Zionist Women of the 1920s: The Voice of Nation Building

Gerald M Berg. Journal of Israeli History. Volume 25, Issue 2. September 2006.

Candidates for admission to the Agricultural College for Young Women at Nahalal expressed the sensibilities of a generation of young Jewish women who were attracted to the Zionist movement in the late 1920s. Zionism offered them the chance to create a novel identity for women as equals of men by devoting their labor to the settlement project. Hopeful applicants embraced an energetic ideal of self-sufficiency that blurred the traditional gender boundaries both of Palestine and of Europe. Like their male colleagues, they spoke in the public and universal voice of ideology and tied their desire for equality to the nation’s bandwagon.

Though considerable attention has been devoted to the history of Zionist ideology and more recently to the contribution of women in Israel’s creation, relatively little is known about the beliefs of rank-and-file women during the 1920s, the formative period of Israel’s journey to statehood. Women were in no sense marginal nor were their voices lost within an unsympathetic political arena controlled by men. Far from it. Zionist women of the 1920s inhabited a highly innovative environment in the nascent Jewish communities of British Mandate Palestine. Zionists engaged in what was “perhaps the most conscious and the most intensive attempt to change the understanding of gender within the realm of nationalist assumptions.” Nor were those women who gave themselves to arduous physical labor in the building of cooperative settlements merely the victims of their husbands who “dragged them along against their will.” Few in any case were married and many were quite independent of any familial authority. Instead, as Yossi Ben-Artzi proposes, their active participation in the grinding hardships of agricultural renovation likely grew from their desire to exchange their “inferior status within [European] Jewish society for one more modern and just.” He suggests that in the face of our ignorance of their beliefs, the motives that underlay women’s active participation should become a “central priority” for historians.

I take up Ben-Artzi’s call by focusing on the students of the Agricultural School for Young Women founded in 1926 at Nahalal in what today is northern Israel by one of the Zionist labor movement’s leading lights, Hannah Meisel. Her school was the first to offer a thorough and rigorous academic program as an essential component of practical farming. Indeed, Meisel believed that the addition of science to the traditional Zionist ideal of physical labor would lead to both national liberation and the equality of women. Just as collective farms would become efficient with women’s cultivation of scientific agriculture, so too would the value of women’s labor rise and with it their status. In the 1920s these ideas were adopted by the leadership of the Zionist movement in Palestine. The new interest in the value of women in agriculture became the order of the day.

Meisel’s school opened officially in 1926 and drew applications for admission from young Zionist women who had come to Palestine mainly from Eastern Europe. Each prospective student, aged between 17 and 25, came to Nahalal to be interviewed individually and to sit a battery of examinations that tested her proficiency in Hebrew and in mathematical problem solving. Most enticing for historians of a later age were the two essays in Hebrew required of each applicant, and intended to plumb the depth of the applicants’ commitment to the Zionist project. One encouraged prospective students to describe specifically how they had found their way to the Zionist movement and ultimately to Palestine. The second essay elicited their motives with a variety of questions such as “Why do you wish to become a pioneer farmer?” or “What is the role of women in building the national homeland?” Applicants were allowed considerable freedom in shaping their essays, so that responses were not uniform in size or content. Some wrote detailed and moving accounts of their lives in Poland or Russia during the First World War, while others gave the barest minimum of biographical data. Some deployed intricate ideological argumentation in support of Zionism, the class struggle, and the place of women in it all. Others contented themselves with well-worn cant culled from the pervasive propaganda outlets of Zionist youth movements in Europe and Palestine. Hannah Meisel kept meticulous records. Despite ravages of water and fire, and successive moves over the decades, these expressions of hope and belief remain intact, though much information about the applicants has been lost.

These essays collected together from the opening few years of the school between 1926 and 1929 afford a rare opportunity to hear from rank-and-file women of the Zionist labor movement during a formative period of their lives. Applicants speak frankly, restrained more often by their newly acquired Hebrew than by the authority of convention. The authority they address, Hannah Meisel, was widely known for her vigorous and personal encouragement of young women to pursue an active role in public life, and indeed, many of her charges became leaders in the 1930s and 1940s. Meisel and her female assistant read every application and commented on many of them. No doubt, prospective students wrote to please her. Admission to the school provided a refuge from the depredations of the fickle labor market as well as a coveted asset in the search for a secure career. It is not surprising that some essays are marked by regurgitated clichés, fawning adoration, and youthful credulity. On the whole, however, simplicity and candidness shine forth.

