Women’s due time in Petah Tikva

Beit Siah Nashim, a new venture in Petah Tikva, spotlights significant achievements of the city's unsung female guests.

Beit Siah Nashim in Petah Tikva – a fine-looking base for spreading the female leadership word (photo credit: PETAH TIKVA MUNICIPALITY)
Beit Siah Nashim in Petah Tikva – a fine-looking base for spreading the female leadership word
Even in the PC-attuned ostensibly- more-egalitarian 21st century, members of “the weaker sex” generally have to make do with lower pay, less chance of promotion, and simply fewer opportunities to prove their worth. However, it seems that Petah Tikva has produced its fair share of pioneering female figures over the past century or so.
The groundbreaking work of Esther Raab, Dvora Omer, Miriam Yaron and Rachel Berkman is now noted, and lauded, at Beit Svatitsky in the nether regions of Montefiore Street, not far from the market.
It may have taken a while to establish a permanent salute to the distaff side of envelope-pushing endeavors in these parts, but the new berth, Beit Siah Nashim (which means “Women’s Discussion House,” but in English is somewhat wordily titled “The House of Female Front-runners”), provides a fine-looking base for spreading the female leadership word.
The venture is the brainchild of Ayelet Cohen, a former senior executive of the local municipality, and is managed by Ayana Danenberg.
“When Ayelet was on the city council, she was amazed to discover that there aren’t many women in the public domain [in Petah Tikva], and that their part in Petah Tikva, and Israel in general, was not made readily accessible to the general public,” Danenberg notes.
“That goes for the Bible too. There were many women who did important things, but the people who edited the Bible – men – opted not to emphasize that.”
The male-leaning record of our history may be a nationwide malaise, but Cohen says she learned that, for some reason, there was a disproportionate number of women from Petah Tikva who got out there and did their thing, despite the lack of support – not to mention downright disparagement – from the men who ruled the political and social roost. It was these determined figures whom Cohen wanted to unearth and proffer to the public, and to get them the recognition and widespread appreciation they deserve.
The lack of official due meant Cohen had to do some serious digging to get down to the rich but unheralded seams of local female derring-do.
“Yes, it was difficult to explore, to get to the documentation I was looking for, but I had help from all sorts of women who volunteered their time, including a historian called Dr. Miriam Kachantsky, who originates from Petah Tikva,” Cohen explains.
“Miriam is the head of the Lavon Institute,” she adds, referring to the Pinhas Lavon Institute for Labor Movement Research.
The volunteers all rolled up their sleeves and got down and dirty, trawling every morsel of information they could access, and also conducting interviews with some of the descendants of the women of note whom Cohen was anxious to include in the historical repository’s database.
“The volunteers met with family members and, of course, everything went through Miriam, to make sure that all the information was substantiated and that the candidates satisfied our criteria for inclusion” says Cohen.
“The women had to be the first in their field, or had to have broken new ground.” They also had to be born in Petah Tikva, or to have spent a significant part of their life living in the city.
Cohen and her team of volunteers painstakingly worked their way through increasing volumes of material, and gradually compiled an impressive list of figures. The roster of 130 names, and counting, features such pioneers as Esther Raab, the first native Land of Israel poetess. She was born in Petah Tikva in 1894, and her childhood and later literary work were considerably informed by the rustic milieu from which the new city sprang. Raab’s parents were also among the original residents of the town, which further validates Raab’s claim to a place of honor at Beit Siah Nashim.
Dvora Omer is another literary giant associated with Petah Tikva, although she wasn’t exactly an unknown when Cohen and her team got down to their research work. Omer, who died in 2013 at the age of 79, was a bestselling author of books for children and youth. Her oeuvre received official kudos in 2006 when she was awarded the Israel Prize, in recognition of her contribution to Israeli culture. She also won the Prime Minister’s Award and the Education Ministry Award, and was named to the International Board on Books for Young People honor list in 1986.
Cohen is not only keen to ensure that credit is given where it has been due for some time, she wants to show locals and people from all over the country, just what it took for women to make their voices heard and to be allowed to gain something of an equal footing with their male counterparts.
Rachel Berkman is a striking example of a woman who went through the official wringer time and time again before finally achieving level playing field status, not only for herself but for other women, too. That comes across clearly and convincingly in the introductory film shown on a large screen at the center, which conjures up some of the hardships of the times, and – in a dramatized, polished script-based format – provides more than an inkling of how women had to fight their way through seemingly endless daunting obstacles just to say their piece. The film comes with English subtitles.
