Ruth Kark, Margalit Shilo & Galit Hasan-Rokem (eds

Ruth Kark, Margalit Shilo and Galit Hasan-Rokem (eds.). Jewish Women in Pre-State Israel: Life History, Politics and Culture. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2008.


Reviewed by Rachel Simon, Princeton University, Princeton, N.J.



This collection includes papers based on presentations by Israeli scholars at the international conference held in 1998 at the Hebrew University “We Were Here, Too! Women in the Yishuv and the Early State of Israel,” on the contribution of Jewish women to the creation of the State of Israel. It resulted from the feeling that little attention had been given to the study of pre-state Jewish women as individuals, groups, and organizations and their involvement in the life of the Yishuv. The collection is divided into six sections holding twenty-three articles, an introduction, and aftermath; notes, glossary, and index are included.

The first section, “Constructing the Historical Narrative” opens with Deborah Bernstein’s reflections on “The Study of Women in Israeli Historiography.” She compares the socio-historical study of women in general to that dealing with women in Israel, presenting past developments and new directions. This is followed by Yossi Ben-Artzi’s inquiry “Have Gender Studies changed Our Attitude toward the Historiography of the Aliyah and Settlement Process?” He concludes that basic concepts regarding these phenomena did not change, but much data and understanding have been added. Henriette Dahan-Kalev deals with a twice marginalized group in her “Mizrahi Women: Identity and Hersory”.  The paper examines the condition of Mizrahim (i.e., Jews from Arab and Islamic countries) in Israel, with particular reference to women, and the almost total absence of scholarly study of the latter, suggesting ways to remedy the situation.

This is followed by a section on “Women and Immigration.” Michal Ben Ya’akov’s paper “Women’s Aliyah” deals with migration patterns of North African Jewish women to Palestine in the nineteenth century. Based on data from five censuses from 1839-1875 she examines North African women’s motivation to immigrate and their condition in Palestine. Looking at a different group and period is Joseph Glass in his “American Jewish Women and Palestine” which focuses on the period between the two World Wars, during which over 5,000 American Jewish women immigrated to Palestine. Following an examination of the “push” and “pull” factors of this immigration, Glass examines the adjustment of various elements within this group to life in Palestine, contributing to the success or failure of their immigration. Esther Meir-Glitzenstein deals with a Mizrahi group in her “Ethnic and Gender Identity of Iraqi Women Immigrants in the Kibbutz in the 1940s.” She shows how an idealist group of young women, who were trained in a Hakhsharah [training camp] in Iraq prior to their immigration, and whose goal was to live in a kibbutz, faced adjustment difficulties based on ethnic and gender background, and often ended joining their families in the urban sector. This section concludes with Penina Morag-Talmon’s paper, which examines “Social Networks of Immigrant Women in the Early 1950s in Israel.” She shows how informal networks, such as of women meetings in the Mikveh, health clinics or schools, helped women in their adjustment and absorption to new life in Israel.

The third section is on “Pioneers and Defenders,” with three papers (by Einat Ramon, Henry Near and Smadar Shiffman) examining the place of women in the ideology of the Labor Movement and to what extent women achieved equality in the kibbutz and moshav in practice and as reflected in literature. This section concludes with Hagar Salamon’s examination of the life story of Zohar Wilbush, a woman who played a major role in preserving the material culture of Palestine.

Next is a section on “Education, Health and Politics,” examining these topics on the institutional and personal levels. Margalit Shilo examines the girls’ school Evelina de Rothchild in Jerusalem and one of its main principals, Annie Landau; Shifra Shvarts and Zipora Shehory-Rubin examine the various women’s organizations involved in establishing maternal and infant welfare centers; and Nira Bartal looks into the efforts of American Jewish women culminating in the establishment in Jerusalem of the first nursing school in the country. Two papers deal with the involvement of women in politics: Bat-Sheva Margalit Stern examines the place of the Women’s Workers Movement versus the male dominant organizations, and Hanna Safran looks into the role of Rosa Welt Straus in introducing women’s suffrage in Palestine.

The fifth section is on “Creativity in Word and Music,” starting with four papers (by Orly Lubin, Tali Asher, Yaffah Berlovitz and Hannan Hever) providing a feminist reading of works by four specific female authors (Nehama Puhachewsky, Rachel, Anda Amir and Yocheved Bat-Miryam). The fifth paper by Yael Shai and Rachel Kollender deals with the role of Israeli women from Haban (Yemen) and Yifran (Libya) in the preservation and transmission efforts of traditional female music of their communities.

The last section deals with “Shaping the Collective Memory.” It opens with a detailed examination by Billie Melman of the image of Sarah Aaronsohn, one of the leaders of the NILI [Netzah Yisrael Lo Yeshaker (Samuel I 15:29)] pro-British espionage organization during WWI, and how it changed over time due to political and social developments in Israel. This section concludes with Judith Baumel-Schwartz’ analysis of women’s commemoration in Israeli war memorials. Her interesting examination of the typology of images could have been enhanced with illustrations.

This is a very interesting interdisciplinary collection of papers adding much to our knowledge of various aspects of Jewish women’s life, status, activities, contributions and culture, mostly during the pre-state period, though some papers deal also with the post-1948 period. Most papers examine a specific issue, person, or organization, providing new information about their chosen topic, but do so almost in isolation and without bringing about a conceptual analytical change. Still, the accumulation of this kind of research, published here and elsewhere since the 1998 conference, facilitates the creation of a broader analysis of the Yishuv during the pre-state period, taking into account, as an integral part, the role of women.


Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal Spring 2010 Volume 7 Number 1

ISSN 1209-9392

© 2010 Women in Judaism, Inc.


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