The female “voice” is not rare among the sources of Zionist history, though they tend to be the public voices of the Zionist heroes aiming to create a new culture of civic virtue. A classic of the genre is The Plough Woman: Records of the Pioneer Women of Palestine. Written in the late 1920s, this collection of women’s memoirs intended to enshrine the cause of the labor movement. Stories of heroic women joined those of their male counterparts to establish an educational model diffused in the Jewish school system of Mandate Palestine. Their stories were carefully edited to show that the hardships they endured would create a society of universal justice. Legends about them were taught to successive generations of Jews in Palestine and, after 1948, Israel, under the siege of hostile economic and political forces beyond their control. Women pioneers became saints in their own lifetimes, and their stature was enhanced in successive decades as they brought forth their autobiographies often financed by public institutions. Looking back over the sacrifices of a lifetime, their memories justified and created historical realities. This is not to say that these sources bore no criticism of the Zionist enterprise. Some speak openly about widespread hostility to gender equality, especially before the First World War. But they were written in service of a cause.

Private expressions are hard to find but essential to understanding what women actually thought when free of memory’s vagaries and of political tactics. Perhaps intensive manual labor followed by ideological debates lasting well into the night did not leave much time for writing and redaction. Private sources for women are particularly scarce in part because there were so few women in the early cooperative communities that later became kibbutzim. Yet, recent studies have brought to light “collective diaries” in which individuals wrote their entries into the group’s notebook often kept in a public place, like a dining room. Unfortunately, very few women contributed to these diaries. Aviva Ufaz sees those who did through the lens of Simone de Beauvoir’s now classic observation that “throughout history” girls “put away their independent and imperious selves” when they became adults and adopt a kind of mystical air tending towards religious sentiment. Ufaz then finds that the collective diaries have few entries by women because they have been allowed only a “limited” voice that expresses only “passivity and acceptance” indicative of their diminished status: “[W]omen whose public place in the group’s view was peripheral could not achieve standing.” Ufaz seems to have overlooked the significance of the fact, which she amply documents, that men as well wrote with extravagant sentiment. And men outnumbered the women by 26 to 4! The fact that the young women wrote at all testifies to their active engagement. In the decade following the war, their voices multiplied. Men’s attitudes about the roles of women changed as well. They welcomed Meisel’s school and other training farms like it.

The sections that follow chart the character of women’s feelings and ideas about Zionism in the late 1920s. Women who applied in the mid-1920s took for granted that they would lead active lives with endless potential. They went as far as adopting for themselves the images of male toughness that became popular in the Zionist movement as a whole. Reasons for this vary. In part it was a defensive reaction to the loss of family security attending the war, and in part it arose as a response to hard times in the Palestinian job market that led all young immigrants, including women, to admire and to emulate the most vigorous models of self-sufficiency. Public service became an acceptable ideal for women. The young women who applied to Meisel’s school did not take refuge in private concerns and personal expression. Quite the contrary. They sought a civic voice, one that would unite personal ideals with the large public project of nation building. Some expressed their aims in the Romantic idiom of Zionism that embraced deep feelings as a source of authenticity. Others appealed as well to the ideology of labor Zionism that mixed personal ties to nature with Marxist versions of class struggle. Just as Zionists in general sought to change Jews from powerless victims to powerful promoters of their own interests, these young women seem to manifest precisely those “imperious selves” that de Beauvoir thought they would lose upon rising to adulthood.

The Active Life and the Muscle-Jew

Zionist women were very much like Zionist men. First and foremost, they were not passive. The active life became the ideal, no less for women than for men. Language was transformed to signify their break with the past. In the 1920s, young women transliterated the European word “active” into Hebrew, aktivit, to refer to the new female ideal: an energetic woman who can lead. The word typified the concept of civicmindedness and devotion to the labor movement. The kind of energy attributed to the new woman was not meant to signify merely an attractive personal trait. The word pointed to a fresh vision of a woman’s relation to large political groups, especially the nation, the class, and the party. When Drove Horenstein appealed to Meisel to admit her for agricultural training, her goal was not simply to become “active” in the sense of an energetic quest for personal fulfillment, but to become “energetically active” (aktivit u-fe’ilah) in maintaining the labor collective to which she has devoted her life. Thus, according to Drove, as the ideal woman “begins to work, she becomes active and leaves her passivity behind.” To call a woman “active” indicated far more than a new linguistic fashion. It meant that she possessed a novel character that impelled her to fulfill the broad civic duties that used to fall exclusively to men.

