Sunday, February 6, 2011

Jewish Women-Righteous, Torah-Educated, Powerful: An Early Jewish Feminist Interpretation

An Early Jewish Feminist: Naomi Jacobs's Great-Grandmother Mary Limon Wiernikowsky

Early Feminist
Mary Lemon Wiernikowsky,
 Naomi Jacob's Great Grandmother
In 1902, 27 years before Virginia Woolf’s, A Room of Our Own, a twenty-three year old Rebbetzin wrote an article in beautiful Hebrew in a major periodical, Ha-Maggid, arguing that women are essential to the promulgation of Jewish culture and that Jewish women must receive a complete Jewish education. (For more on the history of the education of Eastern European Jewish Girls, see the essential work of Dr. Eliyana R. Adler).  Born in 1879 in Slonim, ( just three years before Woolf, Miriam  (Mirka/Mary) was of Sephardi descent and family legends suggests her ancestor was a deserter from Napolean’s army. She was distantly related to Mordechai Limon, the late Israeli military hero
   According to the 1977 Slonim Yizkor  Book (Post-Holocaust Memorial Book), Mary overcame parental disapproval and managed to obtain a splendid Jewish education, including Talmud, with her best friend, Hinda Schluper, daughter of the Slonim rabbi. Mary is in fact mentioned in a book written by one of Hinda’s relatives  (Esther Rafaeli, “The Modest Genius—Reb Aisel Harif” pages 314-315).

Werne Family
Mary Limon Wiernikowky (Center)
    Mary moved to Königsberg  after marrying Isaac Wiernikowsky (later chief  Orthodox rabbi of Los Angeles).  According to a letter written by Isaac printed in the Slonim volume, the editor of Ha-Maggid confessed that he visited their home because he thought her husband, not Mary, had composed her published work. When she wrote the article below right in front of him, he realized she really was the author. She also published in the journal Ha-Tzafir.

  Mary had four children. Bertha, not pictured, Benjamin (to the left), Jake, and Florence (born Fanny), my grandmother. Not long after this picture was taken, Mary, like Virginia Woolf and so many gifted writers, took her own life. She was only 40 years old. Had Mary lived longer, she would have been better known. Her descendants include seven grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and at least two great-great-grandchildren. 
   The article was written for Passover. I have done my best to translate it from the Hebrew.

