In her memoir, Puah Rakovsky highlights central tensions that characterized the evolution of Eastern European Jewry during her lifetime. Driven by such tensions, Rakovsky’s radicalism permeated through personal, social, and political realms. Her revolutionary spirit challenged Jewish tradition, education, and Zionism from an active and feminist stance. By exploring these debates and obstacles, My Life as a Radical Jewish Woman accentuates the Jewish world’s heterogeneity of the time. While Puah’s life was uncommon in many ways, her struggles, goals, and influence embody the widespread changes of this diverse and transforming Jewish community.
In 1865, Rakovsky was born into a traditional family in Bialystok. From an honorable lineage of rabbis, Puah was raised in piety and religious observance. Despite this upbringing, Rakovsky rebelled against tradition in a unique form of radicalism. Puah’s defiance originated in her personal affairs and soon extended to wider activism in the larger Jewish community. Her radicalism commenced at an early age, when young Puah concluded that there is no God; “If that is so, I said to myself, I don’t have to be pious” (28). This rejection of piety distanced Puah from her family, as she explains, “…I had become a terrible heretic, had thrown away my wig, had a non-kosher kitchen. My parents washed their hands of me and thought I might ultimately marry a goy.” (48) This personal rebellion emerged most impressively in Rakovsky’s marital affairs. Her autobiography invests much discussion in criticizing traditional Jewry for its irrational and immoral methods in matchmaking children who, according to Puah, are too young and incapable of creating a loving marriage. She was married at 16 years old against her will. Despite the strength of her family’s resistance, Puah divorced her first husband and married twice more. Rakovsky criticized legality and custom for suppressing true love and enforcing unequal familial roles.
Amid her opposition, Puah still retained a strong Jewish identity, instead of assimilating or converting as many secular Jews did at the time. Alternatively, Puah worked to incite wider change in the Jewish community. She transformed her convictions against traditional Judaism into motivation for a lifelong mission to propagate Jewish women’s independence. Her memoir reads, “Living my independent life, … I didn’t forget my inner obligation to fight for the freedom of women, especially Jewish women, always the most enslaved by all of the self-appointed guardians who burdened them and apparently wanted to save their souls” (54). Rakovsky aimed to liberate Jewish women from the cultural and legal oppression of Jewish tradition, and she perceived women’s economic independence as the pathway to such progress.
It is important to explore how Rakovsky’s criticisms and ideals reflect the developing diversity of her surrounding Jewish community. Many Jews with varying convictions began to move away from traditional Judaism at this time. In addition to trends of assimilation, large numbers of Jewish revolutionists, including maskilim, Zionists, Bundists, and Russian Socialists, were raised in traditional Jewish homes and later broke off into the secular world. As the Russian Haskalah movement gained strength in the mid-nineteenth century, maskilim spread sentiment opposing the rabbinic establishment and criticizing Jewish cultural isolation. Mainstream Zionism also struggled with Jewish tradition, as Puah writes in her description of the Fourth Zionist Congress, “The sharpest debate revolved around the question of how to take Jewish culture out of the control of the rabbis” (66). Rakovsky’s rebellion against traditional Jewry was certainly unique due to her feminist activism, but her memoir also sheds light onto a transforming, heterogeneous Jewish population that struggled to balance Jewish culture, secularism, and modernity.
A major element of Puah’s radicalism was manifested in her experience, ideology, and leadership ventures in education. Throughout her autobiography, readers observe a multitude of tensions surrounding education– Enlightenment vs. Jewish identity, gender equity vs. Jewish culture, and individual empowerment vs. collectivism. These tensions reflect the variety of evolving currents within Puah’s Jewish society. Impressively, Puah’s nuanced goals and activism found common ground within these dichotomies. Rakovsky herself was remarkable for her expansive knowledge. Studious since childhood, Rakovsky could read and write in six languages. She was well read in Jewish studies, as well as in secular topics, and she continued her self-education through adulthood. In the book’s introduction, Paula Hyman notes, “How unusual Puah’s accomplishments were is indicated by the fact that in the 1897 Russian census 59.9 perfect of Jewish women of her age were illiterate (including in Yiddish)” (5). Rakovsky defied cultural pressures to terminate her studies because of her gender. Also, while many educated Jews strayed away from learning Torah and Hebrew in pursuit of a secular education, Puah insisted on a continual balance between Enlightenment education and Jewish studies for herself, her students, and her wider objectives.