But the Zionist movement used explicitly male images of power to convey the idea of an active life of construction and economic productivity. The “muscle-Jew” became a central trope of Jewish nationalism and represented the central proposition of Zionism that Jews needed to take their future in their own hands, to shed the culture of passivity and fear, and to create a new culture based on honor, action, pride, and autonomy. One can imagine women warming to the Zionist cultural project that entailed alternatives to the gender roles of traditional European Jews. But what did women make of the physical images of the new Jewish man, drawn by no less a figure as Max Nordau, as “men who rise early and are not weary before sunset, who have clear heads, solid stomachs and hard muscles”? Some young men, such as Meir Ya’ari, bolted ahead of Nordau to devise extreme versions of male prowess that denigrated traditional female qualities and claimed that “only the arms of men” could do the kind of work necessary to build a new people: “We need a generation devoted to an active and fighting Judaism, not to pen, paper, and ink, not skillful odes, not confessions and soulful outpourings, but saws, axes, hoes, and above all, hands! Let’s use our hands!” Though Ya’ari’s misogyny did not characterize the dominant trend in Zionist culture, his devotion to physical labor and male imagery pervaded Zionist discourse. Indeed, a “religion” of manual labor came to express in practice the new connection to be forged between the Jew and the Land in a setting of Nature that would “purify” Jews of the dross of diaspora living. By the 1920s, settlers who went on to found the kibbutz and a host of other collective institutions that later became the State of Israel produced a culture that extolled “toughness.” One might be tempted to see the development of any ideal of manual labor and toughness as an exclusion of women from the central narrative of Zionism, if one assumes that toughness, being a male trait, cannot also be part of a feminine ideal. Yet, the young women who applied to Meisel’s Agricultural School for Young Women saw no such exclusion. Quite the opposite was true. They adopted and adapted the “male” physical image as their own ideal of the “new Jewish woman.”

Echoing Ya’ari, Tzviyah Hazanov explicitly appropriated the seemingly male rejection of the contemplative life: “We have had enough of the people of the book. Muscles are what we need! In building the Land, the woman takes on a major role, and in various work places we can find the active woman in all of the most difficult branches of work.” Whatever the real disadvantages faced by these young women in a labor market that valued upper-body strength for unskilled field work, the plea for muscles does not conjure up a sense of exclusion from a physically male ideal. Women like Tzviyah embraced the muscular model as their own. If the central mission of Zionism was to build a nation by enhancing a Jew’s physical prowess, women would partake of the work as well as men. While reflecting some of the more “muscular” versions of Zionist rhetoric, however, most applicants tended towards a more moderate tradition exemplified by an earlier generation of female heroes such as Tehiyah Lieberson. She joined Meisel and others to found Nahalal and was the only unmarried woman to receive a plot of land as an autonomous “head of household.” In 1926, when many of the young applicants were about to apply to the school, Lieberson published a widely read article explaining her ideas about the place of women in collective agriculture. She backed the woman’s revolt against passivity and described the perils that lay in wait for women who were “not sufficiently active,” who could not see themselves “producing on their own initiative.” Lieberson, a veteran of years of manual labor, did not glorify physical strength as much as the quality of mental endurance. Her friend and colleague, Hannah Meisel, espoused a similarly moderate line. Women, she claimed, differed physically from men, and they should not try to ape men by doing field work, such as plowing, that required upper-body strength. At the time, it was not unusual for young women to revel in being physically tough. In 1927 an observer reported that the youngsters at a training camp in Poland, “especially the girls, look on physical labor as a divinely appointed task, and work themselves to the point of collapse.” Meisel too recommended physical labor, but her views widened and moderated by virtue of her own years of labor on the earliest experimental collectives before the First World War. After the war, she proposed a view of women as physically distinct from men, but equal in value. Manual labor would still be a “divinely appointed task,” but it would be “suitable” for a woman’s physical character. The traditional area of farming associated with women, gardening, would be revalued and upgraded, and with it the status of women. Nearly all of the applicants to her school understood and internalized Meisel’s sense of “suitable” women’s work, and like Tzviyah, they could incorporate the male imagery of Zionism into their own visions of women’s equality.

Lost Parents, Social Chaos, and Toughness

This apparently anomalous desire of young women to emulate what at the time was a male ideal arose in part because the young immigrants sought to re-create the security of the family they had left behind. For many youth, the collective labor group (kvutzah) provided a surrogate family for young Europeans who saw themselves as “runaways” on the threshold of a new life. For a few, their flight amounted to a rebellion against their parents pure and simple and was undiluted by broader civic goals. Belah Sahra’it rejected her father’s entreaties to learn a profession and finally fled the art school where he had agreed to send her because she decided that “only agricultural work will satisfy my soul,” though she had no experience whatsoever in agriculture or communal living, nor did she seek any until her application to Meisel’s school. Such students bathed their flight from parents in idealistic fervor. Rinah Farber considered that just as Meisel’s school could “help all young women leave the homes of their fathers,” it could as well prepare them for “a life on the Land.” As commonplace as this sentiment might seem among the public expressions of Zionist idealism, the remarks take on added significance coming from a 25-year-old unmarried woman without family. Preparing for “a life on the Land” stands for no less than a revolution in gender identity that rejects the European system of early marriage and lifelong dependence in favor of a deferred marriage and a financially independent status.

