on most of the associated problems. In a letter written by Basya Brayne Pavkin of Nezhin (issue 18, March 6, 1882), she recounts that people speak constantly about emigrating and that more than a hundred families have already sold their property for one third of its value and emigrated. The train that passes through her town is filled with emigrants. Many of them are young women, because America lacks sufficient females. The fabric of the community is unraveling in this situation of panicked exodus. The towns are being emptied of the younger generation and the hasty marriages that are taking place open the door to numerous deceptions in this area and the creation of a serious problem of agunot . One example of this is a notice appearing in issue 1 (January 2, 1890), in which Minna Leah bas R. Mordecai Hillel Sendl asks that anyone with knowledge of her husband (here his description is provided) contact her immediately (she includes an address). In the notice, she writes that immediately following their marriage, as soon as he had laid hands on her dowry, her husband disappeared. There are two more notices in a similar vein.
In short, the women who submitted correspondence made use of the newspaper, an essentially modern medium, to help preserve the status quo, namely, a traditional lifestyle, and to scrutinize their superiors in the community hierarchy. Their criticism was not of traditional life per se but rather of the inappropriate way in which it was being conducted. Their involvement in charitable and mutual-aid organizations stemmed from genuine hardship and a desire to maintain what existed. The women accomplished all this amidst a reality which was extremely difficult in terms of their physical and economic security. They observed the disintegration of the traditional, stable framework of their lives, yet were incapable of halting this process.
The women writers whose (very limited) biographies appear in the literary lexicons share a number of common traits. The most obvious of these is the fact that they all came from homes of maskilim, in which most of the fathers wrote Hebrew (no information is provided about the mothers). The women were able to acquire an education in one of three ways: private tutors hired by their parents, the general system of education and vocational training, or the private educational system, which developed primarily from the 1840s onward. Thus, for example, Maria Lerner studied at a private Haskalah-oriented school for girls in Kishinev and Salomea Perl in Lublin (apparently also at a school of the private Haskalah-based educational system). It is likely that most of the others completed their studies in a formal school system of some sort (Salomea Perl, for example, graduated from the Université de Génève and also studied in Paris and London; it is hard to imagine that she could have done so without a formal education). The subject of education plays a prominent role in their work.
Another noteworthy point is that the women hailed from mid-sized to large cities in the southern regions of the Russian Empire: Izabela came from Grodno, Lerner from Berdichev, Rokhel Brokhes from Minsk, and so on. The urban environment was the natural setting for their work.
A third important fact is that they came from the very heart of the Pale of Settlement, from a Yiddish-speaking environment. We cannot know the extent of their familiarity with Hebrew, nor their knowledge of traditional Jewish literature in general, or of that devoted to women in particular (Ze’enah u-Re’enah, tkhines, etc.). In any event, their language includes almost no Hebrew words other than those that are an integral part of Yiddish. There are also very few references to traditional literature.
The common denominator of all these women was the Haskalah, including the disappointment with the movement that was characteristic of the times. This comes across clearly in the subjects that they chose. As presented in their works, the parents’ generation were traditionalists. With the exception of one work by Rokhel Brokhes, “Ervartung,” there is no reference to relations between parents; the latter appear in the works solely in relation to their children. In Bas Malka’s work Srulik der protsentnik the father’s dream is that his son Yankenyu receive a general education in a gimnazjum and later study one of the free professions at university. The mother Leah is opposed to this, and complains that her husband Srulik is excluding her from his educational plans for their son (Dos heilige land, pp. 151–152).
The mother’s objection is typical of most of the mothers in the works in question, who are portrayed by the writers, with a heavy dose of criticism, as representing narrow-mindedness, traditionalism and resistance to progress. All of the mothers are in favor of a traditional education, which is the nakhes (parental pride) referred to by Yankenyu’s mother. On the other hand, the fathers, despite their piety, are the ones who initiate the notion of a secular education for their children. The father of Paulina, the protagonist of Nisht oysgehalten, also dreams of his oldest daughter studying in gimnazjum and permits her to study there despite the mother’s objections. This novella revolves entirely around the issue of secular education. The father’s dream is transmitted to the daughter, who dreams of continuing her studies in St. Petersburg. Ultimately, Paulina is defeated by poverty and tradition, which in the writers’ view go hand in hand, and she returns to the closed world of tradition.
