On Women's Immigration in the Writing of Dvora Baron

Published March 19, 2018 by Tsila Ratner

Women, Immigration, Dvora Baron, Modern Hebrew Literature, Women's History Month

Marking Women's History Month 2018, Dr Tsila Ratner reflects on women's immigration in the writing of Dvora Baron.

For a reader of Modern Hebrew literature it seems only natural to mark Women's History Month 2018 by revisiting the writing of Dvora Baron (1887-1956), the most significant Hebrew woman writer of her time. Her life as a writer exemplifies the hurdles Hebrew women writers had to overcome before they could inhabit their rightful place in the canon of Modern Hebrew literature. Baron was born in Belarus and immigrated to Palestine in 1910, already an active member and acclaimed writer in the literary republic of her time. Even so, her place in the male dominated canon of Modern Hebrew literature was rather ambiguous. While her richly textured writing was celebrated, it was also marginalised by the literary establishment. They categorised it as 'women's writing', dealing with women's life rather than the 'big' issues of the time, and as a 'shtetl writer', of narrow historical and social scope. The rise of feminism and awareness of social/cultural power structures in Israel since the late seventies has changed these attitudes. Literary critics, mainly women, made Baron's writing central to the large volume of scholarship they have produced.  

Cover image from Tzena, Tzena: In and About the Dowry Box

One of the characteristics of Baron's writing is her representation of small and seemingly trivial details of the everyday life of her women characters. As the book Tzena, Tzena: In and About the Dowry Box [1] shows, these details, particularly those representing women's material culture, are highly significant. Once they are carefully looked at, they reveal the complex ways women characters negotiate their position between compliance to the strict norms of the social/cultural discourse and a sense of destabilizing autonomy. Baron's women characters, especially in her later writing, are 'good women'. Their socialisation as traditional shtetl's women hardly allows any expression of disruptive individuality. Nonetheless it emerges through their material objects, their skills and knowledge.

Baron's narratives of immigration, mainly of women characters, take place at the turn of the twentieth century, a period of massive waves of immigration, not unlike our present time. Whether immigrating to Eretz Yisrael or elsewhere, their women protagonists face the crises of uprooting and integration. Looking at what they carry in their migration luggage reveals the potential for their success or failure in their new environment. The luggage contents of the woman character in 'America' (published in 1949) epitomises the links between material objects, women's individuality and the impact they have on the outcome of mass immigration.

'America' tells the story of the immigration of shtetl communities to America. Forced by dire poverty the family of the woman character follows the familiar migration route of the period and prepares herself for it. In sacks she packs traditional Jewish objects (prayer books, candlesticks etc.) alongside her own biographical objects, those that carry her life experiences and skills. Those are not considered of great value, but were "sanctified by [her] long use".  Including personal items in a family's luggage is only to be expected, but the woman goes further. A dress in the style of 'big cities' is being made for her journey by the seamstress of the municipal city, not the shtetl. And the hairdresser refashions her coiffure, exposing a few of her own curls beneath her wig so as not to draw attention to it. She remodels her body and appearance by what she imagines to be American norms.

This woman character is a good shtetl's wife and mother, following the rules obediently. However, into the shtetl's norms she introduces foreign and quite subversive elements like her dress and exposed hair. These elements don't openly challenge the norms, they are immersed in them.

Most probably deemed insignificant in the framework of mass immigration, those small and 'trivial' women's everyday objects and corporal manifestations are instrumental to the success of the immigrant community in the narrative. They are expressions of a fluid individual identity that maintains traditional values while adapting the foreseen norms of the new social and cultural environment. As such they are the key to the success of immigrant communities.

Let's not be fooled then by the semblance of compliance and triviality in Baron's representations of women's life and material culture.

[1] Naveh, Hannah. Ratner Abramovitz, Tsila. (2015) Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad

Dr Tsila Ratner is Senior Lecturer in Modern Hebrew Literature in the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College London. Dr Ratner's research is focused on Gender and Women's writings in modern Hebrew literature.

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