Robin Kay, 1943, Archives of New Zealand

We read lit­tle about friend­ships among women in our bib­li­cal texts. More often, women appear as adver­saries or sim­ply dis­tant from one anoth­er: Sarah has her hand­maid­en, Hagar, ban­ished from her home; Leah and Rachel com­pete for the atten­tion of their hus­band, Jacob. And although Miri­am leads oth­er women in song and dance after the Israelites cross the Red Sea, her life essen­tial­ly revolves around her broth­ers, Moses and Aaron. Friend­ship seems lim­it­ed to men. The tie between David and Jonathan in the Book of Samuel, for instance, sig­ni­fies utmost love and loy­al­ty. In real­i­ty, how­ev­er, there is an entire bib­li­cal book built around the friend­ship of two women — the Book of Ruth, read dur­ing the fes­ti­val of Shavuot. Because its pow­er­ful pro­tag­o­nists, Nao­mi and Ruth, appear in the book as moth­er-in-law and daugh­ter-in-law, their bond is rarely dis­cussed in terms of friend­ship. Yet these two women epit­o­mize in every way imag­in­able the warmth, sup­port, and com­mit­ment that devot­ed friends share with one another.

Both wid­ows, Nao­mi and Ruth set out from the land of Moab to Judah, Naomi’s home­land. They are two women in ancient times rely­ing only on each oth­er as they make their way through dan­ger­ous ter­rain. Ruth, a Moabite and the younger of the two, has adopt­ed Naomi’s way of life. Your peo­ple shall be my peo­ple, and your God my God,” she tells the old­er woman. In turn, Nao­mi seeks the most suit­able agri­cul­tur­al fields for Ruth to work in, guid­ing her as she begins her new life in Judah. Togeth­er, as con­fi­dantes, the women plot to win over Boaz, a well-to-do landown­er whom they see as a fit hus­band for Ruth. Nao­mi nev­er com­petes with Ruth for Boaz’s atten­tion, even though she is clos­er than Ruth is to his age. Rather, she pur­sues a path she believes will bring Ruth the great­est hap­pi­ness. And Ruth trusts Nao­mi com­plete­ly, fol­low­ing her advice with­out a moment’s doubt. The sto­ry ends hap­pi­ly for both women, who main­tain a life­long attach­ment to one anoth­er even after Ruth mar­ries Boaz and has a son.

Women’s friend­ships, whether in ancient lit­er­a­ture or mod­ern times, can be life-sus­tain­ing — even in the most chal­leng­ing circumstances. 

I thought about the friend­ship of Ruth and Nao­mi as I researched and wrote my new biog­ra­phy, Hen­ri­et­ta Szold: Hadas­sah and the Zion­ist Dream. Like the two bib­li­cal women, Szold and her friends relied on one anoth­er as they made their way in a dif­fi­cult land — British Man­date Pales­tine of the 1920s and 1930s. Born in Bal­ti­more in 1860 and the eldest of five liv­ing daugh­ters, Szold found­ed Hadas­sah, the Women’s Zion­ist Orga­ni­za­tion of Amer­i­ca, in 1912. After World War I, she began trav­el­ing back and forth between the Unit­ed States and Pales­tine to super­vise the organization’s projects in the Holy Land. She over­saw a med­ical unit that brought doc­tors, nurs­es, and equip­ment to impov­er­ished Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties; a nurs­ing school to train pro­fes­sion­als; and oth­er health-relat­ed activ­i­ties. With time, she took on edu­ca­tion and social ser­vices posi­tions in Israel’s pre-state gov­ern­ment, even­tu­al­ly head­ing Youth Aliyah, which res­cued thou­sands of chil­dren dur­ing the Holo­caust. By the ear­ly 1930s, she had set­tled per­ma­nent­ly in Pales­tine. She missed her younger sis­ters and always spoke of return­ing to Amer­i­ca. But she nev­er did. She remained in Pales­tine, sus­tained by the strength and com­pan­ion­ship of close friends. 

Two friends stand out: Alice Seligs­berg and Jesse Sampter. Both women were younger than Szold, both came from high­ly assim­i­lat­ed Jew­ish fam­i­lies, and, like the bib­li­cal Ruth, both would make their old­er friend’s beliefs and prac­tices their own — in this case, Szold’s Jew­ish and Zion­ist world­view. Szold met Seligs­berg first, through fam­i­ly con­nec­tions. So quick­ly and trust­ing­ly did their friend­ship blos­som that after suf­fer­ing from an unre­quit­ed love, Szold could reveal her deep­est pain to Seligs­berg. One of the first grad­u­ates of Barnard Col­lege, Seligs­berg began her career as a social work­er on New York’s Low­er East Side. Influ­enced by Szold, she became deeply involved in Hadas­sah, serv­ing as its nation­al pres­i­dent for sev­er­al years and lat­er as an advi­sor to Junior Hadas­sah, the young women’s Zion­ist orga­ni­za­tion. When Szold took her first trip alone to Man­date Pales­tine, Seligs­berg, who had made it there before her, met her at the port. Szold wrote home that upon see­ing Alice, she knew imme­di­ate­ly that her enter­prise was right and nor­mal.” Just as they had done in the States, the two women could count on one anoth­er for emo­tion­al and intel­lec­tu­al support. 

Jesse Sampter, a poet who was par­tial­ly dis­abled by a child­hood dis­ease, became an ardent Zion­ist after try­ing on var­i­ous reli­gious and social iden­ti­ties. Sampter looked up to Szold, awed by her exten­sive Jew­ish knowl­edge and superb orga­ni­za­tion­al skills. Szold admired Sampter’s cre­ativ­i­ty as a thinker and poet, believ­ing she lacked such imag­i­na­tion her­self. As it was with Ruth and Nao­mi, their high regard for each oth­er nev­er devolved into envy. Szold didn’t hes­i­tate to tell Sampter of the sheer ter­ror” she felt upon assum­ing a pres­ti­gious new gov­ern­ment posi­tion, know­ing her friend would respond not with com­pet­i­tive­ness but with hon­esty and understanding.

Sampter and Seligs­berg died with­in two years of each oth­er, dev­as­tat­ing Szold. When Sampter died, Szold wrote, “[A] part of myself went down with her, that part of myself which was of the best.” And the loss of Seligs­berg, she said, meant part­ing with the purest, the truest, the most stim­u­lat­ing of friends — with a friend in the high­est sense of the word.” Women’s friend­ships, whether in ancient lit­er­a­ture or mod­ern times, can be life-sus­tain­ing — even in the most chal­leng­ing circumstances. 

Francine Klags­brun is the author of numer­ous books, most recent­ly Hen­ri­et­ta Szold: Hadas­sah and the Zion­ist Dream, part of the Jew­ish Lives series pub­lished by Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press. Her pre­vi­ous book, Lioness: Gold Meir and the Nation of Israel, was named the Everett Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion Book of the Year for the 2017 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Awards. She was the edi­tor of the best-sell­ing book Free To Be…You and Me and wrote opin­ion columns for many years in both the Jew­ish Week and Moment mag­a­zine. Her writ­ings have also appeared in such nation­al pub­li­ca­tions as The New York TimesBoston GlobeNewsweek, and Ms.