Many of the applicants, however, accepted a “male” ideal out of the necessity arising from the social chaos they experienced. Indeed the very act of “going up” (aliyah) to Palestine was often the result of family catastrophes that left young women without the senior males who commonly provided protection. A very high proportion of applicants to Meisel’s school had lost one or both parents. Busyah Yankelevitz grew up on a farm in Ukraine. When she was 11 years old, her father died and since her older brother was in the army, most of the work of the farm fell on her and her two siblings. Then, in 1919, pogroms erupted in Jewish villages, and when those died down, famine hit. Without family or home remaining, He-Halutz, the Zionist youth movement in Eastern Europe, became Busyah’s home. In time, the Zionist movement, the agricultural collective, the new national “home” in Palestine replaced Busyah’s real family destroyed by war and pogroms. It is hardly surprising then to find Busyah, age 20, arguing that “[t]he existence of an agricultural economy is difficult and impossible without the work of women, because the branches of farming which she directs earn more and have the same importance as field crops,” nominally the province of men. In the ideal agricultural world now to be built in Palestine, it was easy to envision female autonomy in terms of physical prowess then thought to be a male prerogative. Tzviyah Hazanov, who proclaimed that “muscles are what we need,” had lost her father when she was young and was brought up by an aunt. Both Tzviyah and Busyah called for “toughness” because they acutely recognized the value of independence and self-reliance. Tziporah Dubosarsky lost her father to the pogroms attending the revolution in 1918. The attack on her father prompted her escape from Russia to a place where she felt “safe from all evil,” where she and her brother could “work for ourselves.” Her older brother left for Palestine in 1922 and she and the rest of her family joined him there in 1925. Like Tzviyah and Busyah, Tziporah felt that Meisel’s school would allow her to do the kind of “productive work” that leads to independence. Some applicants even reached beyond the mainstream by suggestion that the woman herself would set up the farm even without a man’s help. Such is the substance of their “toughness.”

Losing parents led many daughters to value themselves as workers. Before the First World War, Henyah Lifshitz’s parents died of malaria shortly after their coming to Palestine, and she wound up in an orphanage where she began a life of work at an early age. Her experience led Henyah to reject a career as a teacher because she thought it represented women as “weak and dependent” as all women were for “thousands of years.” Instead, Henyah turned to a career as an agricultural laborer. For such women

there is no difference between her and the man. Her usefulness has no less value, since it is known in farm work that her knowledge and efficiency is very important … The woman is very talented and … feels that she is not weaker than her brother. She is a human being, and like all humans can produce and live from the labor of her hands … If the woman wishes to fulfill a role like any other human being and to be productive for herself and her brothers, it is up to her to choose only agricultural work.

The sense of self-reliance that prompted women to value their own work could open the door to a new status among men.

The absence of parents, though common, was not the only incentive that led young women to be self-reliant. Nearly all applicants had lived through the First World War and been subjected, often directly, to its predations. Most of the applicants came from Eastern Europe, mainly Poland, where Jewish communities small and large were shattered by war. For them, joining the Jewish national movement and emigrating to Palestine responded to the social chaos raging beyond their families. The war presented harsh challenges at a tender age, so that by the time they arrived in Palestine in their early 20s, they had a lifetime of harrowing stories behind them. They had become quite used to carrying heavy burdens not usually shouldered by young people, whether male or female. Wars and pogroms inclined them towards ideals of self-reliance and an ideology expressed in images of physical power.

The social and economic burden did not lift on their arrival in Palestine. With the postwar revival of the economy in the spring of 1924, the labor movement encouraged its contacts in Europe to send able workers, even though the World Zionist Organization could not raise the funds to train and assimilate such large numbers. In 1926 the economy nosedived. Unemployment was rife. Jewish settlements were broken up and collectives thrown off the land, all this during a period of a threefold increase in Jewish immigration. Jobs were few even for those with agricultural experience. For those just arriving with next to no experience, the situation was desperate. The enfeebled local organizations that set their sights on helping newcomers could provide little help. Women particularly were affected. While the disbanding of many training farms left both men and women without even basic agricultural skills, men could at least sell their superior upper-body strength and find the kind of menial field work which very few women could endure. Lacking formal training, women flocked to cities as maids, nannies, cooks, or cleaners. Traditional gender patterns of labor threatened Zionism’s promise of sexual equality.

Three cases illustrate the tortuous route through a tight job market that wound its way ultimately to Meisel’s door. At the age of 12 Malkah Finerman and her family fled the Ukrainian civil war and arrived in Haifa where she attended school while her parents worked in a labor collective. When she graduated from high school in 1926, her parents’ collective ran out of work and broke up so its members could seek employment individually. Malkah did paid housework for her parents until she was able to find a spot in another collective in Hadera where she did mostly “housework,” though she enjoyed a couple of months working in a garden. After a year, this collective, too, disbanded, and Malkah alternated between doing housework for her parents and taking on some contract work as a seamstress. Finally, she applied for admission to Meisel’s school in the summer of 1928. Unlike Malkah, Tziporah Marmorstein did not enjoy the protection of a family. She arrived in Palestine at the age of 18 in 1926 by herself and then spent nine months moving to and from private farms to pick up what domestic work she could. She tried to join one of the newly created training farms for women but found that it had a waiting list of 200 “other girls waiting to get in.” She “roamed around Haifa without work” for three months and finally found refuge in a labor collective near Petah Tikvah where she worked in the orchards until “the economy got so bad” she was let go. Then, in 1928 at the age of 20, she applied to the school. Shinze Handling too came to Palestine alone in the beginning of 1924 at the age of 18 and after six months of agricultural work in the Jezreel Valley set up a “workers’ laundry” which closed after three months when she was obliged to become a maid in Haifa until she could find another collective to join in the spring of 1925. In a few months, the collective folded. Shinze wandered for three months among several farms until she wound up once again a maid in Haifa. Finally at age 19, with many jobs behind her, she turned to the school.

