- To Reveal Our Hearts: Jewish Women Writers in Tsarist Russia
In To Reveal Our Hearts: Jewish Women Writers in Tsarist Russia, Carole Balin explores the work and the experience of five women who conformed to neither of the most widely available stereotypes of east European Jewish women: They were neither balebustes (housewives) nor revolutionaries, but writers in Hebrew or Russian. Balin focuses on five women: Miriam Markel-Mosessohn (1839-1920), a Hebrew journalist and translator; Hava Shapiro (1879-1943), a Hebrew journalist and fiction writer; Rashel' Khin (1861-1928), a Russian fiction writer and playwright; Feiga Kogan (1891-1974), a Russian poet and literary critic; and Sofiia Dubnova-Erlikh (1885-1986), a prolific Russian writer of poetry and non-fiction. A chapter is devoted to each woman, offering first biographical and contextual material, then readings of selected works that Balin sees as thematizing the writers' identities as Jews and as women. She concludes with a "Composite Biography," in which she looks at the similarities among the women and the major differences between them. Balin refuses to impose abstract paradigms on her subjects or to draw broader conclusions than warranted. Although she pays attention to the commonalities in their experiences, she acknowledges that these writers were idiosyncratic people who made unconventional decisions and took unexpected life-paths, and she presents each one to the reader as a fascinating, fully fleshed-out character.
The two women who wrote in Hebrew, Markel-Mosessohn and Shapiro, might seem not just idiosyncratic but quixotic. As Naomi Seidman argued in A Marriage Made in Heaven: The Sexual Politics of Hebrew and Yiddish (1997), east European Jews in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries [End Page 268] associated Hebrew with the male voice and Yiddish with the female voice, which was logical, since boys were much more likely than girls to study Hebrew and Aramaic in heder (a traditional boys' primary school) and had access to more advanced study of Talmud. Indeed, by studying rabbinic texts in these languages, Jewish elite men defined themselves as fully masculine, different from the "women and uneducated men" who knew only Yiddish. Balin complicates this picture. Markel-Mosessohn and Shapiro, as she notes, were both taught Hebrew from childhood, at the insistence of their parents. Although their experience in this regard was not typical, neither was it outrageous. Balin points out that both were mentored by older male Hebrew writers, maskilim (proponents of the haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment movement) who greeted their fledgling literary efforts with enthusiasm, not in spite of their gender, but because of it.
Yehudah Leib Gordon, who corresponded with Markel-Mosessohn in Hebrew for two decades, spoke out loudly for improving the position of Jewish women. Most famously, his 1875 poem "Kotso shel yod" (The tip of the letter yod) criticized rabbinic regulations that condemned women who had been abandoned by their husbands to live as agunot, without the legal power to obtain a divorce and remarry. As Balin points out, Gordon's advocacy of women's rights was accompanied by a campaign to infuse the new Hebrew literature with women's voices and women's perspectives. As a maskil and a Hebrew revivalist, Gordon wanted to see a Hebrew literature that would be able to describe the range of emotions and situations evoked in German or Russian literatures. This would require a Hebrew language in which one could write novels with dialogue and interior monologue, exploring the social and inner worlds of Jews of every age and gender. The Hebrew language associated with the experiences of elite males discussing rabbinic texts clearly could not be adequate to this task. Thus, Gordon saw writing by women in Hebrew as "better in style and purer in language" than writing by men, precisely because "the minds of women were not ruined in their youth in the death chambers of the hadarim [schoolrooms]" (p. 16).
It was in this spirit that Gordon greeted the Hebrew writing of Markel-Mosessohn, to whom he dedicated "Kotso shel yod." More than many of the other female Hebrew writers who...