Maskilot, Nineteenth Century
In referring to Jewish women proponents of the Haskalah (Enlightenment) who wished to take part in the cultural and social revolution that the Haskalah movement preached, the Hebrew term maskilot refers not only to their ideology but also to their language: these were women who wrote in Hebrew.
The historiography of the Haskalah movement assumes that, as a result of women’s ignorance of Hebrew and the canonical texts, the Hebrew Haskalah was a “male movement.” As a direct consequence of Jewish women’s exclusion from Hebrew and its culture, women’s education at the time was channeled into two linguistic streams that were accepted as being “suitable” or “permitted” for women: European languages such as German, English and Russian, and the Jewish vernacular, Yiddish. Since women were kept away from the Jewish canon in general and Haskalah literature in Hebrew in particular and separated from men by the linguistic culture reserved for them, it is surprising to find women proponents of the Haskalah, or maskilot, who read Hebrew literature, wrote in Hebrew, and saw themselves as part of the Haskalah movement.
The discovery of Hebrew writings by some twenty-five women in manuscript archives and Hebrew-language literary periodicals of the Haskalah period dispels the conventional belief that women were silent during that time. It appears that women not only read Haskalah literature in Hebrew but also put their knowledge of the language, their ability to express themselves and their creativity to active use in writing. Yet the picture is still only partial and will perhaps never be complete: Jewish maskilot seldom published their work, while only a small number of women’s letters remain in the archives. One might therefore presume that many more women read and wrote Hebrew than those whose writings have been found. Moreover, while the women who wrote letters and even those who published essays and literary works signed their own names to them, many are virtually untraceable. Although we know biographical details in some cases, in others we know only the date of writing or the writer’s place of residence.
Women’s significant entrance into the circle of the Hebrew enlightenment did not occur in the early centers of the Haskalah, Germany and Galicia, but only when Russia and Lithuania became the centers in the latter half of the nineteenth century. From what we know of the biographical details of these women writers, we can deduce why this phenomenon grew stronger precisely in those regions and at that time.
The prime, essential basis for the maskilah was high-level proficiency in Hebrew and familiarity with Hebrew canonical texts. Girls received no such education in any accepted traditional setting in the mid-nineteenth century, not even in the Haskalah-run schools, which limited the Hebrew and Bible taught to girls. The Jewish woman of the nineteenth century had no keys to the locked gate of Hebrew unless her father deliberately provided her with them. Since the few fathers who made sure their daughters received Hebrew education were of necessity themselves Hebrew maskilim, the Hebrew maskilah always belonged to the second generation of the movement.
Another environmental characteristic that encouraged the forming of the “Hebrew maskilah” was her family’s economic situation. The entry of women into the creative literary world increased with the rise of the middle class and the subsequent easing of women’s way of life and improvement in their education. Jewish women wrote, both in modern European languages and in Hebrew, when their socio-economic conditions permitted it and during the free time that resulted from the rise in their age of marriage. The combination of all these conditions—their being members of the second generation of the Hebrew Enlightenment, a stronger middle class and the rise in the age of marriage—first occurred in Eastern Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century. To all of these phenomena one must add the considerable influence of Russian radical ideology, which preached the creation of a “new woman” by changing her education to equal that of a man’s. In the 1860s the maskilim first encountered this ideology, which gave legitimacy and encouragement to women in their attempt to integrate into the social and literary movement of the Haskalah.
Most Hebrew maskilot suffered from “the anxiety of authorship” (as defined by theoreticians Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar) which characterizes women’s work in the first stages of their entry into the patriarchal cultural world. They therefore expressed themselves in non-canonical ways that reduced their anxiety: various kinds of correspondence, translations and social essays. Only a few of them dared to write in the canonical styles of poetry and narrative.
Letters written by maskilot in Hebrew were the bridge that facilitated their active entry into fields of Hebrew enlightenment writing. In European culture it had been accepted since the seventeenth century that letters were the most “feminine” way for women to express themselves, since this mode was the least harmful to the writer’s “legitimate” feminine image and culturally the most comfortable for her. On the other hand, the Hebrew letter was most common and widespread among Jewish maskilim who, because they were few and scattered, needed this tool to create a cultural community. The Hebrew maskilah therefore used the maskilic Hebrew letter as a way to be included in the maskilim’s “network of connections,” while writing in an appropriately feminine manner.
