- Self, Other, and Community:Jewish Women's Autobiography
Autobiography is the presentation of one's self. The self, however, cannot be understood in isolation; it must be explored in relation to others. Writers can take their starting points either as members of a community, for whom self-discovery is based on a realization of how one's self differs from that of other members of the community, or as individuals exploring how their selfhood is similar to others.
Each term in the expression "Jewish women's autobiography" raises difficult questions, because it locates the writers in two communities: Jews and women. If a woman is writing her life, how does it reflect the experience of Jews? If she is writing as a Jew, how does it reflect the experience of women? And if she is writing as an individual, to what extent does she reflect the experience of either community—Jews or women? I will use these questions as a guide to examining the problematics of autobiography, women's autobiography, and Jewish autobiography, and I will then offer a reading and comparison of four Jewish women's autobiographical texts from the early twentieth century.
Autobiographies present a paradox to the reader. The writers appear to offer first-hand information, factual repositories of historical data, and a faithful telling of their lives, and readers usually accept them as reliable sources of both memory and history. Upon closer examination, however, autobiographies are usually found to contain a mixture of omission and embellishment, exaggeration and understatement, candid confession and outright invention, presenting significant challenges to their use as historical sources.1 [End Page 116]
Many works, including novels, poems, letters, diaries, and memoirs, contain autobiographical features and personal references; without being formal autobiographies, they are self-revealing, self-reflective, and self-assessing. Formal autobiography, however, involves a self-conscious, self-contained narrative, told from a specific, usually retrospective point of view. Most often, the act of writing them follows some sort of conversion experience, that is, a radical change in self-orientation that has involved stepping outside one's self and one's community. The self becomes conscious of the self by leaving it. Autobiography thus constitutes an attempt to form a comprehensive, coherent picture of one's self as a totality in the wake of such an altering, dramatic, or defining experience.
The conversion experience, especially in the modern period, involves a wide range of turning points, traumas, or major changes, not necessarily or exclusively in the realm of religion, as was usually the case in the Middle Ages. Examples include setting up life with a new partner or in a new country; gaining or losing a major position; acquiring knowledge; or attaining or losing fame or fortune.
Looking for clues about what prompted the autobiographical act, identifying the conversion, and seeing how it impacted on the telling of the life before and after it, constitute some of the main tasks in reading an autobiography. Paradoxically, while readers may turn to autobiography as a source of positivistic historical information, accurate reports of events as they happened, authentic memory, or just plain facts, they often find that faithfulness in conveying this information was not a priority for the writer, making these the least significant aspects of an autobiography. For those who persist in trying to gauge "what really happened" or what the author did or did not do, this mixture of what could be called fact and fiction is the most problematic aspect of autobiography. However, it offers the richest opportunity for understanding the writer and the historical period in which she or he wrote.
The mixture of "fact" and "fiction" is not necessarily a willful distortion on the author's part. While living life, one does not know the outcome of an event as it unfolds, but when writing autobiography, one does. The retrospective imposition of a design upon one's life may express both fundamental realizations about it and a highly personal retelling. In constructing her personal narrative and presenting her sense of self, the writer draws upon certain information, perhaps embellishing it with invention or the fabrication of memory, and omits other details. She...