„Rakovsky, Puah: My Life as a Radical Jewish Woman. Memoirs of a Zionist Feminist in Poland, Indiana Univ. Press 2002” (Viktoria Pollmann)

„Kultura i Historia” nr 6/2004

Rakovsky, Puah: My Life as a Radical Jewish Woman. Memoirs of a Zionist Feminist in Poland. Ed. and with an introd. by Paula E. Hyman. Transl. from the Yiddish by Barbara Harshav with Paula E. Hyman. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press 2002. XI, 204 S.

When one thinks of Jews, one thinks of Jewish men and Jewish men are considered to be „the” Jews. In orthodox Judaism women were objects of male consideration, not subjects of their own self-determination. In the Jewish community of Eastern Europe up to early 20th century women had no official place in a community that took so much pride in erudition and scholarship. Puah Rakovsky was neither the first nor the only Jewish woman to rebel against the role in Jewish life that Jewish orthodoxy had inflicted upon women. There have been others before and after her. But as Susannah Heschel, a Jewish feminist, puts it, „the heroines of these stories usually take their shattered lives and repair them through education…, invariably without assistance from family or community. Liberation was achieved by breaking off and struggling alone.”

Women’s voices were rarely heard and thus memoirs of Jewish women from Eastern Europe are extremely rare. Paula Hyman, editor of Puah Rakovsky’s autobiography, rightly suggests that the „definition of radicalism in strictly political terms and in terms of male-dominated movements has led historians of East European Jewry to ignore the lives and accomplishments of women whose radicalism and activism found expression outside the realm of partisan politics.” (P. 3) But depicting the exceptional strength and unceasing force it took to overcome obstacles in her personal as well as in her professional life makes Puah Rakovsky a kind of a role model, though not easy to be followed even today.

In her striking autobiography, Puah Rakovsky gives a close and very personalized look into the remote world of Jewish women in Russian Poland in the second half of the 19th as well as in independent Poland in the first half of the 20th century. As she refused to follow the traditional path prescribed for a „good Jewish daughter” of East European Jewry, she succeeded with outmost courage, intelligence and energy, by using her rebellious mind to become an ardent feminist, a charismatic teacher, and an activist in left-wing Zionism. By depicting her own turbulent life and that of her extended family she gives a passionate account of the circumstances, the hardships of most and the achievements of a few – exceptional – Jewish women of her time.

Puah Rakovsky was born in Poland, in 1865 and died in Israel in 1955. Thus she lived almost a century. A century of turmoil. By the time she died the world had changed. In fact, the world of Polish Jewry, which had been her own world too, had been destroyed, her people murdered by Nazi Germany. This world disappeared forever.

Puah wrote her memoirs in 1942, after having emigrated in 1935 to Palestine, the land of her dreams and aspirations, for the second time. These memoirs were published first in Yiddish 1954 in Buenos Aires under the title: „Memories of a Jewish Revolutionary” [Zichrojnes fun a jiddischer revolucjonerin]. The edition of the autobiography „My Life as a Radical Jewish Woman” is a well edited English version of that first edition, done by Paula E. Hyman, Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale University. Presumably the new title was given by the editor. It really hits the point.

Was Puah Rakovsky a „revolucjonerin”, a revolutionary in the literal sense of the word? That’s what she calls herself: I am „a mother who was a revolutionary by the depths of her soul” (p. 93) But she was certainly not a revolutionary in a politically conceived way: she never belonged to a vocal political party and was never engaged in revolutionary activities like some of her female compatriots. But she certainly was a born rebel, refusing to accept the Jewish world she was born into to be taken for granted and unchangeable. On the contrary, she was determined to change that world, but on a personal level first, on an institutional level second and on a political level third. It is not easy for the reader to decide which part of her lifelong aspirations was the most important: whoever reads the book may choose the topic most interesting for him or her: be it feminism, Zionism, or pedagogy. In the context of this special edition of „Kultura” feminism is the point to be focussed on.

