From her youth, the two issues Sara Azaryahu cared about most were women’s rights and Zionism. She became involved with the Zionist movement in her native Latvia as a teenager, and in 1906 she made Aliyah with her husband. They began teaching at a Hebrew girl’s school in Jaffa, whose mission was to create the new Hebrew woman. Moving from Jaffa to Haifa and then to Jerusalem, Azaryahu continued to teach at girl’s schools, and after WWI, she was active in the fight for equal rights for women in the Yishuv. After that battle was won, she devoted her time to aiding women with various legal problems.
Early Years & Development of Zionist Ideology
A teacher and activist on behalf of Hebrew women in Mandatory Palestine, Sara Azaryahu was born in Dinaburg (Dvinsk, Daugavpils), Latvia, into a traditional-modern family. Her father, Shmaryahu, the son of Aaron Shaul Zelig Meirov, rented a flour mill. Her mother, Bluma (née Eisenstein), was a homemaker. The couple had one other daughter. As a young girl Azaryahu studied Hebrew and Jewish subjects with a private tutor and later attended the gymnasium [high school]. As an adult, she was at first attracted to the Bund but soon moved to the circles of the Lit. "love of Zion." Movement whose aim was national renaissance of Jews and their return to Erez Israel. Began in Russia in 1882 in response to the pogroms of the previous year. Led to the formation of Bilu, the first modern aliyah movement.Hibbat Zion movement. In 1892 she established a young women’s group, Bnot Zion (Daughters of Zion), in Dinaburg. When Theodor Herzl founded the Zionist movement, she was impressed by what she perceived as his progressive attitude towards women. In her memoir she writes that from her youth she had been concerned with two major problems: the inferior status of the Jewish people and the inferior status of women. She wondered whether the two problems might be solved in Palestine. She believed that if women were allowed to study and work in order to support themselves, their status would improve. On her first short visit in 1897 to Ottoman Palestine with her sick sister, Azaryahu was surprised to encounter the new life flourishing in the Jewish colonies.
Teaching at Girls’ Schools & Making Aliyah
In 1901 Azaryahu married Yosef Ozerkowsky (later Azaryahu, 1872–1945) and together they went to Bern, Switzerland, to study education. They also took part in the fifth Zionist congress in Basel from December 26 to December 30, 1901. Financial problems compelled the Azaryahus to interrupt their studies and return to Russia. They both taught at a Hebrew school for girls in Golatha, near Odessa. Sara Azaryahu remembered her years of work at the school as one of the most cherished periods of her lifetime.
An invitation to her husband to come and teach in Rehovot in 1905 was their first step towards Lit. "ascent." A "calling up" to the Torah during its reading in the synagogue.aliyah. Since only Yosef had a work offer, he went alone while Sara Azaryahu stayed in Golata for another year with their young son Ya’akov. It was not the last time that the independent Sara chose to retain her job and join her husband later when circumstances permitted.
In the summer of 1906, both Yosef and Sara moved to Jaffa to work at the Hebrew girls’ school. Sara taught mathematics and geography, which were considered “male” subjects. The school in Jaffa had a unique character. Its yard was called the “autonomy,” since it was a circle of Hebrew speakers, and it served as the cultural center of the town’s Jewish Zionist intelligentsia. The teachers, who were so absorbed in the school’s problems that they never ceased discussing them even in their private gatherings, conceived of their work as a sacred mission. The school’s aim was to create the new Hebrew woman, and thus the new Hebrew society. One way this aim manifested itself was that male and female teachers earned equal salaries. In 1909 Sara and Yosef Azaryahu were among the 66 founders of the new Hebrew city of Tel Aviv.
The Fight for Equal Rights
During the very difficult period of World War I, the Azaryahus stayed in Haifa, where Sara taught at the Reali School. As the war ended, the Balfour Declaration (1917) and the British conquest of the land opened new horizons for them, as they did for the entire Jewish population. Sara established a women's group in Haifa that successfully fought for the right of the city’s Jewish women to vote for and participate in the local Jewish community's committee, which addressed issues relating to the Jewish population in the mixed town of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
In 1919, the Azaryahus moved to Jerusalem, where Sara headed a school for girls. Here again she was active in promoting women's rights, joining the new women’s party, the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Erez Israel, which was established in Jerusalem in the summer of 1919 and had branches throughout the country. The Union, whose slogan was “Equal legal rights for men and women,” had as its immediate aim that women should be able to take part in the elections of the new Asefat ha-Nivharim (the Elected Assembly), the Jewish parliament of Palestine, which was a voluntary institution (distinct from the British Mandatory government). The fight for women’s suffrage in the Female advocates in the rabbinic courtsYishuv lasted nearly eight years, from the end of 1917 to January 1926. Ultimately the women won—but the ultra-Orthodox community did not join the Asefat ha-Nivharim. Azaryahu described the women’s fight for equal rights at length in her two books: The Fight of Women for Equal Rights (1949) and My Life Story (1957). Azaryahu, who played a major part in the women’s union and was a delegate to the Asefat ha-Nivharim, saw in her achievement the answer to the two issues that were the most important in her life: Zionism and the woman’s problem. In her memoir she argues that the fight for equal rights was not only a women’s fight but rather a fight related to the quality of life in the new society in general.
After the women’s “battle” was won, Azaryahu devoted her time to aiding women with various legal problems. The Union established legal agencies for needy women. Azaryahu also served as a judge in the voluntary Jewish legal system, used for civil disputes, distinct from the court system run by the British (Beit Mishpat ha-Shalom ha-Ivri.)
In 1945, Yosef died of a heart attack, and in 1949 Sara went to live with her daughter Tehiya on A voluntary collective community, mainly agricultural, in which there is no private wealth and which is responsible for all the needs of its members and their families.Kibbutz Afikim. She died there in 1962.
In her autobiography Azaryahu barely mentions her husband or her four children, Ya’akov (1902–1987), Tehiyah (1907–1987), Gideon (1912–1914), and Arnan (1917- 2008). She apparently adopted the so-called male conception of separation between the public and the private spheres. She ended the story of her life describing her great achievement – gaining women's right to vote in the Jewish community of Ottoman Palestine.
Azaryahu, Sara. The Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Eretz Yisrael. Translated from the Hebrew by Marcia Freedman. Haifa: Women’s Aid Fund, 1980.
Azaryahu Sara. My Life Story. Tel Aviv, 1957. (Hebrew).
Shilo, Margalit. Girls of Liberty: The Struggle for Suffrage in Mandatory Palestine. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2016.