While only one complete archive of a woman’s correspondence is extant—that of Miriam Markel-Mosessohn—other letters were preserved in men’s archives. These include the letters which women admirers wrote to Judah Leib Gordon (1831–1892) (including letters written by Rivka Rottner [b. 1872], Shayna Wolf, Sara Shayne Rahavsky, Sarah Shapira and Nehama Feinstein [1869–1934]); letters from two women (Shulamit Pilpel and Betty Gold) to Rabbi Dr. Juda Loeb Landau (1866–1942) were preserved in his archives; one from Sarah Shapira in the archives of Perez Smolenskin (1840–1885); and a letter from Esther Goldman which was found in the archive of Shneur Sachs (1816–1892). Other private correspondence (together with letters to the editors of periodicals) was published in periodicals or collections of correspondence, almost certainly with the writer’s permission. Some of the letters printed were indeed private, addressed mostly to the writer’s father (the letter of Leah Bermanson to her father, Ha-Shahar 1874; Bertha Rabinovitch to her father, Ha-Shahar 1874; Sarah Cohen Nevinsky to her father, Ha-Shahar 1880). Other letters were written to an author or newspaper editor who was not personally acquainted with the writer (Rachel Morpurgo to Mendel Stern, editor of Kokhvei Yizhak, 1849–1850; Shifra Alchin to the editor of Ha-Meliz, 1863). The letters also deal with private matters and national and/or literary-cultural issues. Most of the letters combine the writer’s personal, family and experiential world with discussion on general national, public and cultural problems.
The letters reveal a model of the maskilah Hebrew writer’s cultural identity: first and foremost, the woman who wrote letters in Hebrew knew it well and had great love for it, as the rich, precise language and numerous canonical references in most letters demonstrate. The writers acquired their knowledge of the language and canonical texts by conscious and deliberate effort and many of them describe both their efforts to learn the language and their love for it. Not surprisingly, the Hebrew writers are also readers of Hebrew, not only canonical texts but also contemporary Hebrew literature. Many letters deal with the influence of Hebrew literature on the writer’s life and consciousness and her reactions to a specific work. Only a few of the writers deal with the ideology of social reform in their letters; mostly, they deal with Hebrew literature. The only demand for social reform that arises frequently in the letters is for cultural and educational equality for women.
The feminine social essay published in Haskalah-era Hebrew periodicals constitutes the breaching of another barrier to the Jewish maskilah’s integration in maskilic creative endeavor. Unlike a letter directed to a specific recipient, the essay, which is directed to the entire maskilim public, is a part of the accepted maskilic style (the essay was the ideational focus of the Haskalah from the time of the essay “Divrei Shalom ve-Emet” , by Naphtali Herz Wessely [1725–1805]). The essays written by maskilot sometimes express their protest as part of the Haskalah movement, and at other times their specifically female protest against the discrimination leveled against them by traditional Jewish society.
Several writers used the letter form in their essays. An 1876 essay by Olga Belkind, in which she asks the public to support young women who are studying midwifery, was written as an open letter to the Warshawsky family, who at the time supported her own midwifery studies. Miriam Leichtman wrote her essay, “On the Question of Women’s Education” (1896), in letter form, as a “letter to the publisher.” Other essays also deliberately written in that form and in line with its conventions include the essay by Sarah Feiga Meinkin Foner (“Ha-Aviv,” 1876) and that of Marka Altschuler (“Thoughts on the Ninth of Av, My Birthday,” 1880). Unlike these essays, which focused on conventional maskilic “male” ideology, a few essays by Jewish maskilot were penetrating feminist critiques of the education and status of Jewish women both in traditional Jewish society and among the maskilim. In addition to Olga Belkind’s aforementioned letter, four other essays on this subject were published: “The Woman Question” (1879) by Taube Segal, “More about the Question of Girls” (1889) by Nehama Feinstein, “I Am An Example for Many” (1895) by Devorah Weissman-Hayut and “On the Question of Women’s Education” (1896) by Miriam Leichtman.
The writing of Hebrew essays posed a special linguistic challenge for the writer when she wished to express modern feminist positions on social matters in the canonical language of the sources, to which such opinions were alien. The maskilot applied the main principle of maskilic tradition: a fresh reading of the traditional source which allowed it to be used for personal expression, in their case feminine and/or feminist interpretation.
The widespread enterprise of translation from European languages into Hebrew characterized the Haskalah from its beginnings and was based on an awareness of the importance of integrating European culture into the Jewish Haskalah. The outstanding example of a maskilah who chose translation as her initial intellectual-creative field of endeavor in the Haskalah’s public sphere was Miriam Markel-Mosessohn. Her best known translation is that of the history book by Isaac Asher Francolm (Eugen Rispart), Die Juden und die Kreuzfahrer (1841), under the Hebrew title The Jews in England, or The Jews and the Crusaders (1869).
There was little literary activity by Jewish maskilot in the fields of poetry and fiction. We know of three poets (only one of whom, Rachel Morpurgo, published more than a few poems) and one significant author, Sarah Feiga Meinkin Foner.
