Puah Rakovsky, the Polish feminist

For Puah Rakovsky, political activism seemed to be the best route for overcoming inequality.

star of david 311 (photo credit: iStickphoto)
star of david 311
(photo credit: iStickphoto)
In 1865, Puah Rakovsky was born in Bialystok to a 15-year-old mother and a 17-year-old father; she would be the oldest of their 15 children. Her father, although ordained as a rabbi, was a middle-class businessman. The Rakovskys first educated their firstborn in a heder (Torah school for young children) and then by means of private tutors, providing her with a religious as well as a secular education until she turned 16.
Having arrived at this advanced age, she was now expected to marry. A serious yeshiva student of 26 was chosen for the unhappy bride, who bore him two children while he managed to deplete her dowry.
She later wrote that during her teen years, she had come to the conclusion that there was no God; as a result, she became a secular Zionist and joined the Hibbat Zion movement. In 1889, when she was 24, she suggested to her family that she return to school to earn a teacher’s certificate and a salary. Her husband and parents agreed; the latter took responsibility for the children. Upon completion of her studies, she requested a divorce, but was refused for six years.
She began teaching nonetheless, moving to Warsaw in 1891 and then opening her own school with a curriculum that included Jewish and Hebrew texts. This school, populated on the whole by middle-class girls, was successful; during the evenings, less fortunate girls were offered classes tuition free.
Rakovsky finally got her get (Jewish writ of divorce) after telling her grandfather, a rabbi, that she was planning to convert to Christianity along with her children. The threat worked effectively.
The divorcée would marry twice more. Her next husband was a sickly man, and she cared for and tended to him. The third was the most unusual, younger than she by 10 years, a partner who helped rear their daughter along with her grandchildren. This was considered a truly unconventional marriage.
WHILE RAKOVSKY herself had benefited from a serious Jewish education, she realized that most 19th-century Polish-Jewish girls had not. As a result, the temptation to assimilate into Christian society would be greater for her contemporaries. Thus she began to publish in the Yiddish press, emphasizing that education was the means for women to achieve equality, to develop on a personal level and to attain independence.
For her, political activism seemed to be the best route for overcoming inequality. At first she appealed to male leaders, who were not interested in women’s needs, so she ended up organizing women separately to give them their own voice. Her Yiddish pamphlets encouraged Jewish women to join Zionist groups like Bnos Tsiyon. When this particular group was treated poorly by the male Zionist leaders, the women, mostly from the middle class, broke away, achieving recognition as the YFA or Yiddishe Arbeter-Frey.(See Paula Hyman, “Discovering Puah Rakovsky,” in Nashim 7 [2004]: 97- 115.)
Her hope was to expand what was essentially a Zionist women’s organization and promote women’s rights in Poland and Palestine. This group displayed an acute awareness of women’s problems in Jewish society, such as the plight of the agunot (women denied Jewish divorces), the need for vocational training and for day-care centers. These women were, like Bertha Pappenheim, the forerunners of modern social workers.
Between 1940 and 1942, Rakovsky wrote her memoirs in Yiddish after moving to Palestine. They were published first in Hebrew in 1951, in Yiddish only in 1964, and in an English edition with an introduction by Paula E. Hyman, entitled My Life as a Radical Jewish Woman: Memoirs of a Zionist Feminist in Poland, in 2002. This Polish woman, who died in 1955, was determined to fight gender inequality to the best of her ability; she recognized the need for feminist activism and strived to attain her lofty goals through her publications and by political organization.
The writer is a professor of Jewish history and dean at the Schechter Institute, as well as academic editor of the journal Nashim. She has published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental Jewry and on Jewish women.