- Staking a Claim: Women Writing in the Yiddish Press in Tsarist Russia by Nurit Orchan
Staking a Claim: Women Writing in the Yiddish Press in Tsarist Russia
Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center, 2013. In Hebrew.
Nurit Orchan’s Staking a Claim: Women Writing in the Yiddish Press in Tsarist Russia breaks new ground not only in the field of Yiddish culture, but also in the history of Jewish women in Eastern Europe. Until Orchan embarked upon the study that led to the writing of this book, many prominent scholars of Yiddish culture doubted the existence of a sufficient corpus of texts published by women in the Yiddish press to support serious research.1 As a result, our understanding of the changes undergone by Jewish society in the Russian Empire was incomplete or even distorted. Orchan’s study reveals that in the period from 1881 to 1914, 206 women published over 400 items in the Yiddish press, in a range of genres: korespondentsya (letters to the editors), articles, essays, dramas, stories and novels. This book sheds light on how these women writers viewed the transition of Jewish society and culture from tradition to modernity.
The New Spirit and the Splintered Nest
Staking a Claim is divided into two parts. The first, entitled “The New Spirit,” begins with the weekly Yiddishes folksblat (1881–1890) and treats women writers who published in periodicals before the advent of the Yiddish dailies in 1903. The second part, “The Splintered Nest,” starts with the first Yiddish daily, Der fraynd, and ends with the outbreak of World War I.
The first Yiddish newspaper in the Russian Empire was the weekly Kol mevaser, published from 1862 to 1872. Viewed as a tool of modernization, the Yiddish press was rejected by the traditional authorities, but it was welcomed by women. It provided them not only with a means to acquire knowledge of world events and activities in other Jewish communities, but also with a platform for self-expression in their own language, Yiddish, the language spoken and understood by all. [End Page 150]
In 1881, Alexander Tsederboym (1816–1893), who had been the editor of Kol mevaser, established a new Yiddish weekly, Dos yiddishes folksblat. More sophisticated than Kol mevaser, the new paper assigned separate sections to distinct genres, among them korespondentsya (letters to the editor), the first genre employed by women to express themselves in the press. Women comprised roughly a third of the contributors to this section of the Yiddishes folksblat. Although most were from small towns, shtetlekh, they seem to have possessed a good idea of the social function of the press. However, they do not express any doubts concerning their traditional roles or status within Jewish society. This is made especially clear by what is absent from their letters. No one speaks of the burdens of family life or raising children, and not one letter advocates any form of formal education for girls (Staking a Claim, pp. 45–63). But the women were not afraid to condemn the authorities. For example, one of them complained about the Jewish high court (Beit hadin hagadol) of Vilna, so respected by all, which forbade the soaking of dishes and purging of pots to kosher them for Pesach, ignoring the needs of poverty-stricken communities. The editor supported her.2
It seems that the editors’ acceptance of letters from male and female correspondents alike encouraged women to express themselves in additional genres. Chronologically, the second genre they took up was that of literary prose-writing. Female writers of this genre came from enlightened (maskilic) homes and usually published their works with the help of close (male) relatives or friends. Unlike the writers of letters to the editor, these writers depict a world irreconcilably split between tradition and modernity. Mothers are portrayed as uneducated, superstitious, narrow-minded and resisting any sign of progress. They have no insight into their children’s needs and at times are simply cruel, as in Maria Lerner’s (1860–1927) story about a mother who abused her daughter from her birth until her death.3 Fathers, by contrast, despite their piety, initiate general education for their children—an act...