The poems that the three poets of this period wrote indicate the ways in which women dealt with male literary tradition. Two poems by Hanna Blume Sulz of Vilna (“The Play,” 1882, and “The Valley of Revelation,” 1883) display her excellent knowledge of Hebrew and her familiarity with the poetry of the period and its formative technique, but the poems serve as a sorry example of the poet’s failure, in that she surrendered to the masculine tastes of the time, thus losing her feminine authenticity. Two poems by Sara Shapira (the poetic allegory “Male Caught by a Horn,” 1886, and the nationalist poem “Zion,” 1888) were also written in contemporary format and identified with accepted maskilic ideology, with no explicit expression of the female speaker. Yet unlike the stifling of authentic expression of the female voice in the poetry of Hanna Blume Sultz, every one of Sarah Shapira’s poems contains some form of that expression. In both of Shapira’s poems some female expression may be detected. It is felt especially in “Remember the One Caught by a Horn,” which uses a lively portrayal of a suffering kitchen-maid in order to attack the way the rich treat the poor.
A first poetic expression in Hebrew of woman’s world and her problems may be found in the work of the Jewish-Italian poet Rachel Morpurgo, whose poems were collected in book form only after her death (Rachel’s Organ, 1890). Morpurgo’s main poetic achievements are not her “poems written at leisure” or her nationalist poems (to which critics related), but rather her poems of personal contemplation (including “See, This Is New,” “Lament of My Soul,” “Why, Lord, So Many Cries,” “O Troubled Valley,” “Until I Am Old”). The power of these poems derives from their having been written on two levels. The first and most evident is their following the accepted cultural conventions of contemporary masculine poetry, exploiting the writer’s broad knowledge of the canon. The second level of significance is subtle and reveals itself in the contrast between the canonical texts to which it refers and the poem itself. On this level we hear the voice of a woman describing her suffering and protesting her inferior status in Jewish society and culture.
Only one woman dared to enter the field of fiction writing, which was at the center of male maskilic writing in the last third of the Haskalah period. This was Sarah Feiga Meinkin Foner, who published four Hebrew books, three of them works of fiction: Ahavat Yesharim (the first volume in 1881; the second was not published for financial reasons) and The Treachery of Traitors (1891). The third was a children’s didactic story, Children’s Way, or A Story from Jerusalem (1886) and the fourth— her memoirs (Memories of My Childhood, or A Memoir of Dvinsk, 1903). The novel A Righteous Love, or The Pursued Family seems like a typical social, maskilic novel, fairly weak but faithful to the conventions of the genre: a romantic plot and a quest (in the romance tradition) in which the admirable maskilim protagonists clash with a conservative, conventional society, represented by contemptible and hypocritical characters. Even so, the author did not abandon her authentic voice, which emerges in places where she deals with matters that interest her: the character and world of the heroine, Finnalia, her relationships (especially with other women) and her domestic life. Here the description becomes lively, persuasive and colorful. Her later historical novel, The Treachery of Traitors, and the children’s story, Children’s Way, mark a retreat from the expression of the female voice present in her earlier novel. Both works are more pleasant to read: because the writer kept so closely to the conventional format of the historical tale and stifled the female voice, its plot is tighter. In addition, the writer’s language had improved in the course of the decade that had elapsed since she wrote her first work. But the novel lacks the emotional and feminine authenticity present in parts of her first book.
Most Hebrew maskilot writers surrendered to the conventions regarding “the feminine” (according to Elaine Showalter’s definition of the levels of development of women’s writing), restricting themselves to private writing (letters) or, in a few cases, bi-layered writing, with feminist protest expressed only on the implied level of the text. Only at the end of the period did feminist protest appear openly.
The voice of feminist protest is heard quite frequently in women’s private correspondence. The mere expression of protest against women’s status shows the writer’s awareness of it, but the fact that she writes about it in a private letter and not publicly testifies to the need to conceal and limit it to the private, “feminine” sphere. For example, in a letter published in Ha-Maggid in 1870, Bertha Kreidman describes with painful cynicism the accepted feminine ideal of a pretty woman with no brains and the expected scornful reaction to her writings because she is a woman. In an early letter (to Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Landsberg, July 1863), Miriam Markel-Mosessohn protests against the disregard for women’s education and later, in a letter to Judah Leib Gordon (undated, possibly 1868), she describes with clarity the gap between her feminist opinions and her practical realization that it would be better not to air those opinions in public. Furthermore, in a personal (undated) letter to her brothers Joseph and Simon, Markel-Mosessohn conceals a short story with a clearly feminist message. The letter seems to be a personal letter to members of her family, describing an event in the city of Suwalk. Yet the cloak of personal “feminine” gossip conceals the first feminist maskilic story, which even has a title: “The Suwalki Woman’s Wisdom Is Like That of the Woman of Tekoa.” This is a well-written story about both social-maskilic and gender matters: a confrontation between the religious establishment, represented by a man, the rabbi, and the simple people, represented by a woman. The conflict ends with the woman’s victory.
