- Bildungs Romance:East European Jews and the Desire for Education
The genre of the bildungsroman is so widely recognized that my spell check program passed over it with no complaint. We are all familiar with the novels of growth, maturation, individuation, and education in its broadest sense that fit into this category of literature. Many autobiographies, especially those written in a literary style or with other gestures toward literature, might also be considered as part of the genre. As Marcus Moseley has demonstrated, Rousseau’s confessional model has been hugely influential in the reading and writing of autobiography generally, as well as in the European Jewish community of letters.1
This essay seeks to define two autobiographies written on the margins of that community, not so much as bildungsroman but as bildungs romance. The original German term literally means a novel of education, but of course bildung, like its English counterpart, can encompass entirely informal and nonscholarly types of education. Nonetheless, it can also be used to mean education in its formal and scholastic sense, as it will be here. In referring to romance I do not mean to write about the love lives of the two authors, although in truth both autobiographies include information about courtship and marriage. Nor do I plan to engage in the interesting discussion of the East European Jewish Haskalah as a part of the Romantic movement recently sparked by Olga Litvak’s book.2 My focus in this brief essay will be on the intense desire for education exhibited in two autobiographies written by women whose lives spanned the upheavals [End Page 419] of the turn of the century in Eastern Europe, and I will ask what we might learn from them.
Puah Rakowski, born in 1865 to a religious family in Bialystok, later became a Zionist activist and died in the State of Israel in 1955. In addition, Rakowski was a pioneering educator and served as a teacher and school director in Poland before her emigration to Israel. Anna Vygodskaia was born in Bobruisk, also in the Pale of Jewish Settlement in the Russian Empire, but to a less traditional family, in 1868. Like Rakowski, Vygodskaia devoted her life to education. Although her training took her abroad at times, she ended up settling in the Soviet Union. She died at the hands of the Nazis in 1943. Both women wrote autobiographies late in life focusing mainly on their youths. Rakowski’s extends until 1939 but contains far more detail in the chapters about her early years. Vygodskaia expressed a desire to compose a second volume about her later life but was unable to complete this task.3
Rakowski originally wrote her memoirs in Yiddish. They were published in 1954 but not before a Hebrew version had already come out.4 Vygodskaia’s Russian autobiography was published in 1938.5 Although both were fairly well received at the time, they were largely forgotten until recent translations into English drew renewed attention. In her introduction to the translation she edited, as well as in an article devoted to Rakowski, Paula Hyman emphasizes the highly gendered nature of the reminiscences, as well as their value to historians of the period. Hyman tells us that Rakowski’s book “demonstrates the importance of recovering the history and voices of East European Jewish women. It reminds us that we cannot understand the intimate world of family life or the public life of the community, the religious sensibilities of Jews or their very identity if women and their concerns remain invisible.”6
Writing several generations before, in his introduction to Vygodskaia’s publication, the Russian Jewish historian Shimon Dubnow had similar insights:
In the immediate style of a lively story, without any literary embellishments, the author does not so much illustrate the spiritual life of that [End Page 420] generation, with all of its ideological struggles, as present a picture of everyday life and all of the minor details to which male memoirists usually pay no heed, but which are so very important for the history of our material culture and national traditions.7
Indeed it was Dubnow who, in his lifelong quest to compose and...