Home Culture Books & Authors The Enlightenment as seen through a woman’s writings

The Enlightenment as seen through a woman’s writings

To Tread on New Ground: Selected Hebrew Writings of Hava Shapiro, edited by Carole B. Balin and Wendy Zierler (Wayne State University Press, 2014)
To Tread on New Ground: Selected Hebrew Writings of Hava Shapiro, edited by Carole B. Balin and Wendy Zierler (Wayne State University Press, 2014)

The Haskalah (Enlightenment) of the mid-19th century was like a deluge washing across the Jews of Europe, sundering centuries of strict traditionalism, social seclusion and intellectual constraints.

Some Jews, swept up by the new, heady sense of openness and putative freedoms, severed the roots of their past and soon washed away from their people. Some planted their traditions even deeper into the soil of the ancient ways, seeking security in calcifying clay that they believed protected them from change.

Most Jews however, tried to absorb the torrent’s strong, creative force to attach and adapt modern ways onto their traditions and sense of peoplehood. They did not always succeed in creating a sheltering structure: some found sanctuary in the new hybrid way of life, while others became estranged.

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It was in the world of culture, letters and the arts that the Jews’ struggles to find their way and their compromise with modernity was most evident. And it was in the myriad journalistic publications among the Jews of Europe at this time – newspapers, pamphlets and magazines – that their struggles found voice.

In a masterful essay titled The Silenced Voice of a People, published in the landmark work The Jewish Press that Was (1975), the late Israeli editor and journalist Yehuda Gotthelf noted that the world of Jewish media in Europe came alive during the Haskalah. It was a time when all of European culture, it seemed, underwent an intensive intellectual ferment.

In Gotthelf ’s words: “Despite stress and poverty, there sprang up in those days hundreds of associations, clubs, libraries and political parties, and on top of them all – a Jewish press. The world between the two world wars was beset by a feverish ideological and public awakening: hopes kindled by the Balfour Declaration, disappointments generated by the violent, political upheavals in Russia, and the many isms that attracted Jews of all kinds – Bundism, Socialism and Zionism.”

Toward the end of the 19th century, but especially between the two world wars, Jewish life experienced a cultural outpouring of energy, daring and self-assertion. The Jewish newspaper was, in many respects, the key manifestation of that effusion.

Jewish newspapers were printed throughout Europe in the local languages, in Hebrew – the language that was just then being revived – and in the language most spoken among the Jews of continental Europe: Yiddish.

Records at the academic institution YIVO, the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut, established in 1925 and now headquartered in New York, show that before World War II, there were some 230 Yiddish-language periodicals in Poland alone. Twenty-seven were dailies, 100 weeklies, 24 bi-weeklies and 58 monthlies.

A Jewish periodical could be found in almost every town in Poland where Jews lived. At one point, there were five daily Jewish newspapers in Warsaw alone. Jewish journalists in Europe even had their own professional association. Its premises at 13 Tlomackie St. in Warsaw were known throughout the Jewish and non-Jewish world of journalism as an exciting centre of discussion and debate.

The Jewish press was vibrant all through Europe – in the then-Soviet Union, the Baltic countries, Lithuania, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Salonika and Scandinavia. More than 800 Jewish newspapers existed in Europe before the outbreak of World War II.

Professors Carole Balin and Wendy Zierler, both at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York College, combine their expertise in Jewish history and in Jewish literature and feminist studies respectively, to provide a new, unique, powerful insight into the vanished Jewish life and Jewish press of Europe.

The lens through which they shine that view is the mostly unknown life of Hava Shapiro, a maskilah (student of the Enlightenment), Zionist activist, journalist, literary critic, short story writer and diarist who wrote entirely in Hebrew.

Like many of her contemporaries who were at that time pioneering their lives in Mandatory Palestine, Shapiro was a bold and innovative pioneer planting seeds in the newly flowering soil of Hebrew literature in Europe.

Balin and Zierler are effusive in their assessment of Shapiro’s significance for the modern reader. “That a woman was regularly writing good, readable Hebrew prose in the Diaspora in the early 20th century is notable in and of itself. Equally significant, however, is the historical content of Shapiro’s writing. As one would expect of an Eastern European whose life spanned 1878 to 1943, Shapiro bumped up against cataclysmic world events and thus chronicled publicly in the press, and privately in her diary and letters, the Russian Revolution and both world wars as well as critical episodes in the Jews’ past, including pogroms, mass migration, ruptures in traditional Jewish life and the development of Zionism.”

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One of the many strengths of the book is its organization. Balin and Zierler have compartmentalized Shapiro’s writings into four categories: Fiction; The Diary 1900-1941; Letters; Reportage, Literary Criticism and Essays. They add a fifth section comprised of essays about Shapiro. At the beginning of each of the different sections, Balin and Zierler provide extensive commentary about the material they have gathered. These introductory mini-essays by the editors are impressively substantive and informative. But the diadem in the crown of this work is the eclectically diverse, compelling, poignant, moving writing of Hava Shapiro.

The light of notoriety and celebrity shone very little upon Shapiro during her life. Even during the Enlightenment, male writers cast too long a shadow for equally skilled and talented women writers such as Shapiro to be noticed.

Shapiro often wrote under the pseudonym Eim Kol Hai (Mother of All Living), a play upon her name Hava, which is the biblical name of the first woman, Eve.

Balin and Zierler provide a moving explanation for this: “Shapiro regarded her perspective – namely a woman’s perspective – as critical to the birthing process of modern Hebrew literature… In the case of the modern Eim Kol Hai, it is she, Shapiro, who casts herself as a partner to the male progenitors of modern Hebrew literature and urges them in the strongest terms possible to consider and embrace her viewpoint.”

The Holocaust took Shapiro’s life. Thanks to Balin and Zierler, today, more than 70 years later, we can still hear her voice.

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