All three applicants were casualties of the job market. Meisel’s school presented a desirable alternative to wandering from job to job in an ever-tightening market that continually threw young women back into precisely those gender roles they had sought to escape when they left Europe. In their eyes, Meisel’s school promised them the possibilities that had brought them to Zionism in the first place.

By the late 1920s, ideological support for young women who wished to experiment with novel gender roles was widespread in Labor Zionist circles. Support for gender innovation coincided with an increasing understanding of the advantage of “mixed farming,” in which collectives would no longer tend large fields of a single crop alone. Instead they would combine field crops with a wide variety of hitherto “auxiliary” branches of agriculture such as dairy (milk, butter, and cheese production), poultry and eggs, tree nurseries—all of which came to be seen as insurance against the vagaries of unpredictable markets for agricultural products. Meisel based her plan for securing equal social status for women on the appeal of mixed farming. In her view gender equality rested on the economics of production. Those who wished to alter reality must address the relation of women to the larger economic forces overtaking Palestine. The new realms of production to be added to farms came under the rubric of “gardening” and had long been conceived as the woman’s sphere, a strictly secondary and even unimportant contribution to the main pillar of farming, field crops. Meisel argued that if women used science to become the managers of gardens, dairies, and nurseries, they would make communal farms financially viable by reducing the communities’ need for scarce cash. Just as the trend towards mixed agriculture increased the economic value and prestige of gardening, so the value of women’s work would improve, and with it, the status of women. In acquiring science, women would acquire gender equality. By the late 1920s the revaluation of women’s labor through mixed farming was widely accepted at all levels of Zionist institutional life in Palestine. Applicants, then, found a welcoming environment when they applied to the school.

The Private Sphere and the Nation

Thus, the chaos of life in Eastern Europe and in mid-1920s Palestine drove newly arrived immigrants to embrace the ideal of self-sufficiency and induced young women in the Zionist labor movement to see their own status tied to their ability to be economically productive in an agricultural community. The male images of physical prowess represented their own desire for gender equality. Not only did the prospective student expect to become an “active” contributor to a cause larger than the individual, but she would advance her status as a woman as well. Thus, nearly all applicants attempted to relate their “private” goals concerning their status to national, “public” causes.

Much has been made of the idea that women had been assigned to the domestic sphere, and thus tended to write or speak about “private” rather than “public” issues, about matters of the heart rather than politics from which they were excluded. Some literary critics have characterized this as a “feminine voice,” alternatively silent, passive, or intimate. In modern Hebrew literature, that genre is exemplified by the Second Aliyah poet Rachel Blaustein whose poems speak of “loneliness, yearning for past youth, sickness and death.” Did applicants to Meisel’s school exhibit a “feminine voice”? Simply put, this general characterization of “voice” cannot be applied to this particular time and place. The students at Meisel’s school belonged to a generation that matured during and after the First World War. They were comfortable with the radical ideas of revolutionary Russia that aimed “not only to change fundamentally the national-political, social, and cultural life of the Jewish people, but to create an image of a new man who begins life as a tabula rasa.” What was radical a generation earlier in prerevolutionary Russia was for these students in the late 1920s “too quiet and conservative.” These student applications do not present a traditional “feminine” voice. They speak boldly of nation building.

Most of the women make no explicit mention of women’s rights and connect their personal status directly to the larger goals of the nation. When they attached themselves to a group, they belonged to both the class of “workers” (po’alot) and the “people of Israel” (am Yisrael). Women’s rights as a topic were subsumed in an analysis of the work place and the nation. In this way the goals of nation and class were merged. Gender issues arose within the frame of the Marxist tradition that saw political status as the cultural product of the relations of production within the new Jewish nation. Thus applicants premise their quest for equality with men on the central claim of the Jewish nationalist movement that Jews should become “normal” by becoming a nation of workers. As Malkah Finerman put it:

Every normal people who lives in their own country must derive all their needs from the land. They must live by the labor of their own hands and produce their needs from the land. Thus one is tied to the land and produces for oneself a cultured life in such a way that one will not need to be dependent on another people. For the last two thousand years, our people have wandered from land to land without any means of subsisting and received its needs from foreign peoples who persecuted them. And when Jews wandered from place to place … they were thought to be parasites … And all the while foreign peoples separated our people from work on the land so that gradually one ceased to maintain one’s fitness. But now, after hardship and bloodshed and by right of our very existence as a special people, we come to our land finally to build for ourselves a place to take hold of—a place in which one will concentrate on Hebrew Culture. We must therefore be people who produce, who take part in productive work, who fulfill our economic needs by manual labor within our own land … The labor collective is therefore the form of new life which is based on a just social life.

