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Miriam Baratz

December 23, 1889–1970

by Smadar Sinai

Miriam Baratz tends cows at Kevuzat Deganyah Aleph.

Courtesy of the Kevuzat Deganyah Aleph ArchiveWikimedia Commons.

In Brief

Born in Ukraine, Miriam Baratz immigrated to Palestine with her family in 1906 at the age of seventeen. Her persistence, enthusiasm, and physical strength earned her membership in the Haderah Commune. This group eventually established Deganyah Aleph, the first socialist Zionist farming commune in pre-state Israel and a precursor of the kibbutz. Miriam developed Deganyah’s dairy industry and after she had her first child, she began advocating for communal childcare and education. She viewed these possibilities as liberating for women members, enabling them to be mothers while also fulfilling themselves. Miriam also fought for a cooperative economic structure which freed women from financial dependence on their husbands. The gender paradigm she helped establish at Deganyah set a precedent of egalitarianism for the entire kibbutz movement.

I am a simple Jewish woman with no higher education. Many of my friends were more educated than I, but they are unrecognized. They remained anonymous and secluded, and I, the simple girl, made a name for myself and accomplished a great deal (Baratz, 58).

Miriam Ostrovsky Baratz was a founding member Kevuzat Deganyah Aleph, the first socialist Zionist farming commune in pre-state Israel and a precursor of the kibbutz. Originally named Umm Juni, this settlement was created by a group known as the “Hadera Commune,” of which Miriam was one of just three women members. As a member of this founding generation, Miriam’s efforts to promote egalitarianism had a profound impact on what would become the kibbutz movement.

Early Life

Miriam was born in Boguslav, Ukraine on December 23, 1889, one of six children. Her father, Rabbi Yosef Leib Ostrovsky, an ardent Zionist who made his living by leasing a ferry, imparted his Zionist values onto his entire family. When Miriam was twelve years old, her mother died, and her father remarried. Her older brothers, Asher and Aaron (1889–1979), immigrated to Palestine, and in their enthusiasm swept up the rest of the family. Her father traveled to Palestine in the summer of 1906 and bought a hundred and ten–dunam plot of land in Kefar Sava in central Palestine for planting almond trees.

On September 12, 1906, aged seventeen, Miriam immigrated to Palestine with some of her family. Young and carefree, she was nicknamed “the wild goat” (Baratz, 9). Her family settled in Petah Tikvah in order to prepare for the move to the property in Kefar Sava. For their livelihood, they opened an eatery for laborers in Kefar Sava, where Miriam worked as a cook and baker together with her grandparents. When the work was completed and the laborers left, the family returned to Petah Tikvah, which was a center for laborers. The family was left without livelihood or money and Miriam worked temporary jobs. Women agricultural workers were a rare sight in those days and farmers refused to employ them. In fact, “they were completely ostracized” (Baratz, 9). The farmer of Petah Tikvah, Krol, was unusual in that he abided by the principle of self-help and agreed to employ Miriam in his orchards. On Holiday held on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar (on the 15th day in Jerusalem) to commemorate the deliverance of the Jewish people in the Persian empire from a plot to eradicate them.Purim in 1907, preparations began for a nursery for planting the Herzl Forest in Ben Shemen, which was the first planting project on Jewish National Fund soil. It was there that Miriam first met the members of the “Romny Commune,” (Romny, Ukraine: 180 km NE of Kiev) who were among the planters. Despite the fact that she had nothing to eat, Miriam declined to join them as their housekeeper, a position typically filled by women pioneers who wanted to be agricultural laborers.

The Haderah Commune & Settlement in Umm Juni

On June 8, 1908, when members of the Romny Commune went to live at the “Kinneret Courtyard,” Miriam was called upon to replace their housekeeper Sarah Malkhin (1885–1949), who had fallen ill. She would be responsible for cooking, baking, laundry and cleaning in the residential building, even though she had no practical experience. Miriam remained there for four months before she was asked to go to the Lit. "village." The dominant pioneer settlement type of the Jews in Palestine between 1882moshavah Mizpah to work as a housekeeper for six young men who had moved there. She stayed at Mizpah for two months, where conditions were extremely difficult. Miriam then went to Haderah, where Jewish workers were needed to help pick chickpeas (humus). In Jaffa she reported to Menahem Sheinkin (1871–1924), the representative of Members of Hibbat ZionHovevei Zion in Palestine. When a delegation of Haderah farmers come to choose laborers for their work, Sheinkin recommended Miriam, who had impressed him with her persistence, enthusiasm and physical strength.

News spread in Haderah that “a woman laborer was coming” (Pirkei Hayyim,11). When the farmers refused to employ her, she offered to work without pay, and the next day she was a paid employee. Her colleagues from the “Romny Commune” asked her to stay in Haderah, “to live and work together” (ibid.). Work there was considered “pioneering” because of the malaria that raged in the area. The commune had just two women members, Sarah Malkhin, the housekeeper, and Miriam Ostrovsky, a laborer in the moshavah’s orchards. The “Haderah Commune” decided to accept Dr. Arthur Ruppin’s (1876–1943) proposal, that they move to Umm Juni (Deganyah Aleph) and cultivate the land there. Ten men and two women settled there on October 28, 1910.