According to the women writers, then, there are two options for acquiring an education: the traditional, conservative one, symbolized by the mothers, and the more modern, open one, represented by the fathers. Thus their criticism of the mothers is connected with their own worldview in general, and with their attitude towards education in particular, which, as stated, is a central theme in their work.
The dissimilarity in the portrayals of the fathers and mothers extends to other realms as well. The primary difference lies in the attitude of the writers towards each of the parents, with the fathers always presented in a positive light. This approach is taken to extremes in Maria Lerner’s play Di agunah, which centers around the daughter of an affluent family of merchants. The father’s bookkeeper and the young woman are in love with each other. Displeased with this turn of events, the father banishes the young man to another city and matches the daughter to a different young man. The mother beseeches the father to look carefully into the suitor’s background, but he is convinced of the correctness of his choice. The mother accepts this, whereupon she fades into the background. Following the marriage, it becomes apparent that the young man is a dissolute swindler. The father travels to his daughter’s city and rescues her from the husband, who takes revenge on his wife by disappearing, thereby making her an agunah. Although the father is the cause of his daughter’s tragedy, she does not blame him. Moreover, when he weeps and regrets his actions and begs for forgiveness, his daughter says to him: “Papa! What do you mean ‘forgive’? What are you to blame for?”
In another work by the same writer, Der odesser bilder, the mother is secondary in importance to her daughter, the heroine of the work, whom she rejects. The mother torments the daughter ceaselessly. The only periods of respite are when the daughter can be of some use to the mother. Ultimately, the mother matches her off in a “business transaction” that is convenient for the groom, and even more so, for the groom’s mother. When the daughter becomes aware of this, she starves herself to death.
The negative attitude of the writers towards the mother figure is also related to their critical view of loveless arranged marriages. In two of the works, it is the traditional mother who is the instigator of the matches. Even in Di agunah, in which the father initiates the daughter’s failed match, it is the mother who informs the father of the love between the daughter and the bookkeeper, after which the loved one is banished. In the play, the father arranges the daughter’s marriage in the bourgeois manner, by inviting the young man to his home. At the end of the play, the daughter approves of this method when she and her second husband, the beloved bookkeeper, speak of their own daughter’s wedding. In this conversation, they both agree that it is vital to get to know the groom, and especially his family. According to this bourgeois approach, the father fulfilled his duty. It is the daughter’s consent to a loveless marriage that is the source of the tragedy, and not the banishing of the daughter’s loved one by the father and her betrothal to another whom the father considers more worthy but who is later revealed to be a degenerate fraud.
The attitude of the women writers towards the mother is at best neutral and in most cases negative. They display no understanding or identification whatsoever with regard to her. By contrast, in the sole work that portrays a violent father, “Yankele” by Rokhel Brokhes, his behavior is attributed to the poverty brought on the family by his illness.
Thus in the context of the parents’ generation the mother and father present two options for identification: a negative option marked by traditional conservatism, religious piety, narrow-mindedness and ugliness, which the writers associate with the mother; and an option of openness, understanding and progress combined with a traditional background, which they associate with the father. Despite the fact that most of them come from the homes of maskilim, such a family model is hardly ever presented.
While there is an attempt to construct well-rounded characters in portraying the figures of the traditional father and mother, no such effort is made with regard to the bourgeois parents. They exist in the works as a backdrop and are described in broad, stereotypical strokes. The mother plays the piano (Nisht oysgehalten) or advises the father (Di agunah); the father is clean-shaven, and gives a speech at his daughter’s graduation ceremony from the gimnazjum (Nisht oysgehalten); both parents encourage their daughter in her studies, and so forth. All the portrayals focus on the externals, in keeping with the conventions of the time.
