In 1900, twenty-two year old Havvah Shapiro confessed to her diary: “To me, pen and ink are like good and trustworthy friends because they allow us to reveal our hearts and lighten our burdens … pen and ink seem like the opening to the Garden of Eden.” For Shapiro, Eden was the world of Hebrew learning and literature. Though it was generally off-limits, if not forbidden, to the Jewish woman, Shapiro entered this paradise as a young girl primarily under the tutelage of her parents: her mother was herself proficient in the ancient tongue, and her father, an heir to a Hebrew printing and paper manufacturing dynasty in Slavuta, Volhynia (modern-day Ukraine) insisted that his children correspond with him only in Hebrew. Her hasidic great-great grandfather, Rabbi Phinehas ben Abraham Abba Shapiro Korets (1726–1791), would no doubt have disapproved of Shapiro, who became an accomplished and prolific female Hebraist. Over her lifetime, she composed some fifty pieces of literary criticism, fiction, or journalism appearing in over half a dozen Hebrew periodicals, as well as a collection of short sketches and a scholarly monograph. Of the nineteenth-century women writers of Hebrew in the Diaspora, Shapiro is the most prolific. Her more famous Hebrew-writing sisters— including Rahel (Bluwstein), Devorah Baron, Nehamah Pukhachewsky, Itta Yellin, Yehudit Harari and Hemda Ben-Yehudah—followed their linguistic longings and immigrated to the land of Israel from Eastern Europe during their young adulthood. Not so Shapiro. Despite a trip to Palestine in 1911 and repeated yearnings expressed later in life to be among fellow lovers of the ancient tongue, Shapiro chose to live out her days in a self-imposed exile far from the centers of Hebrew literary activity and creativity before her death in the Theresienstadt ghetto in 1943.
On December 26, 1878, Ya’akov Shamai (d. 1912) and Menuhah Shapiro (née Sheinberg, d. 1922) welcomed a daughter into their growing brood. Ya’akov Shapiro had two daughters from a previous marriage. Perhaps they chose the name Havvah (Eve) because she was the first girl after three sons (a second daughter was born several years later). Eventually Shapiro played on the resonance of her biblical namesake, pseudonymously calling herself em kol hai (the mother of all life) in many of her published works. As the younger sister of three brothers, Shapiro regarded herself as one of the boys and imitated her older siblings in all things, religious and secular alike. Together with her brothers she received lessons from the local rabbi, who—Shapiro noted in her diary—acknowledged her coming of age as a bat mitzvah. By adolescence, Shapiro’s immersion in Hebrew texts was well underway, encouraged by her mother, whom the daughter described as equally capable of reading Hebrew books and newspapers and of corresponding in Hebrew, and who drilled her daughters in the rudiments of the ancient tongue. In addition, Shapiro studied Talmud and Bible with her brothers. At the same time, Shapiro was drilled in modern languages, for which she developed both an affinity and a flair. In addition to her native tongue of Russian, faulty Yiddish and perfect Hebrew, she came to know Latin, French, Polish, German, and Czech, gaining at least reading capabilities in the first two, and fluency in the latter three. With her solid training in classical Hebrew, Shapiro became connected to a circle of “lovers of the Hebrew language” (Hovevei Sefat Ever), which met weekly in Slavuta to recite and discuss literature in the ancient tongue.
Eventually Shapiro outgrew her literary circle, as well as the provincialism of rustic Slavuta. Some time after her sixteenth birthday, she accompanied her mother on an excursion to Kishinev, perhaps by way of consolation for the harrowing death from scarlet fever of her eleven-year-old sister (1882–1893). Upon her return Shapiro was beset by wanderlust, which was assuaged in 1895 when she married Limel Rosenbaum, whose father’s Warsaw-based financial connections brought about a change of scenery for the young bride. Shapiro quickly discovered that she was ill-suited for the role of affluent banker’s wife. She had neither patience nor tolerance to suffer the “idle conversations” of chattering women, as she expressed in her diary, and instead sought refuge at the home of Isaac Leib Peretz (1852–1915), where a circle of men assembled each evening to discuss their Hebrew works in progress. Like other novice writers, Shapiro turned to Peretz for advice of both a literary and personal nature. According to Shapiro’s diary, he read everything she wrote, and she visited him nearly every day during the early 1900s. Meanwhile, despite the birth of a son, Pinhas (1897–1953), Shapiro’s marriage grew more and more unstable.