April 17, 1902

On Account of Righteous Women
By Miriam Wiernikowsky Königsberg

“As in the days when you came out of the land of Egypt, show us marvelous things”
[tr. See Micah 7:15]
Some weeks ago all the newspapers in Russia praised their great writer Nicholas Vasilyevich Gogol. Likewise, the Hebrew newspapers dedicated lengthy articles on the jubilee year following his death. And here, if the author of the book, “Before Bulia” deserves that we will divert our attention even a short while from our own condition and we join in his jubilees, which is still doubtful. But just as God does not withhold the reward for a fancy conversation, so we are not entitled to ignore it and the conversation on which I seek to attract our brothers, discussed this superb author in his words about 
“The woman and her value in the world.”
“You imagine,” says Gogol in the book, “that woman’s activity in her society was useless, but I say the very opposite: the activity of a woman is very necessary . . . and especially in this time!”
Thus is the structure of a fancy conversation that is uttered by the Russian literary genius in Russian literature, we the Jews, who are all wise, who are all clever, who all know the Torah [tr. Phrase from Passover Haggadah}, three things alone removed the Israelites from the land of Egypt, a harsh land whose king was harsh and whose decrees were harsh . . . but if we look at these three things in a clearer and brighter way then we will see clearly that they conceal much more power and strength and ability to fight against the yoke of a more difficult exile than through swords and spears, or horses and chariots of war. Changes of name, clothing and language are the three angels of assimilation. As long as the Jews is ashamed of his Hebrew name, of every clothing item that makes it obvious that it is Jewish and of his language and he changes them, his Hebrew name he changes to one typical and ordinary in that land in whose midst he dwells, everything whose Jewish mark is upon it he endeavors to distance from himself and abolishes his language which is an inheritance from his ancestors, they the Jew begins to sink still further in the clinging filth of the exile alone, the exile of the body, he further suffers in this the very harsh exile of the soul, because all hope has left him and he also does not expect any help he will die in the dust of his race and will not feel even the blade which cuts into his flesh . . . not so if he will keep the heritage of his ancestors, upon his Hebrew name there will be his pride and in the language of his ancestors he will become great – then, these three things are made for him into three angels of salvation. And these angels who warm their hearts and bore children to them, and children of children, with whom together, they raised the flag of our ancestors. Therefore our ancestors attained merit while in Egypt, for in their youth and their old age, with their sons and with their daughters all went with one counsel and one opinion for sake of the Lord to save their people. And the Lord, the wonder worker, saw that it was time to bestow favor because the appointed time had arrived, so he sped up his salvation and showed them his wonders. And it is upon us to instruct for if it were not for those three angels of peace who were there for our ancestors in Egypt, is it not that we and our children and the children of our children would be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt (tr. Allusion to Passover Haggadah).
After all of this, the words of our wise ones, should come to no surprise in saying that despite what was indicated above, the Israelites would not have been redeemed but “on the account of righteous women” because truly two sayings of the Talmud have a single meaning. 
From then on and forever, even before humans recognized the advantage of women and agreed to give them special rights for their sake, women were already the moving spirit in the spheres of life and they inclined the men to their wishes. God gave power to the first man and it should have been that he would have been given the Torah, but as much as he desired not to turn either right or left from the commandments of the Lord, he was not able to control himself not to listen to the advice of his wife to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Our ancestor Abraham, symbol of good and righteousness, when he brought guests into his home, and was very upset that they would not come to his home, he suddenly turned heart and forgot his offspring when Sarah his wife said to him, “Chase away the son of the maidservant” . . . only due to the advice that Rebecca our mother did Jacob our father cunningly received the blessing of the dew of the sky and from the fertility of the land. Examples and tales like these I could supply in the thousands, but I do not think that this is necessary because famous saying that the heart of men is in the hand of a woman and that what she wishes, she will incline him towards, does not require evidence. From now on, every man will understand that even these three angels of “name, language and clothing” were in the hands of women and in their hands was the ability to turn them into angry angels of assimilation, to soothe their men in the clinging filth of a long and bitter exile, they were able to turn them into the angels of salvation, to revert their captivity, all according to the desire of the women . . . and when they did not change their names, their clothing and their language, it was only “on account of righteous women” that they did so.
 The woman who is not righteous – begins first of all to be ashamed with her Hebrew name and her entire desire to change it for a foreign one. Little by little she begins to send away from herself anything in which the Jewish odor emits from it, afterwards she causes her husband and the members of her household also to forget the language in order to seem like the inhabitants of the land  . . . Although it is truly very harsh for this man, this new beginning, not with a willing heart does he give the bill of divorce to the holy things of his heart and the heart of his people but he gives in even though he still hopes that he will come back and return . . . but the experience teaches that it is not sufficiently in his power after this . . . although truly, the deed of the woman is great.  But God wanted to give merit to Israel and so fulfill this promise that he offered to our ancestors – what did he do? He created “righteous women” in that generation, women who cared for the lot of their people, wishing to improve it and remove it from under the suffering of Egypt, which suppressed them to freedom . . . the women who were not only not ashamed by their Jewish names and did not strive to distance anything that bears the seal of Judaism, and they did not cause their children to forget their language, rather, in great affection they would endear all the holy things of our people upon men and children – in this way they ignited an intense love of their people in their hearts and great zealous flames for all of its holy things – And thus Israel bears eternal salvations!
Such was the work of women in the days past – now, come and think how great could be their work now during the present time.
The situation of the current and upcoming generation is that of great danger. It is on the verge of not knowing its people and its language and it distances itself each day from the tradition of the ancestors, which connects our souls together in a chain and keeps us who are scattered and separated throughout the world as a single living and existing nation. Those who distance themselves from the Israelite body feels contempt for all the holy things of Israel, because they do not know the secrets they contain. Can we then take for ourselves spiritual warriors who will serve honorably in the temple of the national idea which now fills all the spaces of our world? Can we take people who will lead before us? The situation of the coming generation and the situation of our people fully needs salvation and this salvation can only come to us by the hand of a woman.  As the power of the women then so is the power of the women now and perhaps with even greater vigor and increased strength, it can change the whole world with all its fullness in a single glance in a single wish. As was then, so now, they have took nine in conversation (tr. This alludes to a statement in the Babylonian Talmudic Tractate Kedushim 49 that “of ten measures of gossip that came down into the world, women took nine") to tempt their husbands and to persuade them to change their minds. The women can provide the education to their children according to their wishes and together with the milk of breasts they can provide it also with the Jewish feeling, which will accompany us through every path in life . . . all of this is within women’s capability – the righteous ones! But who will supply them for us? Where are these women of valor in whom the heart of our people could be secure, who will reward with good and not bad, who will open their mouths with wisdom and the teaching of mercy on their tongues – give us righteous women!
And still it seems to you, that the work of a woman is worthless within national thought? But isn’t it evident that this is not true? A woman’s work can be great and honorable, especially in a time like this.
In a time like this where the first and last task is only to make souls for our people to wake and revive nationalism, who else but a woman has the ability to begin and finish this work? We need only “righteous women,” we need to teach them our Torah, our language, and our history ...
    And the writers who stand on the watchtower, are silent . . .
O brothers the writers! To your palates a shofar and with me cry out to the ears of our people, give us “righteous women” and redemption will be ours!

My Guest Blogger, Naomi S. S. Jacobs, received her Ph.D in Early Judaism at Durham University with Loren T. Stuckenbruck. She recently taught as a Postdoctoral Fellow in Hebrew Bible and Biblical Hebrew at Washington University in St. Louis. Her latest publications include “Nebuchadnezzar's Hibernian Cousin”, in the John J. Collins Festschrift and “Disability,” forthcoming in the Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion. Her book, Delicious Prose: Reading the Tale of Tobit with Food and Drink, is in preparation. She also is the creator of the art blog, and offers professional dissertation and book coaching for writers in the humanities and social sciences.


WomanistNTProf said...

Wow, Naomi's great grandmother's hermeneutics and call to "righteous women" to bring about salvation is powerful -- reminds me of Anna Julia Cooper (might be good to put the two in conversation). I can only imagine what it meant to other women (and men) to read these words at that time. It demonstrates that in spite of the restraints placed on women in every age, across ethnicities, geography and religious expression, women have engaged in intellectual and activist activities and nation-building calling peoples to act and be. Women have a powerful impact and role to play in societies.

Anonymous said...

Here is the link for Dr. Eliyana R. Adler's book

In Her Hands: The Education of Jewish Girls in Tsarist Russia