The members of the writers’ generation, who make up the sole protagonists in most of the novellas and the play (in three of the short stories, the heroes are children, and in three others, they are fathers of traditional families), cover the full range of social options available to young people of this era. The heroine of Maria Lerner’s novella Ahaym passes through virtually every variation of social identity known to the young Jewish intelligentsia of the late nineteenth century. She is born in a medium-sized city of merchants to an open, traditional family already showing the first signs of the Haskalah influence, moves to the big city and completes her general gimnazjum studies there, follows her love, a non-Jewish revolutionary, to St. Petersburg, and almost converts to Christianity and marries him. But after he and his father take part in the pogroms, she returns home, ultimately fulfilling her father’s dream and journeying to Palestine. This protagonist also reflects the movement for women’s equality and speaks of the as yet unattained egalitarian-feminist model of family: “For me, that sort of life is not possible. I wouldn’t be content just to eat, sleep, take care of the children. … The men that one can live with like friends are not yet here. The best of them want a wife, not a friend/companion” (Der yidisher veker, 30).
It is interesting to note that the younger generation, in one way or another, fulfills the dreams or aspirations of at least one of the parents. If they rebel, they eventually come home. The heroine of Rokhel Brokhes’s “Ervartung” flees her home in the village to marry her beloved, a learned Jewish teacher who is her entire life. They live in a small town and her father reconciles himself to the match. The heroine of Ahaym also returns to her home and realizes her father’s dream through her journey to Palestine. The only one who does not come home alive is the hero of “Srulik der protsentnik,” who travels to the big city to study at university, loses his mind and takes his own life.
This work by Bas Malka is representative of the overall attitude of the women writers to the shtetl, the town and the city. Interestingly enough, already in the late nineteenth century, all the writers in question (with the exception of Maria Lerner) relate nostalgically to the shtetl, which they perceive as the wellspring of authentic Jewish life. Yankenyu’s family relocates twice, each time to a larger city, so that he can graduate from a gimnazjum. Each move advances the hero another level in his studies but distances him further from his Jewishness, until the big city eventually kills him.
The works of Salomea Perl offer a positive and loving description of two fathers in a shtetl. Patke (of “Patke mit di bremen”), a destitute man, is saving every penny to marry off his daughter. The daughter, who works for an affluent family, dreams of becoming wealthy, and when her father shows her the meager “fortune” he has saved for her, she rebuffs him disdainfully. The second father is Haykl (“Haykl latnik”), a simple tailor content with his life in the shtetl, in sharp contrast to another character, also a tailor, who is modern, Zionist and competitive and whose son is already “guzzling treif food.”
Between the shtetl and the big city, we have the medium-sized town. This is the writers’ natural environment and the one where they feel most comfortable. It poses no threat to their identity and as a result does not elicit any particular attitude, either negative or nostalgic. It simply exists. Thus the writers give voice to an urban culture that looks back nostalgically at its past but does not in fact wish to revert to it.
This attitude on the part of the writers, like their view of education and of their peers, places them squarely with the moderate maskilim who have lost faith in the Haskalah, primarily because it led the way to assimilation. They engage in a dialogue with modernity from a preservationist viewpoint.
The poems are too few in number to represent any specific orientation. Rosa Goldshtayn’s poetry expresses a profound identification with her people and their suffering, and in this sense, these are national poems. What makes them noteworthy is the lack of a traditional perspective. The poet feels connected to her people through their history and their pain, rather than through belief or religion.
The poems of Zelda Knizhnik are lyrical and personal. They make use of all the poetic conventions of the time, in particular the drawing of parallels between the weather and one’s inner moods.
To summarize, the works described above form a didactic, self-aware, tendentious body of literature that expresses the views of the moderate Haskalah. Nevertheless, they do not seek to propagandize. The women write of subjects that are close to their heart, shaping full and complex human characters and making use of the conventions and genres of the era—a fact that partly explains the sometimes-extreme nature of the portrayals.
The “Froyenvelt” section that appeared in the Yidishe Folkstsaytung was the first in the Yiddish press in the Russian Empire to be devoted entirely to issues relating to women. Most of the material published in it was still written by men, but in 1903 almost every issue contained an article by a woman, with seven such articles in total (the paper was closed in October of that year; most of the articles appeared in two parts). Five of them deal with practical information for women, while the other two are opinion pieces. This section was a reflection of affluent urban Jewish society and its bourgeois attitudes. The increase in the number of articles written by women, as well as their actual content, attests, on the one hand, to the ease that the women felt with this section, and on the other, to the penetration of urban Jewish society by modern streams of thought regarding women’s equality.