Berkman made aliya from Russia in the early 1920s as a religious Zionist, only to find her entry to the Hapoel Hamizrahi movement here barred, due to her gender. Berkman was clearly made of sterner stuff and kept knocking on the movement’s door – literally – until she was eventually accepted to the bastion of religious male Zionist endeavor, but not before issuing a stark caution to the male prevaricators.
“If you do not accept the female religious worker to your ranks, she will be left with only two choices – to leave the country, or to leave the religion, as she will not have a place in any workers’ organization,” she warned. It did the trick.
The women noted at Beit Siah Nashim take in a wide range of pursuits and achievements, such as Miriam Yaron who won the inaugural Miss Israel contest in 1950, and Russian-born Petah Tikva resident Dr. Susana Szkop-Frenkel, who served as the country’s first female hospital surgical department head and was a leading gynecologist and specialized in breast-cancer treatment.
“This is a unique institution, in Israel and anywhere in the world,” Cohen notes proudly. “This place tells the story of these great women in an appropriate way, women whose work and bravery are generally unknown.”
While Beit Siah Nashim is designed to get female achievement out there in the public domain, the idea is not to run it as a closed-shop feminist venture. Men are also welcome.
“You can’t talk about the importance of equal opportunity without addressing men too,” Danenberg stresses. “We have to work together. We are for cooperation between the sexes on an equal footing, but, as you see from our film, women were not afforded that status in the past.”
Although the official ribbon-cutting ceremony is due to take place only next month, in practice, Beit Siah Nashim has been largely up and running for a couple of months, and has already hosted groups and individuals.
“People have been impressed by what they see here,” says Cohen. “I think this is an eye-opener for lots of people.”
Cohen appreciates the support she has received from the local authority over the years.
“Beit Siah Nashim was spawned by a strong and burning sense that it was time to tell the story of these women who had an impact on all kinds of fields, from medicine to sport, and from culture to agriculture and construction. Fortunately, I got support from then-mayor Yitzhak Ohayon, and from the current Mayor Itzik Braverman who embraced the initiative, and facilitated it.”
The store-window movie draws the visitor straight into the spirit of the project and the subject matter. After being introduced to some of the featured historic characters, visitors can get a better handle of their life and work by accessing the database information available on more than a dozen computers dotted around the handsomely appointed facility, which is housed in a single-story building donated to the city by the descendants of the Svatitsky family, the original owners who were among the founders of Petah Tikva.
The historical venue can accommodate groups of up to 40 who take a virtual tour of the women’s lives and endeavor, and listen to a talk about the place of women from Petah Tikva in the local and national public sphere. The facility is geared for youth and adults alike, and takes its titular designation seriously.
“This is a place for discussion,” says Cohen. “That’s why we gave it this name. This will be a venue for meetings and cultural shows, and also sessions and conferences about themes connected to gender and women.”
Cohen says the recognition is long overdue.
“In history books, for centuries, women were just not mentioned. And if they were, it was as ‘the wife of.’” Cohen is determined to put a stop to the second-fiddle status.
“This place is an educational project. We want to educate youth and adults experientially – to teach them history in an accurate, respectful and user-friendly way.”
In addition to the aforementioned female trailblazers, Beit Siah Nashim extols the deeds of such health field pioneers as Dvora Ben Dror, who established the Adi organization, which facilitates the donating and transplant of organs; Mina Ben Ezer-Raab who helped to found ILAN – Israel Foundation for Handicapped Children; and Mazal Bracha Bachar, who despite never formally training as a doctor, championed natural medicine and treated malaria patients.
Then there was Elisheva Efrati, whose parents were among the original residents of Petah Tikva, and who campaigned for women’s rights and opened the first Hebrew-language kindergarten in Jerusalem, in 1903.
Sports, traditionally a male-dominated area, also has its female stars including runner Hanna Shezifi, who was the national champion at 800 meters and 1,500 meters, and represented Israel at the 1966 Asia Games in Bangkok, winning a gold medal in the process, and national fencing champion Batsheva Shekouri.
In truth, it seems preposterous that we should wait until 2017 for an institution like Beit Siah Nashim to get up and running, but let’s hope other pursestring holders elsewhere in the country take note and follow suit.