The real undoing of Shapiro’s marriage came in May, 1899 while she was vacationing with her mother at Francisbad, a spa near Berlin. There the twenty-year old wife and mother met and fell in love with Reuben Brainin (1862–1939). Sixteen years her senior, married, and well on his way to becoming an established Hebrew and Yiddish author, Brainin became Shapiro’s lover and mentor for the next quarter of a century. Their correspondence—including the more than two hundred Hebrew letters by Shapiro that survive—chronicle the couple’s mostly epistolary affair and reveal Shapiro’s momentous decision to leave her husband and son. “The time has come,” she wrote to Brainin on June 30, 1903, “to throw off the shackles that others put on me and be what I will be!”
By the time the divorce was finalized in 1907, Shapiro had been accepted to the University of Berne, where she studied from 1906–1910. She completed a thesis on the philosopher Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742–1799) and “came out crowned with the title ‘doctor of philosophy’” in 1910, as noted in her diary. Her formal education behind her, Shapiro turned to fashioning a career as a writer. At this point, Shapiro’s publications included one article situating Hebrew literature within world literature, a meditation on Rosh ha-Shanah, and six allegorical sketches reflecting the familiar pain of the Jewish woman alienated from Jewish society by her intellectual acumen and ambition. The allegories—which originally appeared either in David Frischmann’s (1859–1922) Ha-Dor or in Nahum Sokolow’s (1859–1936) Ha-Olam—were collected, along with an additional nine, and published as Kovez Ziyurim in 1909. In the preface to this volume, Shapiro issued an invitation to her sisters to join her in the task of depicting women’s experience fully and realistically. As described in three separate articles on the subject, she had tired of male authors’ flawed attempts to portray women. Moreover, she argued, Jewish women’s enlightenment had predated that of men; for while the latter had been busily engaged in traditional Jewish study, the former had been schooled in world literature. According to Shapiro, exemption from Torah study made Jewish women’s entrance to the world beyond things Jewish faster and easier. She concluded her introduction with the hope that female writers would yet surface to fill in the gaps of the past.
In addition to literary criticism, Shapiro tried her hand at journalism. With Brainin’s influential assistance, her articles soon began to appear with frequency in major Hebrew publications of the day. Her subjects ranged broadly from Martin Buber (1878–1965) through Russian literature to Israelite prophecy, to name only a few. She reported on meetings of Zionist organizations and the excruciating details of life in Ukraine following World War I. Later in her life, as Czech correspondent for Ha-Olam, Shapiro even developed an interview with the newly-elected President Tomás G. Masaryk (1850–1937) into an article and book-length monograph. In addition, I. L. Peretz, David Frischmann, and Reuben Brainin became subjects of remembrances she published in a number of journals.
As Shapiro’s writing career flourished, her personal life deteriorated. By 1910, any hope of being with Brainin permanently had been dashed on the shores of North America, to which he had hastily immigrated. The tragic world events that would directly affect Shapiro and her family, along with hundreds of thousands of Jews residing in the eroding Pale of Settlement, began to drive away fond memories of Brainin and the charmed literary life he inspired. With World War I and the Russian Revolution raging, Shapiro shuttled between Kiev and Slavuta, tending to her ailing mother and participating in revolutionary activities.
From 1904, her son lived with his father in Warsaw, though the father did arrange for Pinhas to visit his mother on condition that a paternal relative was always present. Throughout her diary, while Shapiro exalted in her freedom from the marriage, she described the separation from her son as a “searing pain” and yearned for him constantly.
In the fall of 1919, Shapiro and her son left Ukraine to settle in the Czechoslovak Republic—despite a personal invitation from Hayyim Nahman Bialik (1873–1934) for her to settle in Odessa to become part of the Hebrew literary life of that city. With her son safely enrolled at a polytechnical institute in Prague, Shapiro made her way to Munkacs in October 1921. For the next several years—between travels to the twelfth and thirteenth Zionist Congresses and occasional visits to relatives and friends abroad—she remained in Munkacs, living with the gentile man who had aided her initial passage to Czechoslovakia. She eventually left him for Dr. J. Winternitz, whom she married in the late 1920s. This relationship, too, brought her unhappiness, due to her husband’s mental illness.
Shapiro’s misfortunes multiplied as the years passed and those closest to her perished or departed. Her mother died in the summer of 1922, and her son immigrated to America in 1940. A year later, the Germans deported Shapiro and her husband to Theresienstadt. She died there on February 28, 1943.
Kovez Ziyurim. Warsaw: 1909; T. G. Masaryk. Prague: 1935.