For the most part, the women writers refrain from touching on Jewish questions; nor do the articles refer directly to Jewish tradition, with the exception of one piece, which criticizes the emancipation of women. A representative example is the article by Shoshana Rabinovits, “Vi men zol mit di kinder zikh shpiln, lernen un shmuesn” (How to play, teach, and talk with children) (issues 29–30, July 15 and 22, 1903). The article, as its title suggests, offers guidance to mothers on how to educate their children between the ages of two to three and five to six. The primary focus of the article is education in the broader sense, including physical education, attention to the child’s motor development, instruction in the natural sciences, as well as encouraging the child’s curiosity by providing matter-of-fact answers to his questions, and most importantly, setting aside special time for play and conversation. These are modern principles that still apply today, and the article offers various suggestions on how to implement them. Not one of the examples, however, is drawn from Jewish tradition or refers to it in any way.
In another article—“Froyen melucha” ( issues 39, 42), the writer, Malca Goldman, suggests that the woman’s goal is presented as pleasing her husband. Through him and through his satisfaction with her, she gains entry into society and fulfills her identity and her natural aim in life:
These days, women can no longer sit isolated within their own four walls and not be seen by men. We cannot spend all our time knitting socks or mending shirts. Social life today is already highly developed. People come into frequent contact with one another, invite each other into their homes, see how other homes are run. … The woman must make every effort to see to it that the home is pleasing to her husband, so that he will not wish to go to strange homes. … Running the home includes everything, from food and furnishings to the broom and floor cloth (issue 42).
Even more illuminating is the article by Basya Hirshfeld entitled “Reform klaydung” (Reform attire), which is devoted entirely to the struggle against the corset. The title of the piece is taken from the anti-corset movement that originated in Austria in 1902 and spread to the rest of Europe. The article expresses the views of the women’s emancipation movement, using the corset as a symbol of the status of women. Liberation from the corset represents the liberation of women from their bonds in general:
The women complain that the men don’t permit them to free themselves, to be their equals. But who is to blame—you women, who don’t want to be liberated? You yourselves want to be apart from the men. The perfect example of this is the corset, from which you suffer so, but from which you nonetheless cannot part. … Don’t be so foolish! Because you imagine that it makes your figures look prettier, you make yourselves sick and weak … So long as you yourselves don’t know whether the men will like the reform clothing, you don’t want to wear it … for nothing is stranger than women’s folly!
In its content, this is the most revolutionary of the articles, although it too is not devoid of conservative bourgeois attitudes. A contrast to these attitudes is the article by Pauline Rabinovits, “Dos yidishe froyenglik” (The Jewish woman’s happiness) (issue 4, January 21, 1903). The article levels criticism at women’s emancipation, claiming that it does not bring women greater happiness. In the opinion of the author, the freedom of women to choose their spouse also carries with it the freedom of men not to marry in the first place. Together, this creates a covenant forged by both sides against marriage. The gist of her argument is that equality between the sexes harms Jewish family life, “the same pure and sacred family life that you are familiar with, that was always an example to other peoples.”
This is the only traditional voice among the articles; while this voice may still reflect the vast majority of the Jewish population, it is noticeably underrepresented in the body of articles studied, whose basic values reflect those of urban bourgeois society. This piece deals with the same questions addressed by Basya Hirshfeld’s anti-corset article, but from a different direction. Hirshfeld’s article is aimed outward, towards European society, whereas Rabinovits’s article is oriented inward, towards Jewish society. Its stance is very similar to that of the writers who express the views of the moderate Haskalah—views that support a dialogue with modernity, and changes in Jewish society; in other words, a broadening of Jewish frameworks but out of a desire to preserve the traditional Jewish society.