In the few literary works that maskilot published, feminist protest was hidden beneath layers of maskilic and conventional writing. Foner-Meinkin movingly describes arranged marriages in Galicia in her novel A Righteous Love, a critical commentary on fathers who use their daughters for business deals, “like horses and donkeys.” The feminist protest of Rachel Morpurgo is another example aimed mostly against the limiting, humiliating traditional perceptions of women’s spirituality in Jewish society. Because of the saying “There is no wisdom in woman except with the distaff” (BT Yoma 66b), she maintained, Jewish women were excluded from fulfilling some of the mitzvot and did not attain their appropriate place for action in society.
Like the dominant trend at the outset of Russian feminism in the 1860s, and certainly under its influence, Jewish feminism from the first concentrated on the demand that women be enabled to learn a profession. Olga Belkind, a graduate of the midwifery institute in St. Petersburg, describes in a letter (Ha-Shahar, 1876) the revolution taking place in Jewish girls’ consciousness regarding their need to receive training for work and the gap between this awareness and the readiness of the maskilim’s response. Taube Segal of Vilna, in her essay “The Woman Question” (1879), also saw women’s professional training as the opening to women’s equality, but she appealed not only to the male maskilim but also to the women. Segal took to task Jewish men from all sectors of society—the maskilim, the Orthodox and the “average ones”—for their discrimination against women. She claimed that despite the fact that equality was supposed to be at the center of the Haskalah revolution, it did not include women, and the maskilim, like all men, dominated women. She also criticized the amazement that the maskilim expressed over a woman who wrote in Hebrew, which proved that they did not see the maskilot as creatures equal to themselves in intellectual ability.
The discovery of women’s writing in Hebrew during the Haskalah period and its inclusion in the historiography of modern Hebrew literature change our understanding both of the Haskalah movement and its literature and also of the historiography of Hebrew literature in general. The Haskalah was indeed a “man’s movement” in its goals and character, like most social and cultural movements of the period. But the existence of maskilot who wrote in Hebrew provides evidence of women’s attempt to be included in the movement and to include within it the issues that were important to themselves. Women’s writing represents a different way of perceiving woman, society and culture and is characterized by its own solutions to the representation of women, the feminine and feminism in literature. In its very differentness, women’s writing also emphasizes the gender-masculine elements of canonical Haskalah literature.
The writings of Hebrew maskilot have also led to a change in the historiography of modern Hebrew literature, especially women’s literary work: it is now clear that modernity emerged several decades prior to the time hitherto accepted—that is, in the 1860s rather than in the 1920s.
Cohen, Tova. “From the Private Sphere to the Public Sphere: The Writings of Hebrew Maskilot in the Nineteenth Century.” In Studies in East European History and Culture in Honour of Professor Shmuel Werses (Hebrew), edited by D. Assaf et al., 235–238, Jerusalem: 2002; Feiner, Shmuel. “The Modern Jewish Woman: A Test Case in the Relationship between Haskalah and Modernity.” In Sexuality and the Family in History (Hebrew), edited by Israel Bartal and Yeshayahu Gafni, 253–303. Jerusalem: 1998; Foner-Meinkin, Sarah Feiga b. R. Joseph Meinkin of Riga. A Righteous Love, or The Pursued Family (Hebrew). Vilna: 1881; Idem. A Story from the Days of Shimon the High Priest (Hebrew). Warsaw: 1891; Idem. Children’s Way, or A Story from Jerusalem (Hebrew). Vienna: 1886; Idem. The Days of My Youth, or A Memoir of Dvinsk. Warsaw: 1903; Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: 1979; Morpurgo, Rachel. Ugav Rahel (Hebrew). Cracow: 1890; Parush, Iris. Reading Women: The Benefit of Marginality in Nineteenth-Century Eastern European Jewish Society (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 2001; Showalter, Elaine. “Towards a Feminist Poetics.” In Women Writing and Writing About Women, edited by Mary Jacobus. London: 1979; Werses, S., ed. (with introduction and notes). The Poet’s Friend: The Letters of Miriam Markel-Mosessohn to Judah Leib Gordon (Hebrew). Jerusalem: 2004.
How to cite this page
Cohen, Tova. "Maskilot, Nineteenth Century." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 27, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/maskilot-nineteenth-century>.