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Memoirs have served social and cultural historians well. With their anecdotal style, they provide glimpses into the everyday. When written far in the past, the ordinary events they describe make clear to us how much of a foreign country the past is. (1) Thus, both Leon Modena and Glikl of Hameln, living in seventeenth-century Venice and Germany respectively, describe as a matter of course the vulnerability to disease and violence that characterized the European population of their era. (2) When written with an acute consciousness of how the passage of time has changed the society and culture in which they were raised, memoirists can function as involved anthropological participants, carefully noting the customs of their folk. Pauline Wengeroff lovingly describes the patterns of behavior of traditionally observant Russian Jews as she experienced them in the first half of the nineteenth century. Yekhezkel Kotik published his memoirs in 1912 to recount a family saga and to depict the decline of traditional shtetl life. (3) Sometimes memoirists tell a dramatic story, as is the case with Ita Kalish, who broke with her hasidic family after her rebbe father's death, moved to Warsaw, and kidnapped her daughter to Berlin, before emigrating to Palestine. (4) And sometimes autobiographical writings, like the accounts by Polish adolescents written in the 1930s in response to a contest sponsored by the YIVO, a social science research institute, reveal the bleak daily lives that characterized a period. (5) In all cases, memoirs transmit the values of the time in which they are written and the social positions of their authors more reliably than they recount historical events.
Historians of women are particularly dependent on memoirs, and not only to provide anecdotes to enliven our books. Because so much of women's experience has been rooted in the domestic sphere and so much of women's history has been deemed insignificant, the documentary evidence of women's lives is far thinner than is the case with men. Women appear less frequently than men in archival documents and published sources. Only in rare cases, most often judicial disputes, do they evade the condition of object. Because there is relatively little documentary evidence about women in history, and much of what exists is filtered through male commentators, women's memoirs are particularly valuable. They demonstrate how various women experienced their place within community and society and how they chose to act or refrain from acting. Nevertheless, as memoirs, they must be read and interpreted with skepticism (as should all historical sources); they have to be contextualized and, when possible, supplemented by external documents.
No memoirist is typical of an entire community or social class, but sometimes an unusual individual, though not typical of her generation, can offer an unparalleled glimpse of her own circle and suggest women's consciousness and concerns that transcend her own experience. She can highlight issues that disturbed broad strata within the community and thereby alert us to the distortions that occur when women's experience is ignored. She can also point to phenomena of which there is scant documentary evidence.
Puah Rakovsky, who was born in 1865 in Bialystok and wrote her memoirs in Palestine between 1940 and 1942, is such a person. Rakovsky provides an entree into the tangles of Jewish cultural and political life in Poland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, through the eyes of a female educator, political activist, and conscious feminist. Zikhroynes fun a yidisher revolutsyonerin, first published in Hebrew in 1951, was not published in the original Yiddish until 1954. (6) I had four reasons for bringing it to an Englishreading public, under the title My Life as a Radical Jewish Woman: Memoirs of a Zionist Feminist in Poland. (7) It points to the myriad forms of women's activity, barely acknowledged in historical literature, in the Jewish communities of Russian Poland, the parts of Poland annexed to Russia at the end of the eighteenth century. It describes issues, like education, that are off the radar screens of political historians, and events, like World War I, that are not often presented from the perspective of non-combatants. It performs a quintessential task of women's history, complicating the conventional wisdom about such general themes as assimilation, Zionism, and Jewish politics. And, from its first sentence--"I was born in 1865 to a fifteen-year-old mother and a seventeen-year-old father" (8)--it tells a compelling story. As is the case with the most valuable memoirs, the principal events of Rakovsky's narrative can be verified from the writings of others and from contemporary documents.
The central focus of Rakovsky's memoir is the experience of a female activist confronting the major issues of Jewish life in turbulent cultural and political times. Yet her narrative, in passing, also provides useful information on other aspects of East European Jewish history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The members of her family were frequently on the move, both within the tsarist empire and to other European lands, ranging from France, Switzerland, and Germany to Romania. Although she spent much of her adulthood in Warsaw, she grew up in Bialystok, lived for a time in Lomza and in Vilna, traveled to Zionist conferences throughout Europe, and visited her children in Romania and the Soviet Union before emigrating to Palestine. Rakovsky's memoir also displays the fluidity of Jewish political choices, even within one family. She was an early Zionist who was sympathetic to socialism and to anti-tsarist revolutionary politics. Her siblings, though, were directly involved with various revolutionary movements, including the Bund and anarchism. In the years prior to the revolution of 1905, her son and her third husband, Mordecai Birnbaum, opted for Russian revolutionary activism over Zionism. Her son ultimately became a Communist and settled in the U.S.S.R. In her account of her six-month visit with him in 1928, Rakovsky reveals the enormous attractiveness of the Soviet experiment even to a committed Zionist like herself.
Puah Rakovsky's name is not yet a household word, but the story of her life places new issues at the center of East European Jewish history. Rakovsky comments often in her memoir on the deleterious consequences of the gendered system of Jewish education and on the discrimination that women encountered in some Jewish political parties. Her writings also make it clear that middle-class Jewish women in Poland were articulating the case for women's equality within the Jewish community by the end of World War I, basing it, in part, on the assertion that equality was both good and necessary for the Jews. Like many other Jewish women who participated in revolutionary political movements, her arguments for the equality of women were strongly influenced by egalitarian socialist ideology. Her struggle against the "otherness" conferred on Jewish women in Russian Poland both as Jews and as women reveals much not only about Jewish women but also about how Polish Jews who had departed from Orthodoxy constructed their self-definition and vision of the future in the twentieth century. …