During the nineteenth century far-reaching changes took place in Jewish society. Among the consequences of these changes was the emergence of the Yiddish press which, in turn, served as a catalyst for these processes. The Yiddish press was welcomed by Jewish women, as it allowed them to move from the domestic into the public sphere and to have an impact upon the latter. Immediately upon the press’s appearance, women submitted correspondence and translations of foreign literary works. The correspondence section enabled those whose sole language was Yiddish to participate in shaping their society and to give vent to their sufferings. Accordingly, a sizeable proportion of the writers came from the small localities where Yiddish was the natural and exclusive language for most of the Jewish population—including, of course, the women. The latter saw it as a way to keep a watchful eye on the community leadership, a means of acquiring knowledge of events in other places, and an instrument of self-expression.
The subjects touched on by the women in their correspondence encompass virtually the entire fabric of Jewish communal life: portraits of their native city, a description of charitable activities and assorted community institutions, a little on education, relations with the surrounding non-Jews, pogroms and deportations, poverty, various pieces of gossip, and so forth. The women do not hesitate to criticize the community’s authorities, in three areas in particular: faulty management of financial resources, mistaken priorities, and negative attitudes toward women, as expressed in the state of the mikvehs and the women’s sections in synagogues, and the blaming of women for tragedies in the community. The thrust of the criticism is not against tradition per se but against the fact that false priorities are denying women the opportunity to lead a traditional life in the proper way.
The late 1880s saw the appearance of the first Yiddish literary works authored by women. In contrast to the women who contributed to the correspondence sections, most of whom came from small communities, the authors hailed from large and medium-sized cities and were all products of maskilic families, most of whose fathers (or other close relative) wrote for the Hebrew press. As one might expect, the subjects of their writings differ. Education plays a very important role in their works and is even the central theme in some cases. The women are sharply critical of traditional education, which is portrayed as a violent, neglected system whose end result is ignorance.
With regard to the parents’ generation, the father is described as a positive figure, who prods the children toward education and progress and has a better understanding of their goals. The mother, by contrast, represents the backward, closed-minded—sometimes even violent—tradition. The figures from the younger generation, to which the women writers belong, are a good deal more diverse and embody all the social options available to the young Jewish intelligentsia, from the traditional to the bourgeois, and all the way to assimilation and conversion, which are associated with the revolutionary movements. Their works also contain echoes of Zionism and the women’s emancipation movement, but for the most part they reflected the moderate Haskalah, whose overall values were bourgeois and preservationist. Thus they portray the shtetl in an idyllic/nostalgic manner, as a source of authentic Jewish life. This is the perspective of those who are already far removed from shtetl existence and are no longer familiar with it.
Articles written by women first appear in the early twentieth century (1903, to be exact). On the basis of their writing, these women were urban and modern, possessed bourgeois values, were aware of the modern women’s emancipation movement in Europe, and were struggling with its values.
Thus the three forms of expression examined here demonstrate the continuum between tradition and modernity and, in particular, the state of Jewish society at the close of the nineteenth century and the enormous rifts that divided it.
Citron, S. L. Di geshikhte fun der yidisher prese, 1863–1889 (History of the Yiddish press, 1863–1889) (Yiddish), vol. I. Vilna: 1923.
The first volume begins with the weekly Kol Mevasser (1862) (and even earlier, with Ha-Meliz, 1860), and ends with the closing down of Dos Yidishe Folksblat (1891). As one might expect, Zederbaum and his undertaking are the focus of this work; however, the author describes not only the above newspapers but every attempt to publish newspapers and periodicals in Yiddish. Citron describes in great detail the circumstances surrounding the appearance of each newspaper, the individuals involved, the various sections, the authors and columnists that wrote for them, and the context of the success or failure of each newspaper or periodical.
Feiner, Shmuel. “The Modern Jewish Woman: A Test Case in the Relationship between Haskalah and Modernity” (Hebrew). In Sexuality and the Family in History, edited by Israel Bartal and Isaiah Gafni, 253–303. Jerusalem: 1998.
