Always Independent

The re-emergence of a Zionist feminist foremother.

Marie Syrkin: Values Beyond the Self (Brandeis, $35), a biography by Carole S. Kessner, reveals a remarkable woman.

Marie Syrkin, a leading Jewish public intellectual, was born in Switzerland in 1899. She became a gifted journalist, witty poet, influential American Zionist, and a beautiful, strong-minded woman admired by intellectuals and political leaders. Her mother, Bassya, had studied medicine and been involved in Russian revolutionary activities. Her father, Nachman Syrkin, the theorist behind socialist Zionism, was well known in Zionist circles. Learned, charismatic, exuberant, he was also impractical, barely earning a living. The family traveled from country to country before settling in America, in a poor section of the Bronx, when Marie was nine. By then she knew Russian, German, French, Yiddish and — soon — English.

Francine Klagsbrun, author of more than a dozen books and a columnist for the Jewish Week, is writing an in-depth biography of Golda Meir.

Nachman Syrkin, whom Marie adored, dominated her life, particularly after her mother’s death. When, at 18, she eloped with the writer Maurice Samuel, her father had the marriage annulled, and her second husband, a chemist named Aaron Bodansky, whom she divorced, could not live up to the excitement of her family home. From Nachman, Marie gained a passion for Zionism. Around 1932 she met and became fast friends with Golda Meir, whose biography she later wrote (Golda Meir: Israel’s Leader, 1969). The following year she traveled to Palestine for the first of many times, and after her return helped launch the Labor Zionist journal, New Frontier. She was already contributing poems and Zionist articles to Menorah Journal and other Jewish intellectual publications, and continued doing so throughout her life. When the Nazis came to power in Germany, she was among the first to call for large-scale Jewish immigration to Palestine in defiance of British quotas there.

Interestingly for a woman of her generation, Syrkin always considered herself a feminist. Her life was testimony to these words she once spoke to Kessner: “You don’t have to tell me that a woman has to be independent, I was always independent, and very energetically so.” Syrkin arranged a joint custody agreement with her second husband for their son, David, unique in its time; she spent long periods apart from her third husband, the poet Charles Reznikoff, when she traveled or lived on the east coast while he was on the west, but the marriage lasted; and through all her marriages she kept her own family name. In 1950 she became the first female professor of an academic subject at Brandeis.

Carole Kessner had been Syrkin’s student at Brandeis University, and remained a lifelong friend. With this biography she makes an enormous contribution to women’s history and Jewish letters by reintroducing us to this extraordinary personality, prominent in her lifetime but mostly forgotten today. Drawing on extensive interviews with Syrkin and intimate letters from family and friends, and setting her narrative against the background of the times, Kessner lets the reader understand the real drama of her subject’s life .

Early in this book, Kessner relates that Bassya Syrkin, ill with tuberculosis, told the 16-year-old Marie, “You are just the kind of daughter I dreamt of having.” They were the last words Marie heard from her mother, who died two days later. Had Bassya lived, she would have seen her dreams come true many times over.

Francine Klagsbrun, author of more than a dozen books and a columnist for the Jewish Week, is writing an in-depth biography of Golda Meir.