Florid and awkward in style, the statement is standard Labor Zionism. But applicants embellished on these common themes by imbuing the national project with personal desires arising from their identity as women. They tied their demand for equality to the nation’s bandwagon. As the nation became economically autonomous the plight of women would improve.

Prospective students wove their stories of personal deprivation seamlessly into a chronicle of national liberation couched in the standard ideological terms of Labor Zionism. Frumah Friedman’s expression is typical. As a teenage student in Grodnow from 1914 to 1920, she attended three different schools as the town fell successively under three different occupiers, German, Polish, and Russian, in each case witnessing personally the looting and pillage that followed war. She represented her flight from Poland as an escape from the passivity of her peers who lacked “any ideals” or “any desire to change their diaspora lives.” She responded clearly to her own personal difficulties with Zionism’s call to radical action. The nation’s renewal would fulfill her personal wish “to be someone who can stand on her own.”

Honor, the traditional bastion of men, played an important part in the applicants’ view of themselves. Their quest for honor made public matters of personal aspirations. As the “honor” of Jews among the nations increased, so would the women’s self-esteem. The descent of Europe into anti-Semitism caused personal injury, but it also spurred Jews to raise their heads. For many of these young women the search for honor fed a sense of optimism. For one enthusiastic applicant, the vision of a Jewish state in the making went so far as to dissolve barriers between her and her Polish non-Jewish friends, making it possible even to learn from the “other.” Leah Glick attributed to her Christian friends in Poland her understanding of the importance of national honor: “From them I learned that a human being has self-honor and also has national honor and that there is no self-honor without national honor.” From the idea of “national honor” applicants proposed a link with standard socialist ideas about the honor of doing productive labor. For Rinah Farber “productive work” would spell the end of persecution in Europe and raise her status as a woman. Espousing Zionism’s national goals gave her the means to become the equal of men.

The concept of nation gave these young women the chance to occupy the public realm, and to link their daily work in agriculture to a worthy political goal recognized not only by their peers but by a larger European audience. Thus, Ethel Gotlieb, aged 20, explained how women working for their nation would acquire their places among the esteemed political movements of Europe:

Because the woman worked at home for many generations, she has not been able to take a worthy place in society … but recently she has become very involved in the women’s movement and wants to practice all kinds of professions. It is clear that there is a difference among those in the women’s workers movement. The woman who works has progressed … As all [members of] liberation movements … we must get used to productive work, and that includes women working in agriculture. In order for a woman to be a part of our liberation movement, she must be active during its building period. In agriculture she has the possibility of work in many areas: the dairy, the barn, the garden, the tree nursery and much more. But to do this, the woman must specialize. There is no doubt that she can handle all the responsibilities of these branches … Only with active participation in farm work will the woman feel socially productive as someone who has value in the farming community and in society.

Her agricultural work for the Jewish nation, then, linked her to the great liberation movements of her time. Far from inhabiting the rhetorical world of the “feminine voice,” Meisel’s students saw themselves gliding easily between the “private” concerns of their status as women and the “public” goal of building a nation.

Is the Romantic Voice a Feminine One?

The “private” voice of sentiment and inner longing was never far off stage. Indeed some applications glow with the classic Romantic themes such as the saving power of nature, the decadence of “civilized” city life, and most especially, the heroism of individual striving. Some of this Romantic effervescence might be construed as “feminine” since it focuses on the private self, the seat of emotion and even sentimentalism. But Romantic tendencies flowed throughout the Zionist movement among men as well as women to the point that some scholars have seen Zionist discourse in general as an expression of religiosity. What does one then make of the commonly perceived distinction between male and female voice? It does not fare well in an environment where the search for inner spirit, habitually assigned to female discourse, characterized a wide range of both male and female writing. Much of Zionism’s discourse was dominated by the “search for the miraculous, the sublime, the enchanted in everyday reality” and led to a kind of mysticism that “encouraged ecstatic confessional behavior.” Just as the young applicants to Meisel’s school adopted male physical images and ideological expression, so too men often spoke in the sentimental and Romantic terms formerly assigned to women.

Of course, one must avoid conflating the romantic longing of adults with childish bleating.

Dear Madame: Save me!! From the rottenness! Of the city! I am simply ready to commit suicide to leave … Perhaps there isn’t a bed; I will come and sleep outside. I’ll buy my own food. And if there are thirty students I will be the thirty-first. How many years are necessary to learn … Please accept me. I don’t know Hebrew. And so I am unable to ask properly. Please really answer how I can enter? … Please, Madam if it happens that sometimes a girl is not really crazy about work and gets thrown out, perhaps I can take her place? … I will work with all my might …

Personal, childish, and intimate expressions merge in some of the applicants’ essays. They cannot be considered typically “female” nor confused with the Romanticism of Zionists. This plea is utterly self-centered and offered no justification beyond personal gratification.