The Jewish world to which Puah belonged as a child and young girl didn’t allow a woman much space. Her way in life was clearly predetermined. She was to be an obedient daughter and wife, a loving mother of many children and moreover in many cases carrying the burden of sustaining the family economically. This should have been the clear-cut way of life for Puah Rakovsky too. She was born into a pious, though not orthodox Jewish family in Białystok as the first of eight children to a 15year old mother and a 17year old father. Her father was a well to do wholesale merchant. He allowed his first and very beloved daughter to receive a profound education, religious as well as secular. Puah studied Torah and Hebrew, which was exceptional for a girl at this time. But though being a privileged first child, her father made her marry a man she didn’t want. That’s where her rebellion broke out. After she had two children, she decided to leave her husband, take up a profession and strive toward personal and economic independence, two goals which in her eyes were not to be separated anyway. She threatened to throw some chemicals into her husband’s face if he wouldn’t let her go. Her parents were as shocked as was her extended family, but finally Puah managed to study to become a teacher. Already in 1888 at the age of 23 she founded a school for girls in Białystok with Russian as the language of instruction. Hebrew was one of the most important subjects her school taught the girls.

„Teaching a girl Torah means teaching her frivolity.” These words from the Talmud were the guideline even in her own rather enlightened parents’ house. „Our nation has paid dearly for that outmoded view.” (p. 25). As a matter of fact girls were not supposed to study anything. So Puah Rakovsky very early conceived the fundamental idea of giving knowledge to the female part of the Jewish community and struggled hard but successfully to become an ardent teacher for girls and women. A gifted educator and organizer, she founded schools and strove all her lifetime to form Jewish women’s consciousness, promote their abilities and strengthen their engagement in public affairs. Setting up schools was her way to improve women’s situation.

But Puah always, in Poland as well as in Palestine, had to fight a formidable opposition within the ranks of her Jewish compatriots too, though she was aware of some of the obstacles to be found within women themselves. Nevertheless she deeply regretted that when some of the politically more advanced women managed to get in to the Sejm and the city councils after World War I, „despite our constant, persistent struggle, we could not break through the Chinese wall to get into the allegedly modernised Jewish community organisation in Warsaw…” (p. 85).

The strongest expression of her close and abiding ties to Jewishness can be found in her bonds to Zionism with which she had already come into contact in Białystok in the 1880s. She took up the feminist part of it, striving to lead Jewish women to enlightenment, to help them realise that rebuilding their forbearers’ land into a socialist reality was the only way for Jews to live through the upcoming and already threatening times. But it was the male dominated sphere of orthodox Jewry that revived even in Zionism, which made her see very early that without proper education and economic independence women would never have a chance to fully take part in social and political life, neither in their old world nor in their new yet to be established country.

When in spite of her incredible personal and family problems she had managed to get to Palestine in 1920, her guiding vision from early childhood times, Puah encountered the same problems with which she had been confronted within the Jewish communities in Poland. So she took a leading part in the women’s struggle for greater participation in political life in the country which Puah hoped to be an ideal, basically socialist haven for every Jew, be it man or woman. But „orthodox opposition to the participation of women in that national institution [i.e. the Assembly of Representatives] increased. They demanded categorically the ‚liquidation’ of the women.” (p. 148) When women called for a ‚plebiscite’, only men would take part in it, deciding about the question of voting rights for women. „The result could have been predicted.”

