And Rachel Stole the Idols: The Emer­gence of Mod­ern Hebrew Wom­en’s Writing

Wendy I. Zierler
  • Review
By – September 24, 2012

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.

Susan Sapiro is an Asso­ciate at DRG, Inc. — The Devel­op­ment Resource Group, in New York City.

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