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  • Princess or Prisoner? Jewish Women in Jerusalem, 1840–1914
  • Gerald M. Berg
Princess or Prisoner? Jewish Women in Jerusalem, 1840–1914. By Margalit Shilo (Hanover, N.H., University Press of New England, 2005) 330 pp. $29.95

Thanks to this translation from Hebrew, English speakers can now benefit from the insights of an accomplished Israeli historian. Shilo presents a thick description of the lived lives of Jewish women in nineteenth-century Jerusalem, and she largely succeeds in her stated goal to strike an appropriate balance between theory and narrative (xxviii). Though aware of the anthropology of family and pilgrimage as well as the feminist critiques of women's social environments, Shiloh refuses to become their captive. Rather, she sets the experience of her subjects within the time-honored frame of historiography that finds meaning in the narrative sequence of events localized in time and space.

The Jewish women of Jerusalem resembled their East European cohorts, deeply enmeshed in ultra-Orthodox beliefs that provided both spiritual enlightenment and cultural certainties. They brought this mentality to Jerusalem, but added the quest for spiritual fulfillment that many women found closed to them in Europe. Shilo follows the Jewish life cycle of these immigrant women, treating the private world, such as marriage, and then widening her focus to encompass the public realm of economic and philanthropic activities that opened for women in Jerusalem's distinctive environment. Unmarried women formed an unusually high proportion of the population. New forms of religious practice that they developed around holy sites allowed them to express religious sensibilities in ways denied to them in Eastern Europe. Education for women also offered a novel opportunity, especially toward the end of the century with the introduction of the Enlightenment ideas of equality and self-realization.

Shilo skillfully envisions the ambiguous realities that these changes wrought. Though tradition had assigned women the job of earning money to support their husband's Torah study, it accorded them no rise in status. That same tradition of work, however, formed the basis of their future liberation. By the end of the nineteenth century, even the most orthodox clerics recognized the importance of a practical education for women. New schools for Jerusalem's Jewish women flourished. Shilo tells such stories of change in loving detail, with all the contradictions of real life that defy general statements.

She does not shy away from expressing her own sympathies. Was the Jerusalem woman a "Princess or a Prisoner"? The title of the book is far more than a marketing ploy. It represents the author's stance as a judge as well as a historian. Shiloh clearly sides with the modernizing ideas of the early Zionists who strove to break the grip of tradition on Jewish culture. Each story concludes with a moralistic verve that extols liberation from religious oppression, as understood by twentieth-century moderns. Needless to say, tradition takes a beating: Women of the old system "became victims on the altar of their husband's spiritual life" (6). [End Page 330]

Was the Jerusalem woman a "Princess or a Prisoner"? To Shilo, "there is only one possible answer" (68). Yet her deep engagement with historical method saves her work from the typical pitfalls of judgment by hindsight. She embellishes her moral judgments with a host of contrary details and a variety of interpretive possibilities. Her fastidious presentation of contradictory data often permits judgments contrary to hers.

The result is an engaging and engaged narrative in which the author's subjects receive their due. Shilo's women never become mere representations of a theory or an analytical category. They emerge from their own historical environments with all of the trappings of irreconcilable contradiction. It is a deft performance.

Shilo has made her name charting the course of modern Zionists who began to overturn Jewish tradition in the decades surrounding World War I. In her epilogue, she suggests that the new world that the Zionists created might have some connection with the old world that is replaced (224–228). With her deep exposure to both eras, traditional and revolutionary, she occupies the rare position of observing Zionist innovations from the perspective of its antecedents.

Gerald M. Berg


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pp. 330-331
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