Genuine Romanticism is another matter. At what point do these adolescent reveries escape the tight circle of self and leap into a new epoch in which “voice,” and indeed the very boundaries of gender, were subject to revaluation? One way of marking the distinction between childish expression and adult awareness is the extent to which applicants attached their personal wishes to a world beyond the individual, to the larger goals of the Zionist movement. Brakhah Saknait exuded a Romantic longing for the rural life worthy of Tolstoy. Such sentiments explicitly associated feelings of kindliness with rural life and attributed moral values of goodness to Nature. In her words, manual labor and country living made her “feel nature” and “feel nicer towards people.” However sentimental and inward, Brakhah does indeed connect herself to “other people” and generalizes from her own experience outward to convey a wider sense of her place in the “public” world. For Brakhah since “people are less evil when they are in nature … all people should live in nature.” For her, self is nothing by itself.

These were the applicants that Meisel was looking for. She remained continually alert to the “dangerous” presence of self and carefully screened out applicants whose penchant for self-fulfillment and introspection overtook public commitments. Tzilah Goldstern described in morbid detail the death of her father and her brother’s illness and death. She announced that she had always wanted a “quiet life” in a rural setting where “one can find a quiet corner for oneself and be secluded and think to one’s heart content” and where “there’s no one to bother you.” Meisel noted with scorn that the candidate’s ego seemed to have shunted aside any explanation about why she chose agricultural labor as a career. Further, Meisel did not accept Goldstern’s harrowing experiences as a mitigating circumstance. She bluntly found her quite “childish” and dismissed her, saying that she “doesn’t know what she wants.”

To be sure, many prospective students bathed their writing in a Romantic wash, but they reached well beyond self. No matter how naïve their picture of rural life might have been, they directed their passions outward from the self towards a larger group: “the Land of Israel,” “the Jewish people,” “the community of labor.” Romantic expression for them did not limit their horizons to a personal feeling, but attached their labors to a public cause. Both Hannah Glick and Miriam Bodetz had passed their childhoods in war-torn Poland and Lithuania and experienced their share of horrors very much like those in Tzilah Goldstern’s narrative. Yet, unlike Goldstern, Glick, when asked to described her “Most Important Memory,” focused on her first days in Palestine as a laborer:

how they engraved in my understanding what freedom I felt, the fields all spread out, and the hoe in my hands … how my heart expanded when seeing the men and women working beside me, sweating, getting tired, happy, every face rejoicing, no worries; our every aspiration was realized; we were becoming a community.

What clearly distinguishes this expression of Romantic infatuation with rural life is that Glick’s personal passion led into a community beyond the confines of self. Similarly, Miriam Bodetz saw light in the darkness of her childhood. Like Goldstern, she had passed her adolescent years in Poland during the war without her father who died when she was very young. Unlike Goldstern, however, Bodetz chose to describe her experience on a communal training farm near a small village in Poland in which “[T]he rich nature all around the village mixed with the richness of my daring imagination.”

In the fields and the mountains, I always saw the sign of Mt. Sinai; in the campfires of the shepherds, I saw the sign of the burning bush, and I was always surrounded by the lovely legends of my mother, my teachers and my elders.

Though she strays far from the reality of agrarian life in Palestine, she has given up her private comforts. Sinai, the burning bush, the inheritance of ancestors all point her to a public cause that centers on building a community. Both Bodetz and Glick fairly represent the majority of applicants in the kind of idealism that pushed them away from self in favor of nation and class. They do not express merely personal concerns within a private sphere, the hallmark of the “feminine voice.” Many of the applicants to Meisel’s school were Romantics, but they were the same sort of Romantics as the men who filled the ranks of the Zionist movement.

Ideology: A Public Voice

Ideology creates the public sphere by ordering the relations of power within it. It transforms private concerns into abstract and universal goals that leave behind the personal and sentimental world that gave birth to them. For the applicants to Meisel’s school, ideological expression offered the much-sought-for opportunity to enter the public sphere formerly thought to exclude women and to speak in a way formerly thought to be the sole province of men. Zionism’s ideology attracted them by providing a means to connect their personal desire for autonomy to the wider European social and political issues of their era. Like Zionist men, they spoke in the public voice of ideology.

Ruth Verenberger combined the private and public spheres by extolling Zionism’s national project as the road to her own personal liberation. She proclaimed that Jews had always “wandered from place to place like a poor man begging from door to door” and this had resulted in an “unhealthy spirit.” The establishment of a Jewish state would put an end to centuries of spiritual illness because the new generation of Jews would have “a healthy spirit in a healthy body which, with its own strength, will establish the Land on a healthy foundation.” Her prescription for Jewish ills resonates with the confident rhetoric of science and the spacious assumptions of her time. In her formulation, the new science of public health is the exclusive domain of women. In this essential task of cultivating the public’s health, “the man is completely unable to substitute for the woman, and vice versa.” In keeping with mainstream feminism of her day, Verenberger maintained the domestic sphere as the woman’s domain but elevated its status by placing it at the very center of national ideology. The vast abstractions of ideology that competed in defining the roles of science, justice, and of course, gender, formed a central part of applicants’ essays whatever their particular measures for improving their society. Ideology allowed them to link personal desires and public causes, making the customary theoretical distinctions between feminine and masculine “voice” irrelevant.