The article describes the emergence of the Jewish modern woman in Western Europe of the eighteenth century and later in Eastern Europe in the latter half of the nineteenth century, “with the encouragement of upper- and middle-class families, who gave their daughters a European education without being influenced in any way by the ideology of the Jewish Haskalah.” While the maskilim initially assumed that their major struggle would be with intellectual ignorance on the part of women, they quickly discovered that they were dealing with modern Jewish women who had undergone an accelerated process of acculturation, and their major problem was how to exert control over this process. This led to doubts and concerns regarding the new figure of the modern Jewish woman and sparked a shift to “a certain idealization of the traditional family” and an impassioned defense of the status of women in the Jewish religion, which had largely been the province of the ‘moderate’ maskilim. Nevertheless, “intellectual women with literary abilities and maskilic drive did emerge,” leaving the maskilim perplexed and unable to formulate a uniform position. This article is based primarily on texts written in Hebrew.
Kirzhnits, A. Di yidishe prese in der gevezener Rusisher imperye, 1823–1916 (The Yiddish press in the former Russian Empire, 1823–1916) (Yiddish). Moscow-Cracow-Minsk: 1930.
This work is a detailed chronological catalog of all Yiddish newspapers, periodicals and one-time publications during the period in question. It is divided into three parts: In the first part, all newspapers and periodicals are listed in chronological order. The second part is devoted to one-time publications (collections, pamphlets for various festivals, and the like). The items in the first two parts are numbered in sequence. The third part consists of indexes and includes an alphabetized list of all items, divided in the same manner as the two previous sections; an index of place names; and an index of people’s names. Alongside each name in the index is printed the serial number of the item in which it appears. The book also includes an extensive bibliography of books on the Yiddish press written in Yiddish and Russian, together with two books in Hebrew.
For each item cited in the catalog, the author notes its type (weekly, quarterly, etc.), ideological affiliation, publisher, editor, place of publication and place of editing (if different), as well as the price of a subscription to the newspaper, or the price of one copy (in the case of one-time publications).
In smaller print, the author adds additional details such as changes in the place of publication or the editor, censorship difficulties, whether it was a legal or an underground publication, and so on.
Parush, Iris. Reading Jewish Women: Marginality and Modernization in Nineteenth Century Eastern European Jewish Society. Waltham, Mass.: 2004.
This work, which offers a feminist viewpoint, addresses the role of women in the evolution of the Jewish Haskalah. In the opinion of the author, the decisive role of women in the transformation of Jewish society in the nineteenth century stems from their marginality within that society. As a result of this marginality, they were not subjected to the same degree of scrutiny by the Jewish elites as were the men. The laxity of the “supervision” allowed them relative freedom, enabling them to read non-canonical literature in Yiddish and foreign languages. They brought this literature into their homes, thereby exposing themselves and their children to general literature (as opposed to strictly canonical works) and, with it, to the ideas of the European Enlightenment. “The reading times that the women set for themselves, alone or in the company of their children, created a type of ‘unrestricted space’ within their world. … Memoirs from the nineteenth century abound with testimonies to the fact that the reading of popular novels in Yiddish had a profound effect upon the women. Inspired by these novels, they began to gradually alter their worldview, becoming, sometimes unconsciously, accelerators of the process of change that took place in the Jewish society of their time” (p. 156).
“The impact of reading on women was manifest in a long list of behavioral patterns, among them the refusal of the daughters to be matched with religious scholars, the striking of secret ‘agreements’ with the younger members of the family regarding education; a questioning of the traditional social order; a tendency to abandon religious observance; daughters who ran away from their families in order to pursue an education; the adoption of radical and ‘feminist’ viewpoints; and, in extreme cases, even membership in revolutionary movements” (p. 244).
This book is a multidisciplinary study combining analytical tools from the fields of sociology, history and literature. It is based primarily on the biographies of male maskilim who describe the impact of the literature that their mothers read on their own embrace of Haskalah ideology. At the same time, the author presents the concerns of many of the maskilim and all the proponents of national revival, with respect to the “over-education” of women. “The threat emanating from the women’s space posed a danger not only to Jewish values but also to masculinity, the gender-based hierarchy, and the bourgeois-patriarchal family structure that the maskilim and the members of the revival movement sought to establish” (p. 245).
