Feminist pioneer

Feminist pioneer

November 12, 2009 17:09
ada fishman

ada fishman. (photo credit: )


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It was on a note of serendipity that on the way to a home visit, I found myself in Kiryat Haim East. Looking for my client's address on a street map I noticed that in the labyrinth of backstreets behind the Theater North was tiny one-way Rehov Ada Fishman. The name rang a bell, for only a few weeks previously I had read an article in the Jewish Women's Archive by Rabbi Dr. Einat Ramon, until recently dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem, describing Fishman as "one of the spiritual mothers and historians of Jewish feminism in Israel." At about the same time I had heard a lecture by Prof. Alice Shalvi at the Masorati Women's Seminar at Kibbutz Hanaton in which she talked of the parallels and the diversions in the lives of the founders of organized women workers in pre-state Israel. Everybody has heard of Golda Meir and in Haifa an entire neighborhood is named after her. But this short narrow side street in Kiryat Haim East with its rusting street sign askew on a cracked pavement is perhaps symbolic that Ada Maimon Fishman (1893-1976) has not received the fame and acclaim that she deserves. Serendipity leads to curiosity, and in researching the life and work of Ada Fishman, I found that she had been of interest to several other scholars on the issues of gender equality. Fishman was one of nine children, born in Marculesti, Bessarabia. Her father was a rabbi and scribe, a descendant of Maimonides, and some of the family included Maimon in their surname. The family were religious Zionists and in 1908 she and her brother Judah Leib (one of the founders of the Orthodox Zionist Mizrahi movement) made their first visit to Palestine. They were part of the Second Aliya in 1912. By then Fishman was a qualified teacher with a love of classical and modern Jewish literature. She opened a coeducational Hebrew school in Safed, a radical move for that time and place. According to Ramon, she and two friends participated in the annual pilgrimage to Mount Meron, a move which ended the Orthodox rabbis' ban on women's presence there. In 1913, Fishman joined Hapoel Hatza'ir and was inspired by the pioneers of the labor movement, A.D. Gordon and Joseph Brenner, true socialists whose philosophies were a far cry from today's Labor Party. Fishman was painfully aware of the inequality for women in the workplace and as a religious Jew was often in conflict with Histadrut leaders as well as the Orthodox establishment. During the next few years she fought for the inclusion of women in workers committees and was sufficiently credible to be offered the job of treasurer of the Hapoel Hatza'ir's party newspaper. This writer was particularly thrilled by this information, for her own very first published article at 18 was in the Young Poale Zion section of The Vanguard, the newspaper of the UK branch of Poale Zion. It was therefore inevitable that Fishman would be among the founders of the General Council of Women Workers, Moezet Hapoalot in 1921 and was its secretary general until 1926. From then on she worked tirelessly for the cause and from 1948 served as a Mapai party member in the Knesset. However, her passion for women's rights was not confined to the workplace. As the first elected woman on the Jaffa municipality she attempted to raise women's awareness also of their equality in the home and religion. She was perhaps one of the first to talk of liberating women from "human chains." She may well have felt frustrated had she known that there would not be much progress in freeing "agunot" even into the next century. With the population increase due to the Second and Third Aliya, women were finding it difficult to compete with men in agriculture and industry. Fishman worked through the problems from all its angles, to provide training for women in these professions and to create an organized framework for child care. One of Fishman's greatest barriers was the lack of awareness of the women themselves. For as long as the kibbutz worked as a cooperative, women generally had the domestic jobs. Even though some women worked outside the kibbutz or in the collective's agriculture or industry, it was unheard of for men to work in the kindergartens, until the emergence of the more radical kibbutzim such as Lotan in the Arava where in the Eighties the first children of the garin were cared for by a qualified male educator. Women's organizations are not immune to internal politics and power struggles and Fishman was pushed out of her job as secretary general of the General Council when Histadrut chairman David Remez installed Golda Myerson (Meir) in the job. Myerson lasted only four years in the job for women activists were fully aware that equality was not on her agenda. In "Nashim: Journal of Jewish Women's Studies and Gender Issues," Bat-Sheva Margalit Stern, Jewish studies teacher at the Schechter Institute and an affiliated scholar at Stanford, focuses on the relationship between gender and politics, discussing the similarities and disparities in the lives and vision of these two women. Ironically although Golda Meir's image became the epitome of women's equality, she was famous for her "masculine" leadership style. And it was Fishman who fought tirelessly for the rights of women in the workplace and the home who is barely remembered today by the general public. Although Fishman had lost her position of influence she continued to represent Jewish and Arab women at international conferences. As one door closed, another opened, and Fishman realized another dream by setting up the Ayanot women's training farm near Ness Ziona. In 1926, the JNF bought the land and gave it to the women workers under her leadership. This began for her a partnership with WIZO for it was that organization in Romania that had raised the funds to establish the village. The school's foundation in the early Thirties was timely for it was a haven for European refugees from the threatening Holocaust and later those from the Arab countries. Immediately after World War II, Fishman, as head of the Histadrut's aliya department, visited the displaced persons and internment camps in Europe and Cyprus. However for Fishman the urgent work of immigrant absorption did not allow for compromise in the fight for women's equality. As a religious Jew strongly influenced by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, she supported religious marriage and the unity of the Jewish people, with a mission to prevent child marriage, bigamy and marital abuse. As a socialist influenced by A.D. Gordon she fought every law that granted perks and inflated salaries to public servants. Although she devoted her life lobbying for women's rights in the family, Fishman never married or had children of her own. Walking along this side-street in the Krayot, its apartment blocks randomly numbered, I asked a neighbor wheeling a stroller to explain where it begins and ends. We agreed that it was a nondescript street for such an important person and indeed she knew quite a lot about the life and times of Fishman.

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