The ideological basis of the applicants’ desire to blur gender distinctions lay in their belief, a product of Meisel’s years of educational preaching and mainstream Marxism, that the status of individuals derived from the economic value of their work. Some applicants displayed a highly developed skill in applying this ideological apparatus to their own lives. Brakhah Bat-Artzi grew up in Palestine and faced the world without the comforts of family. Both of Brakhah’s parents had come to Palestine before the First World War and died when Brakhah was only eight years old, so she was sent to an orphanage. Fortunately, she wound up in a most extraordinary one, the Meir Shefaya home in Jaffa, established by the early Jewish settler community and pervaded by the Zionist values that advocated agricultural labor as a means of cultural renewal. By the time she was 18 years old and applied to the school, she had absorbed this ethos and developed the ability to express her beliefs in the ideological terms of Labor Zionism. She combined the liberation of women with that of the nation:

In every production of new life in the Land of Israel … there has been awakened within the woman an internal desire to liberate herself from the home and to participate in activities and all kinds of productive work, but because of a lack of knowledge and prior training, she is compelled to continue in the way set out for her in advance by doing housework. And the value of this work declines until it means nothing to her. The woman, after being in a labor collective for a year or more, finds herself useless and inefficient and then leaves the group and goes some place for training. Sometimes she becomes depressed and leaves agriculture entirely and heads for the city. This is not the case for young women who have received training before entering a labor collective. They feel a sense of belonging to the collective and they fulfill a role like any [other] member, becoming really useful to the group.

For Brakhah, the destiny of women would flow from the working relationships of the new agricultural economy. An individual’s satisfaction derived from his/her usefulness to the labor collective and ultimately to the nation. Significantly, there is nothing novel in this form of ideological expression that would distinguish it from the central claims of Labor Zionism, except its inclusion of women among those who produce.

That it was written during an examination by an 18-year-old in 1928 is remarkable only for its refined presentation. In one way or another, nearly all the applicants present some aspect of Brakhah’s neatly linked cascade of factors that create a woman’s social status. And nearly all applicants, like Brakhah, avoid a sense of victimization. To be sure, there are many stories of bad times for women, but Brakhah’s personal injuries found relief in the vast public project represented by Zionist ideology. One can look for and find “personal” motives that lay behind her commitment. Her life as an orphan equipped her to fend for herself and to emphasize self-reliance. But her assumption that women’s status in general would change in step with her own transformation merges the “private” and the “public” spheres into one. Her rendition of Zionist ideology has the universal voice that just a decade earlier identified the speaker as male.


The destruction that overtook Eastern Europe during the First World War shaped the applicants’ commitment to Zionism, and in this sense, they differed little from young men. A national home in Palestine would replace broken families or small communities lost to the predations of war and elevate personal autonomy to the level of a supreme virtue. Young women adopted a particularly fresh and energetic version of self-sufficiency that blurred the traditional boundaries of gender. Even the overtly masculine images of physical strength became their own. Their “imperious selves” came front and center as they left the private realm of women to lead “active” lives as agents of political innovation. Whether or not they accurately envisioned their own place in the public domain is another matter and open to question. Their expectations, however, are sharply defined. They hoped to enter the public sphere and spoke in the confident voice of ideology, so long a male bastion.

To appreciate the extent of this achievement in the 1920s, it is worth recalling how much these applicants differed from the earlier generation of the Second Aliyah. Before the First World War, the generation of Hannah Meisel and her friends who had first established themselves as pioneers in Palestine came face to face with the physical challenge of agricultural living. A vast gap opened between being a woman and being a pioneer. Becoming a female worker in Palestine entailed an immense leap over the “sharp divide” that separated the European girl from the Zionist adult. Many women of the Second Aliyah were consumed with inner tension and self-doubt. Plowing fields like men led many, if not all, to reconsider the nature of women’s work.

By the 1920s, a new role for women as the harbingers of science in agriculture allowed them to leave the plowing to men without betraying the ideal of manual labor. Tired of their lot in the kitchens and laundries of collective settlements, young women sought entrance to Meisel’s school as a means to recover their place in the Zionist project. Personal autonomy, the fruit of a scientific education, would fulfill the public aim of nation building and place them in the front lines. By espousing national goals achieved through science and labor, the girls of the 1920s managed to preserve their “imperious selves” as they became women. That is why a sense of optimism pervades their essays. They embraced a novel image of the woman that both united femininity with labor and offered the hope of participation in the Zionist project on a par with men.