Stampfer, Shaul. “Gender Differentiation and Education of the Jewish Woman in Nineteenth-Century Eastern Europe.” Polin: A Journal of Polish-Jewish Studies 7 (1992).
This article is extremely important for an understanding of the status of women within the Jewish community, their reading habits, and their education. The author points out that women would read Ze’enah u-Re’enah and other Yiddish-language literature on a regular basis. This literature was considered inferior to the rabbinic-canonical writings, which were entirely in Hebrew. Moreover, the educational system for boys was formal and structured, while the girls lacked such a system and were taught via a wide range of educational methods. It is therefore mistaken, in the author’s opinion, to view the education provided by the formal school system as the sole criterion for judging the level of education in Jewish society.
In addition, the author also attributes the gender-based definitions and roles in traditional Jewish society to differences between the sexes in education and socialization.
Another contribution of this article lies in its presentation of statistics on the education of girls and boys, and their significance. At the same time, the article describes the changes that took place in Jewish society over the course of the nineteenth century.
Stanislawski, Michael. For Whom Do I Toil? Judah Leib Gordon and the Crisis of Russian Jewry. New York and Oxford: 1988, 128.
Werses, Shmuel. “Women’s Voices in the Yiddish Weekly Kol Mevasser” (Hebrew). In “Hakitsah, Ami”: Haskalah Literature in the Era of Modernization, 321–350. Jerusalem: 2001. Article first appeared in Khulyot 4 (Summer 1997): 53–82.
This article surveys everything written in the Kol Mevasser weekly on the subject of women, by both men and women. Werses makes the argument that the maskilim writing in Hebrew did not take note of the “social-cultural revolution taking place in the pages of Kol Mevasser with regard to the status of women, although Yiddish was their mother tongue.” One section of the essay is devoted to women readers of Kol Mevasser and their writing in the paper. At the close of the article, Werses asserts that studying the changes that occurred among Russian Jews in the 1860s solely on the basis of Hebrew literature and the Hebrew press yields an incomplete picture. By way of contrast, “the Yiddish newspaper of the same time period offers us a more faithful and realistic portrait, albeit formulated and expressed in a crude and unrefined style.”
Zalkin, Mordechai. The Dawning: The Jewish Haskalah in the Russian Empire in the 19th Century (Hebrew). Jerusalem: 2000.
A basic work for anyone interested in this period. “This book examines the early days of the Haskalah (Enlightenment) in the Russian Empire, primarily from a socioeconomic perspective. Different chapters describe the world of the individual maskil, the formation of small groups of maskilim, the social and economic world of the maskilim, the educational systems they founded, the cultural space they shaped, and their relations with traditional society” (from the book jacket).
The author points out the differences between the Haskalah in Eastern, Western and Central Europe, as well as the various forms of the Haskalah within Eastern Europe, noting that the Haskalah throughout the Russian Empire took on the character of its surroundings, which accounted for this diversity. He notes that “the central question in terms of delineating the Haskalah pertains to a large group of Jews whose spiritual and cultural world underwent a transformation, one of whose outstanding characteristics was the weakening of the connection with the cultural-Jewish focal point of identification.” Unlike the process of acculturation, however, whose objective was integration into external society, “the maskilim of Russia saw themselves as part and parcel of traditional Jewish society. It is not their intent to cut themselves off from the parent society and be absorbed into the Russian-Polish intelligentsia; on the contrary, they seek to create a type of ‘new Jew’ who combines tradition and modernity, conservatism and openness, extensive knowledge of Jewish canonical literature and a selective integration of the Christian-European cultural legacy” (p. 44).
In the sixth chapter (191–228), the author reviews the development of the Haskalah-influenced education system, including schools for girls, stating (211): “Before long, hundreds of Jewish girls had completed their studies in this system—a phenomenon whose ramifications were felt in two major areas: the first was the noticeable increase in the dissemination of Haskalah literature …; the second relates to the growth that took place in the Haskalah-based educational system, which can be attributed to many of the women graduates of the Haskalah school system, who sought to provide their children with the same education they were fortunate enough to have received in their youth.”