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Women’s Writing in Israel

The First Day and Other Stories by Dvora Baron, translated and edited by Naomi Seidman with Chana Kronfeld, University of California Press, $16.95

The mysterious tragedy of Dvora Baron’s life (1887-1956)resonates in the powerful stories of this newly re-discovered writer. Baron, raised in the traditional shtetls of Lithuania, was given a Hebrew education by her rabbi father, and as a teenager began publishing her stories to popular acclaim. Her accounts of sexual attraction, frustration and longing were considered soda ring, even promiscuous, they prompted Baron’s fiance to sever their engagement.

Although Baron moved to Palestine in 1910, her work focused on the life of women in the Jewish world of Eastern Europe. As such, her stories did not generate enthusiasm in the positivist literary climate of Zionist Israel. For the last 33 years of her life she did not once leave her apartment in Tel Aviv; while bedridden she wrote the definitive Hebrew translation of Madame Bovary. Baron’s stories, written in Yiddish and Hebrew, are poignant tales of unfulfilled lives, of abandonment, of women’s suffering in a society which relegated them to secondary and subservient roles. “Kaddish” recounts the story of an orphaned girl living in sensual and loving seclusion with her aged grandfather, whose wife had borne him ten daughters but no sons. Hearing his lament that there would be no male relative to say Kaddish for him, the granddaughter secretly learns to pray, then reveals her power: “‘Zeyde, test me’. . . And the words flow from my lips, they pour out of me into the air so mildly, so sadly . . . And suddenly Grandfather snatches me in both arms, lifts me up on high, to the ceiling, and rising and soaring himself he carries the two of us floating through the house.” But when the girl approaches the synagogue after his death to recite the prayer, men angrily block her entry. The only mourning she is allowed is to weep.

Exposing raw emotions, Baron’s themes are powerful psychological studies. In “An Only Daughter,” a child jealous of her new born sister plots the infant’s death. In a frenzy, she suffocates her pet cat instead, but her hostility towards the sister never subsides. Another example is “Bill of Divorcement,” which recounts the tragedy of “refugees of the heart,” women unilaterally divorced by their husbands. Worst was to be a woman cast aside after ten years of childlessness. Her “amputation scar never healed” and was made more bitter by watching the husband wed another and encountering his new offspring. Others “left her alone, the way people let a house in flames burn itself out once it no longer poses a threat to others and she continued to flicker until she was finally extinguished.”

This contemporary translation of Baron’s painful and lyrical writing introduces a talented voice to the English reader. Her work probes the unexpressed, undocumented, and overlooked lives of Jewish women in a bygone world—which, until now, were chronicled only through male perspectives.  

Helen Schary Motro, an American lawyer and writer living in Israel, is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post. She is the recipient of the 2001 Common Ground Journalism Award for best article in the Israeli press.