From the Print Journal

Women Writing Jewish Modernity, 1919–1939 by Allison Schachter

Book cover
Women Writing Jewish Modernity, 1919–1939. Allison Schachter. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2021. Pp. 232. $99.95 (cloth); 34.95 (paper and ebook).

© 2024 Johns Hopkins University Press

Allison Schachter’s book Women Writing Jewish Modernity gives voice to the challenges Jewish women writers faced when they turned their pen to prose in the first half of the twentieth century.  Scholarship has constructed literary genealogies of Jewish prose writing primarily in relation to male writers, ranging from Sholem Aleichem to Yosef Haim Brenner’s figure of the talush (the modern rootless Jew). Women Writing Jewish Modernity, in contrast, recovers the work of five interwar women writers: Fradl Shtok, Dvora Baron, Elisheva Bikhovsky, Leah Goldberg, and Debora Vogel, and reconfigures Jewish literary history. Pairing Yiddish and Hebrew writers, Schachter’s account uncovers a transnational feminist literary tradition of Jewish writers who used “the disruptive power of prose” to “reflect on the role of women as artists in the twentieth century and to seize the authority of prose fiction to narrate women’s lives” (3–4). As Schachter argues, these writer’s minority consciousness was twofold: first, they were Jewish, and secondly, they were women engaging in prose writing. Given this double marginality, it is not surprising that most of their prose writing received harsh critiques from their contemporary male counterparts who were reading them in a monolingual, nationalist context. Schachter’s transnational, bilingual approach illuminates how Jewish women writers experimented with literary forms and stretched the possibilities of modernist prose through a feminist aesthetic of desire, labor, orientalism, cosmopolitanism, and montage. 

Schachter’s book recovers the role of these female writers as crucial, though marginalized, figures in Jewish literary history and prose modernist writing. This book makes three critical contributions: first, it focuses on women writers and reveals their originality and engagement with modernist forms of writing. Secondly, this book primarily interrogates works of prose and translations, directing our attention to the challenges Jewish women faced in capturing their experiences and participating in the production of interwar Jewish literature. Thirdly, this study juxtaposes Hebrew and Yiddish writers and provides a transnational account that interconnects Eastern European Mandatory Palestine/Israel and the United States. Schachter’s book offers the first account of how Jewish female writers brought their experiences to light, and in doing so, participated in shaping the Jewish national consciousness in the twentieth century.

Schachter begins her book by introducing the figure of Fradl Shtok, an acclaimed Yiddish poet and writer based in New York who began publishing in 1917 and disappeared from the Yiddish literary scene by the late 1920s. Schachter recovers Shtok’s story as modernist writer who positioned women as the protagonists of modern Jewish life, shying away from the women’s traditional role of being a muse for male writers. Instead, Shtok’s stories describe women “experiencing desire, looking for love, and grappling with disabled bodies, sexual violence, and unwanted marriage—all while suffering a patriarchal tyranny that they feel they must resist” (29). But Shtok’s commitment to reconfigure the ways women’s stories were told took shape not only in the themes of her stories but also through her literary style. Turning to realism, Shtok employed various forms of free indirect discourse and moved between the characters’ perspectives without moral judgment. Though critics contemporary to Shtok saw this as a lack of a clear political standpoint, Schachter identifies this literary form as a Flaubertian narrative technique that mediates the permeable boundaries between women’s individual subjectivity and social judgment: 

Shtok’s embrace of free indirect discourse challenged traditional forms of authority and imagined new textual arenas that could encompass women’s aesthetic experience. Using free indirect discourse, she engaged in a rich intertextual dialogue with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, offering a feminist counterpoint to Flaubert’s dramatization of Emma’s deadly materialism. (35)

Schachter contextualizes Shtok’s work with references to writers such as Flaubert and Friedrich Schiller as a way to stretch the possibilities available for women writers in the Yiddish literary scene. Moving beyond the Jewish literary circle in form and content alike, Schachter recovers new information about Shtok’s life and career in New York, piecing together her image as a Yiddish and English writer who experimented with prose as a site of self-transformation for women who lack access to power.

Throughout the book, Flaubert serves as an important figure: an author who depicted of women’s forbidden desires through a new kind of literary aesthetic. Madame Bovary, even though written by a male writer, provided these women artists with the possibility of reconsidering their aesthetic authority in the Jewish cultural spheres, allowing them to show what happens when women’s inner desires and dreams are translated into Yiddish and Hebrew. In the chapter on Dvora Baron, a pre-State Hebrew writer, Schachter considers not only the reconfiguration of Flaubertian style into Jewish literature but also the translation of Madame Bovary into Hebrew as part of the Zionist effort to develop a national Jewish language via translation. Baron’s 1932 translation, Schachter argues, reveals a “robust dialogue with Flaubert, through which Baron meditates on the link between domestic life and the social conditions of aesthetic labor that restrict women’s literary production” (55). In Schachter’s reading, Baron’s translation participates in crucial debates surrounding labor and capital in the emerging Jewish nationalist culture and the Zionist milieu while also pointing to her translational depictions of women’s labor:

Baron’s translation reworks the novel for her own aesthetic and political project. She elevates Emma into a woman who understands the distinction between reality and fantasy, even as she seeks to escape her reality through her fantasies. She redeems Emma from Flaubert’s contempt, endowing her with greater intellectual abilities. In doing so, she also theorizes the role of the female author. Similar to Shtok, Baron conceives of women’s reading as a creative practice that turns the reader into an artist in her own right. (61)

Schachter’s book illuminates how these women writers claimed prose writing as a site that enabled them to uncover, reflect, and reconfigure their marginality within the Jewish and modernist literary sphere.

Chapters five and six discuss two Hebrew writers, Leah Goldberg and Elisheva Bikhovsky, respectively. The two women were primarily poets, but in analyzing their prose, Schachter highlights their engagement with pressing questions regarding the orientalist and ethnonational perception of Hebrew literature in the interwar period, and its oscillation between Zionist ideology and diasporic belonging. In these novels, Hebrew is not only the medium of expression but also a central theme in their novels through which they explore Jewish life in Europe. Goldberg’s novel is set in Berlin and centers on the experiences of a male protagonist who loses his manuscript of Hebrew poems, which he deems a poetic masterpiece. Bikhovsky’s plot, in contrast, depicts the bohemian milieu of Hebrew and Russian literary culture in 1920s Moscow. In both cases, Schachter impressively shows how these women writers reflected on the cosmopolitan possibilities and limitations of Hebrew as a minority language while based in Mandatory Palestine and writing for a primarily Zionist audience. Furthermore, they situated Hebrew within a tradition of diasporic literature, putting it in dialogue with German and Russian imaginative literary spaces. In this sense, Schachter’s current project is an impressive extension of her first book, Diasporic Modernism, as she reinscribes these women writers into the literary history of Jewish modernity and transnational literature.

After reading Schachter’s book, we can no longer follow “the idea that Jewish literary modernity was a conversation among men about women, with a few women writers listening in while hiding behind the curtain” (16). Instead, we see how these women writers responded to their historical time, addressing social and political questions about the definition of minority and national cultures in the context of the rapidly shifting Jewish modern life. By putting these five women’s modernist projects in dialogue, Women Writing Jewish Modernity constructs a fascinating, multifaceted portrait of women as artists in the Yiddish and Hebrew Jewish literary sphere. This book is an invitation to consider the legacies of these women writers as they compel us to rethink the history of Jewish modernity and the role of women artists in shaping Jewish national and transnational literature.