In this comprehensive work, Zierler, an assistant professor of modern Jewish literature and feminist studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York, draws on a broad range of feminist theories and reading strategies to examine the work of three generations of female Hebrew authors and poets. Zierler takes her title from the curious incident in which our foremother Rachel took control of a patriarchal legacy by stealing her father’s idols. Zierler sees this as a metaphor for the heritage of modern Jewish women’s writing in Hebrew. She perceives Rachel as “a kind of biblical voleuse de langue, an archetypal feminist writer, who dares to steal across the borders of masculine culture, seize control of her cultural inheritance, and make it her own.” While Yiddish might have been ‘mamaloshen’ (mother’s tongue), modern Hebrew in its early years was the domain of male writers. Zierler shows how a number of talented female poets and writers took control of the language of Hebrew literary culture and impressed on it their own feminine (and sometimes feminist) styles, values and images.
Zierler begins by giving a brief history of Jewish women’s writing, which also introduces the authors and poets whose work will be analyzed in the book. The other chapters examine uniquely “women’s themes” addressed by these writers in Hebrew literary culture. Poets such as Leah Goldberg of Israel and Rachel Morpugo of Italy reclaimed the stories of biblical women in classical and modern Hebrew. Zierler also examines how the land of Israel was personified with various female images (mother, bride, wife, daughter, maiden) in the poetry of Esther Raab and Rachel (Bluwstein), among others. In their stories and poems, authors such as Devorah Baron, Anda Pinkerfeld-Amir and Nehamah Puhachevsky explored the very female, sometimes wondrous, sometimes painful experiences of barrenness, pregnancy and childbirth, which had rarely been presented from a woman’s perspective. The prose writings of Sarah Feige, Meinkin Foner, Hava Shapiro, and Devorah Baron depict women who broke boundaries by entering new intellectual, social, religious and geographic spaces. Significantly, their characters’ journeys often ended in exile and alienation, not a return to an embracing community. The final chapter, “The Rabbi’s Daughter in and out of the Kitchen,” uses stories featuring these exceptional and knowledgeable women to examine the symbol of the kitchen, a site of both limitations on women as well as a gathering place for female community and creativity.
Zierler has also included a biographical section at the end of the book, which contains brief but informative biographies of all of the poets and authors whose work she analyzes in the volume. With many original translations and a stimulating combination of Jewish literary and feminist scholarship, And Rachel Stole the Idols is an important contribution to the growing and diverse field of Jewish women’s studies.