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140 FRUMKIN, Esther (real name Malka Lifschitz, Esfir’ Frumkina in Russian, known as Esther Frumkin in English) (1880–1943) The best known woman activist in the Russian Jewish revolutionary movement. Esther Frumkin, 1908 (seated second from the left) with delegates to the Chernovits Conference Throughout her notorious—often celebrated—career, Esther Frumkin led a life full of paradoxes. Criticized for opposing the study and popularization of Yiddish at a 1908 conference in Czernowitz (in Ukrainian Bukovina, then part of the AustroHungarian Empire), she later embraced the Bolshevik Revolution and lobbied for Yiddish as the revolutionary language of Jews. She led virulent anti-religious campaigns in the 1920s as the leader of the Communist Party’s Jewish Section, only to be cast aside as party policies shifted. The granddaughter of rabbis, she passionately attacked rabbinical authority. A gifted linguist and advocate for Yiddish, she helped undermine the bases for a distinct Jewish language. An advocate for a separate Jewish 141 working-class culture, she supported policies which accelerated assimilation. A fervent Communist, she spent the last years of her life in a Stalinist labor camp. Born Malka Lifschitz in 1880, into a wealthy merchant’s family in Minsk, she and her two sisters received both Jewish and secular educations. Malka’s revolutionary inclinations were primarily responses to the widespread Jewish poverty she had witnessed in the Minsk of her youth. She taught a women’s circle in Minsk before leaving , at the age of seventeen, for St Petersburg, in order to attend the Bestuzhev Higher Women’s Courses, a hotbed of radical activity. Her interest in philology led her eventually to become fluent in six languages. Malka returned to Minsk in 1900 as a member of the Bund (the Jewish revolutionary socialist party, founded in 1897) and married a fellow Bundist, the engineer Boris Frumkin, who died soon after she gave birth to their only child, a daughter. By the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the Duma elections of 1906, Frumkin (now using the name Esther) had become the only female member of the Bund in a policymaking position. A pedagogue and linguist, Frumkin advocated the establishment of Yiddish schools, modeled on the Montessori schools she had seen in her pre-war travels in Switzerland and Austria. She saw such schools as a means of teaching socialism to Jewish children, as well as preserving Jewish identity. Esther Frumkin first came to prominence in 1908 at the Yiddish Language conference in Czernowitz, during a period of political exile. She (and others) advocated keeping Yiddish as the language of the Eastern European Jewish proletariat, defeating a proposal by the renowned Yiddish writer I. L. Peretz to establish Yiddish as the national language for all Jews. The Zionists, who supported the revival of Hebrew, also vigorously opposed the Peretz proposal. Unlike many Bundists, Esther Frumkin did not see a contradiction between raising the consciousness of Jewish workers and the observance of religious customs in the home. Initially, her vision of the ideal Jewish proletarian home resembled a traditional vision, with the mother lighting the Sabbath candles and the father blessing the wine. The difference was that this Jewish worker family would form the core of a secular Jewish society. From 1917 to 1920, Frumkin’s attitude towards the Bolsheviks developed from an initial position of outright hostility into one of open support and solidarity . Following the February Revolution of 1917, which toppled the Tsar, she became a ‘revolutionary defensist’, supporting Russia’s continued involvement in the War. She joined the Bund Central Committee in April and in May became the editor of the important Yiddish journal Der Vekert (The awakener). In 1918, Frumkin accepted the education post offered her by the Bolshevik majority of the Minsk Revolutionary Council. But at the eleventh Bund conference in March 1919, Esther Frumkin criticized Bolshevik terror and censorship. The Soviet government sought to co-opt Jewish socialism. Esther Frumkin became the only woman in the eleven person strong Central Bureau of the Communist Party’s Evsektsiia (Jewish Section), established in the fall of 1918. For nine years she led efforts to bring “the revolution to the Jewish street” (Gitelman 2001, 111). Frumkin is 142 especially known for her ardent campaign against the religious establishment, exemplified by her pamphlet Doloi ravvinov (Down with the rabbis!). Although at times she admired the tenacity of her opponents, “wrapped in their prayer shawls” (Levin 1990, 72), Frumkin the commissar approved attacks on Jewish communal institutions and decried religious leaders as lishentsy (superfluous...


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