Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues 7 (2004) 97-115
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Discovering Puah Rakovsky
Paula E. Hyman
Memoirs have served social and cultural historians well. With their anecdotal style, they provide glimpses into the everyday. When written far in the past, the ordinary events they describe make clear to us how much of a foreign country the past is.1 Thus, both Leon Modena and Glikl of Hameln, living in seventeenth-century Venice and Germany respectively, describe as a matter of course the vulnerability to disease and violence that characterized the European population of their era.2 When written with an acute consciousness of how the passage of time has changed the society and culture in which they were raised, memoirists can function as involved anthropological participants, carefully noting the customs of their folk. Pauline Wengeroff lovingly describes the patterns of behavior of traditionally observant Russian Jews as she experienced them in the first half of the nineteenth century. Yekhezkel Kotik published his memoirs in 1912 to recount a family saga and to depict the decline of traditional shtetl life.3 Sometimes memoirists tell a dramatic story, as is the case with Ita Kalish, who broke with her hasidic family after her rebbe father's death, moved to Warsaw, and kidnapped her daughter to Berlin, before emigrating to Palestine.4 And sometimes autobiographical writings, like the accounts by Polish adolescents written in the 1930s in response to a contest sponsored by the YIVO, a social science research institute, reveal the bleak daily lives that characterized a period.5 In all cases, memoirs transmit the values of the time in which they are written and the social positions of their authors more reliably than they recount historical events.
Historians of women are particularly dependent on memoirs, and not only to provide anecdotes to enliven our books. Because so much of women's experience has been rooted in the domestic sphere and so much of women's history has been deemed insignificant, the documentary evidence of women's lives is far thinner than is the case with men. Women appear less frequently than men in archival documents and published sources. Only in rare cases, [End Page 97] most often judicial disputes, do they evade the condition of object. Because there is relatively little documentary evidence about women in history, and much of what exists is filtered through male commentators, women's memoirs are particularly valuable. They demonstrate how various women experienced their place within community and society and how they chose to act or refrain from acting. Nevertheless, as memoirs, they must be read and interpreted with skepticism (as should all historical sources); they have to be contextualized and, when possible, supplemented by external documents.
No memoirist is typical of an entire community or social class, but sometimes an unusual individual, though not typical of her generation, can offer an unparalleled glimpse of her own circle and suggest women's consciousness and concerns that transcend her own experience. She can highlight issues that disturbed broad strata within the community and thereby alert us to the distortions that occur when women's experience is ignored. She can also point to phenomena of which there is scant documentary evidence.
Puah Rakovsky, who was born in 1865 in Bialystok and wrote her memoirs in Palestine between 1940 and 1942, is such a person. Rakovsky provides an entrée into the tangles of Jewish cultural and political life in Poland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, through the eyes of a female educator, political activist, and conscious feminist. Zikhroynes fun a yidisher revolutsyonerin, first published in Hebrew in 1951, was not published in the original Yiddish until 1954.6 I had four reasons for bringing it to an English-reading public, under the title My Life as a Radical Jewish Woman: Memoirs of a Zionist Feminist in Poland.7 It points to the myriad forms of women's activity, barely acknowledged in historical literature, in the Jewish communities of Russian Poland, the parts of Poland annexed to Russia at the end...