Puah struck this balance by approaching Jewish traditional learning from a modern feminist perspective. She maintained that education is the key to a successful Jewish future, but the traditional gender inequality in Jewish communities must first be defeated. Rakovsky writes, “If both Jewish girls and boys had studied our Torah, culture, and customs; then how many thousands of Jewish mothers would have been saved from assimilation and conversion…” (25-26). In her work as a teacher and principle, Puah nurtured individual, economic independence while simultaneously cultivating a strong Jewish collective. She perceived education as self-liberation, a pathway toward personal freedom, but her pedagogical objectives reached out to shape the whole community. Her memoir reads, “I can boast that I was one of the pioneers of the movement in Poland to make the Jewish masses productive. Intuition led me to start that work among individual Jews.” (55) This blend of feminism, socialism, individualism, Enlightenment, and Jewish tradition is what made Rakovsky’s educational idealism and activism so revolutionary.
In Puah’s careful navigation through various educational tensions, readers understand the effects of a changing Jewry. Maskilim created modern Jewish schools, which promoted Enlightenment subjects like math, science, literature, and history over the traditional Jewish curriculum. Strong currents of Russian and Jewish socialism resonated among many young Jews. European bourgeois culture attracted numbers of Jewish intellectuals, who traveled to universities around Europe. These different perspectives originated as reactions to waves of pogroms, anti-Semitic governmental policies, propagation of Enlightenment ideas, Jewish tendencies of assimilation and conversion, and increasing Jewish movement throughout Europe, to America, and to Palestine. Jews searched for solutions to this instability. Puah integrated these different approaches to create her vision for a well-balanced education system that empowers all Jewish individuals, especially women, and mobilizes a productive Jewish collective.
Puah’s commitment to education permeated into her Zionist radicalism as well. She established and became a prominent leader in women Zionist organization, in which her pedagogical ambitions for Jewish society materialized into reality. “[The] main goal,” she writes, “was to educate the lowest class of Jewish women, to make young Jewish women productive, and to evoke in them an understanding of economic independence, a sense of society, and an interest in the collective” (83). Why was this mission so radical? Puah challenged the conventional role of women in mainstream Zionism. As her autobiography explains, women were at first wholly excluded by the Hibbat Zion movement, and they rarely held participatory roles in early Zionist Congresses (64). When Puah launched her organizing action for women, her “movement was attacked from both right and left” within the Zionist community (83). Puah’s unwavering devotion eventually defeated these norms. Rakovsky’s radicalism additionally contested mainstream Zionism with her socialist ideals. In her words: “I had almost nothing to do with the materialistic, bourgeois circles we would meet at assemblies (because in the early years, the Zionist movement in general was bourgeois)” (67). Rakovsky’s activism not only worked toward a shared Zionist cause; she also challenged and transformed Zionist assumptions within the movement itself, in order to foster gender equity and collective social justice.
The goals that Puah pursued reveal the challenges that Zionism faced in her time. She hoped to incite an aptitude for organization in Jewish women and build a productive collective in a national liberation movement. These objectives were necessary because many young Jews, both men and women, disregarded Zionism and instead dedicated themselves to the Russian Socialist revolution. Rakovsky complained, “Intelligent young Jewish women devoted themselves to the revolutionary movements of other peoples; they gave their knowledge, their excitement, and even their lives for Gentiles” (64). The Bund also attracted many young Jews who did not recognize Zionism. The majority of the Jewish community initially believed that Zionism was an unattainable dream, simply wishful thinking. Rakovsky saw an opportunity to cultivate productive, activist Zionism with the creation of the Jewish National Fund. This was the motivation behind her goals for promoting women’s organization. Her effort paid off–“Those who were indifferent and remote began to see that the Zionist movement was not just a dream, but that is assumed a concrete form and was ready to do real, practical work” (71). Puah, who was sympathetic for the socialist cause, aimed to attract Jewish youth and women of all classes to embrace Zionism and join a collectivist national revival. To do so, she implemented revolutionary, organized activism that both empowered individual Jews and incited wide-scale change in the Zionist movement.
My Life as a Radical Jewish Woman embodies a transformative period in Jewish history, filled with tensions, revolutions, and instability. Puah Rakovsky’s story demonstrates the important self-cultivation of the Jewish people that derived from such challenges. Rakovsky’s radicalism in her approach to Jewish tradition, education, and Zionism exemplifies the heterogeneous evolution of the Jewish society that surrounded her. Puah’s innovative leadership and activism shaped these debates and revolutions, and her mission to incite extensive progress for the Jewish nation was certainly achieved.
By Lucille Marshall. Written for Modern Jewish History with Professor David Fishman at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Rakovsky, Puah. My Life as a Radical Jewish Woman: Memoirs of a Zionist Feminist in Poland. Ed. Paula Hyman. Trans. Barbara Harshav. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2002. Print.