Marie Syrkin: Values Beyond the Self

Brandeis University Press  2008

While Syrkin’s work is familiar to an older generation of American Zionists, Kessner’s extraordinary biography should spark interest in Syrkin’s life and ideas in many new quarters. Some will discover Syrkin the poet, married to fellow poet Charles Reznikoff. Others will discover Syrkin the multi-tasking working woman, who just took for granted teaching full-time, sharing custody of her son, and writing for a variety of journals. Finally, there’s Syrkin the Labor Zionist, who from her first trip to Palestine in 1933, committed herself to explaining to the world why this Jewish homeland was so important. With Syrkin so deeply involved with so many key world events, from the Stalinist purges to the rise of Hitler, from debates over the Mandate to battles over Arab refugees, her biography reads like a history of the 20th century. But unlike most histories, delivered in the passive voice, Syrkin’s is active and passionate and utterly mesmerizing. Kessner, a long time protégé of Syrkin’s, is a talented biographer; not only is her prose graceful and occasionally quite witty, but she understands how to insert the telling quotation, the background detail that clarifies, the right lines from the right poem. Index, notes, photographs.

Discussion Questions

1. Why do you think it took Marie Syrkin until she was thirty to seriously work at her career? 

2. What are some of the issues Syrkin raised in her writings that are still relevant or unresolved today? 

3. Why do you think Syrkin wrote a biography called Way of Valor about Golda Meir as early as 1955, when Golda was Labor Minister of Israel? Discuss the change in the titles for the two revised editions in 1963 and 1969. 

4. Though Syrkin and Golda Meir never like being categorized as feminists, do you think of them as feminist? Are they the same in their attitudes toward feminism? 

5. Between 1962 and 1989, Marie Syrkin wrote essays or spoke about the topic “A Labor Zionist Takes Stock.” What do you think she might say today?

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