Immediately after her arrival in Palestine Puah Rakovsky founded a vocational school for girls, one, to which Arab girls had access as well. The idea was not appreciated by everyone in her Jewish surrounding – she even started to learn Arab and was proud not to treat „my Arab girls any different than the Jewish ones” (p.139). Nevertheless she left Palestine just one year later. The external motive as she depicts it was an unanticipated pogrom in May 1921 in Tel Aviv. This experience she calls „some of the bitterest moments of a life filled with sufferings” (p.142). But she might have been disappointed and dissatisfied on an even deeper level: Working in the vocational school she found it difficult to understand „our leaders’ position on some vital problems. For example, the explicit attitude of contempt of our leadership at that time to the Arab. … Is the final goal of our efforts to turn into a sect, even a purely Hebraic one?” (P. 141). She even uses the expression „extreme chauvinism”. Certainly, with this kind of view she wasn’t very welcome among Zionists circles in Palestine as well as after her return to Poland where she met distrust and suspicion for having been a traitor to the Jewish cause. Her return to Palestine in 1935 was due to the mounting difficulties Jews had to face in Central Europe and to family conditions: a sister and a brother with their children were already living in Haifa and her own daughter was to follow soon.

Another one strikingly modern experience is presented in Puah’s autobiography: the discrimination because of age. Never in her whole book is she as angry with men as she is in the section discussing her second emigration to Palestine. She was 70 years old in 1935, had been promised by some Zionist friends in Warsaw before she left that she would be granted a fulfilling part in the making of the country. However, when she got to Jerusalem, „disappointment and bitterness grew not by the day, but by the hours as soon as I started knocking on the doors of our leaders and power brokers… I had no idea that what prevailed in the highest institutions of our new national home was not the Jewish ethic, but benighted bureaucracy…, that our spokesmen were still stuck in the period of the Giving-of-the Torah, when old people were flung off high cliffs.” (p. 193).Her very emotional language reflects how deeply she was hurt.

The most moving parts of her autobiography touch her personal sphere. She gives a close and detailed picture of what life was like to Jewish men and women in Russian Poland and later in independent Poland at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. She married three times, her last partner to be 10 years younger, a marriage which under the circumstances of the time being might be considered some sort of a very personal rebellion. Puah Rakovsky and her family, to whom she stayed very attached in spite of her external brake off, were hit by severe strikes of hard fate: she lost a sister and a brother by suicide; her father not being able to survive this fatal blow died in her arms. She lost her own most beloved first daughter when the young woman gave birth to a third child. This was the first and apparently only time in her life when work couldn’t tear Puah out of despair. She more or less lost her first born son to the Russian revolution, whose basic utopian ideas she shared. But after a six-month-visit in 1928 to the Soviet Union she never met him again. Puah Rakovsky realised already at that time that the manner in which communists treated their political opponents would never lead to a peaceful earthly paradise and, as we all know, she was very farsighted in that. Finally she lost her oldest grandson, who went to Palestine at the age 16. Eager to take an active part in building up the land of hope, went astray and died at the age of 27.

Puah Rakovsky’ wrote her memoirs with an outspoken instructive intent: to show not only how difficult her own life was – even though this aspect is being depicted in detail, it is never done with a mourning attitude – but to tell following generations of women what women’s life was like in those times and under these circumstances. To teach them never to give in and to work hard in shaping a better world for both men and women. „Lo nichnati”, I didn’t give up, was the Hebrew title of the first, though yet uncomplete edition of her life’s story, published in 1951 in Israel.

Even though the autobiography of Puah Rakovsky contains some inconsistencies, chronological leaps and leaves open questions for further research it is as fascinating to read as a pure archival source: raw material for the historian and at the same time the moving story of a courageous Jewish woman who successfully overcame the obstacles on her way to achieve the goals she had set for herself.

The present edition is completed by a great number of footnotes which explain every person mentioned as well as in a very short but precise manner commentate on the most important historical events, not all of which are still familiar to the ordinary reader. For the second edition I would suggest though that the editor takes another look at the map, whoever added it: Eastern Europe seems somewhat distorted, Danzig moved to the place of Riga and Odessa completely lost her port. But these details do in no way lessen the importance of this fascinating autobiography of an exceptional woman of late 19th, early 20th century.

Viktoria Pollmann

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