“The Rose.” Ha-Dor 48 (December 12, 1901): 13–14; “Wilting Roses.” Ha-Dor (October 21, 1904): 27–28; “Old Maid.” Ha-Olam 2 (May 6, 1908); “Young Poet.” Ha-Olam 2 (June 3, 1908); “Typical Women.” Ha-Olam 2 (July 8, 1908); “Broken Tablets.” Ha-Olam 2 (September 18, 1908); “The Days of Awe.” Hed Ha-Zeman 209 (September 20 and October 3, 1908); “On Literature.” Ha-Olam 39 (October 2, 1908) and 40 (October 9, 1908): 506–508 and 518–520; “Hauptmann’s New Novel.” Ha-Shiloah 28 (1913): 563–568; “Aphorisms and Typical Principles.” Ha-Toren 2 (May 1914): 135–40; “False Prophets in Israel and among the Nations.” Ha-Shiloah 31 (1914): 317–331; “Brothers of Slavuta.” Ha-Shiloah 30 (1914): 541–554; “From General Literature.” Ha-Shiloah 31 (1914): 90–96, 267–273, 317–331, 549–555; “On Death.” Ha-Shiloah 32 (1915): 63–69; “Female Types in Mendele’s Stories.” Ha-Shiloah 34 (1918): 92–101; “I.L. Peretz, the Man and the Author.” Ha-Shiloah 34 (1918): 347–354, 501–510; “Notes from Ukraine.” Ha-Olam 9 (October 6–7 and November 1919): 3–4; “You Must Not Forget!” Ha-Olam 9 (December 19, 1919): 2–4; “Love in the Poems of Tchernichowsky.” Ha-Shiloah 35 (1919): 151–157; “Letter from Prague.” Ha-Toren 7 (March 27, 1920): 11–13; “Arguments.” Ha-Olam 9 (April 2, 1920): 2–4; “Meeting of Ha-Po’el ha-Za’ir.” Ha-Olam 9 (July 15, 1920): 7–8; “Letter from Switzerland.” Ha-Olam 9 (October 15, 1920): 4–5; “Preparation.” Ha-Olam 9 (November 6, 1920): 6–8; “Letters from Prague.” Ha-Olam 10 (November 11 and December 9, 1920); “Meeting of Ha-Po’el ha-Za’ir and Ze’irei Zion.” Ha-Toren 7 (1920): 10–12 and 14–16; “Letter from Czechoslavakia.” Ha-Toren 7 (1920): 6–9; “Letter from Prague.” Ha-Toren 7 (1920): 9–10; “The Jewish Movement.” Ha-Olam 10 (February 24, 1921 and March 3, 1921); “Notes.” Ha-Olam 10 (April 21, 1921); “Letter from Czechoslavakia.” Ha-Olam 10 (May 21, 1921); “Letter from Prague.” Ha-Toren 10 (June 9, 1921); “Zionist Customs in Prague.” Ha-Olam 10 (July 28, 1921 and August 4, 1921); “Meetings of the Congress.” Ha-Olam 10 (September 8, 1921); “World Meeting.” Ha-Olam 10 (September 8 and 15, 1921); “Around the Congress.” Ha-Olam 10 (September 15, 1921); “Theodor Gomperz.” Ha-Olam 11 (November 30, 1921); “Letters from a Tuberculosis Patient.” Ha-Shiloah 38 (1921): 122–31; “Notes from the Congress.” Ha-Toren 8 (1921): 38–40; “Martin Buber.” Ha-Toren 9 (1922): 45–49 and 42–52; “Reuben Brainin: His Spiritual Persona.” Ein ha-Kore 2–3 (April–September 1923): 73–82; “Memories of Frischmann’s Life.” Ha-Toren 9 no. 11 (1923): 84-89; “Young Literature.” Ha-Toren 10 (1923): 74–83; “From Czechoslavakia to Romania.” Ha-Olam (May 9, 1924); “From Carpathian Russia.” Ha-Olam 12 (June 20, 1924); “Jewish Education in the Russian Carpathians.” Ha-Olam 12 (September19, 1924); “Meshut in the Lands.” Ha-Olam 12 (November 14, 1924); “What is Hanukkah?” Ha-Olam 12 (December 26, 1924); “Two Stories,” criticism of Wasserman and Buber. Ha-Toren 10 (1924): 72–79; “Paganism, Christianity and Judaism,” review of Max Brod. Ha-Toren 11 (1924): 47–57; “Contemporary Russian Literature.” Ha-Shiloah 43 (1925): 76–87; “President-Philosopher,” on Masaryk. Ha-Shiloah 44 (1925): 159–167; “The Female Image in our Literature.” Ha-Tekufah 26–27 (1930): 617–33.
Balin, Carole. “The Female Experience in Hebrew Literature: Hava Shapiro (1878–1943),” in To Reveal Our Hearts: Jewish Women Writers in Tsarist Russia, 51–83. Cincinnati: 2000; Shapiro’s voluminous diary in Hebrew is housed at Genazim, Tel Aviv; Letters to Brainin. The Reuben Brainin Collection, Jewish Public Library, Montreal.
How to cite this page
Balin, Carole B.. "Havvah Shapiro." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 20, 2018) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/shapiro-havvah>.