Among the members of the Haderah commune was Joseph Baratz (1890–1968), whom Miriam met in Atlit while he was working at stonecutting together with her brother, Aaron. His move to Zikhron Ya’akov enabled them to meet frequently and they fell in love. Joseph joined the commune.

When Miriam’s family suffered economic disappointments in Palestine and returned to Boguslav, her father told her to return home. She set out in November 1910. “I left after four years in the country, right after we settled in Umm Juni, at my parents’ behest” (Memoirs, Miriam Baratz File, Deganyah Aleph Archives). When her father refused to allow her to return to Palestine, she ran away to Odessa and sailed back, posing as the twelve-year-old daughter of a Jewish man who listed her in his passport (beginning in 1904, the Ottoman regime allowed entry only to immigrants whose nationality was listed in a passport). Miriam returned to Umm Juni. She wrote: “When I returned, I did not find Umm Juni. I found Deganyah” (Pirkei Hayyim, 13).

Life in Deganyah

Joseph and Miriam were married in Deganyah on June 5, 1912, during the celebration of the group’s first harvest and their move to permanent living quarters. Their marriage marked Deganyah’s first family unit, which gave rise to fundamental questions about the role of family in Deganyah, since all its members had hitherto been single.

Joseph and Miriam Baratz lived in Deganyah for the rest of their lives; the rest of Miriam’s family immigrated to Israel in 1921 and settled in Kefar Sava, where their descendants live to this day. Joseph and Miriam Baratz had seven children: Gideon (1913–1988), Deborah (1915–1997), Amos (1919–2000), Yonah (b. 1921), Batya (1924–2001), Michal (1928–2002), and Eli (b. 1930). Their daughter Yonah and some of their grandchildren live on Deganyah, while the rest are scattered throughout the country, but maintain ongoing contact with each other. Joseph Baratz spent a great deal of his life on missions for the country, the party (Ha-Po’el ha-Za’ir and later in Mapai) and the 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 Movement, with the approval of Miriam, who remained on the kibbutz, raising their children.

For forty-five years, from the age of twenty-one to sixty-six, Miriam Baratz worked in the Deganyah cowshed. She established and developed the kibbutz’s dairy branch, a fairly novel area of activity on the new Hebrew settlements in Palestine during the 1910s. She learned how to deal with cows from the most basic level, and went abroad twice to learn about dairy farming from professionals – once to Holland for half a year in 1926–1927, and again to the United States in 1936. The Woman Farmer, a cooperative organization for insurance and veterinary services for Israeli livestock, awarded her its Zimmerman Prize for forty-five years of work in the dairy and for her contribution to promoting dairy farming in Israel. When she stopped working in the dairy, she went to work in the kitchen.

Miriam’s Legacy

Miriam and Joseph’s first child Gideon was born on May 31, 1913. He was regarded by kibbutz members as their communal child and as a source of pride: “Deganyah has borne a son” (Shemuel Dayan, Deganyah’s Twenty-Fifth Anniversary, 118). Miriam wished to return to work in the dairy after she recovered from the birth, and she took Gideon with her. However, the 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.kevuzah cried out in horror at the sight of the baby lying in the manger with flies covering his face. Miriam stood her ground and even took her two children, Gideon and Devorah, with her when she went for professional in-service training on the Ben Shemen Farm, since she found no other arrangements available. A solution came only when more children were born in the kevuzah and one of the women members was appointed to care for them so that their mothers would be able to return to work.

On September 8, 1916, the foundations for communal child care, as conceived by Joseph Busel (1891–1919), were laid. “Children belong to their parents, but the responsibility for caring for them and educating them falls on the entire group. All educational expenses shall be borne by the group as a whole” (Deganyah Aleph Archives, minutes of General Assembly 10, 1906: 4). The children’s dormitory and the position of caretaker were thus established in the kibbutz movement. Miriam Baratz fought for communal caretaking and education against those community members who did not understand her, since the kevuzah was not yet ready for parenthood and children. She saw these features as liberating for women members, since it would enable them to fulfill themselves while also caring for their children. Miriam can be viewed as the first mother of the kibbutz movement. She led the struggle which resulted in a collective solution to child care, allowing mothers to return to the workforce and contribute to the development of the group and the settlement.

Miriam Baratz helped to define a gender niche on Deganyah Aleph by ensuring opportunities for women in work and by creating an environment in which they could fulfill themselves. She fought inequality between the sexes in order to create an egalitarian, cooperative economic structure which freed women from financial dependence on their husbands to grant them occupational equality based on a woman’s right to choose whatever profession she wished. The gender paradigm she helped establish at Deganyah thus set a precedent of egalitarianism for the entire kibbutz movement. Miriam was a role model and an inspiration for the women workers’ movement, in which she was active together with other women of her generation. Active in the Po’el Za’ir and Mapai political parties, Miriam Baratz died on December 30, 1970.

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How to cite this page

Sinai, Smadar. "Miriam Baratz." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 31 December 1999. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 24, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/baratz-miriam>.