Review of Women Writing Jewish Modernity by Allison Schachter

Jessica Kirzane

Alli­son Schachter, Women Writ­ing Jew­ish Moder­ni­ty, 1919 – 1939. (North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2021). 232 pp. $34.95, paperback.

Until recently, it has been a truism among many scholars of Jewish literature that Jewish women writers in Hebrew and Yiddish were largely poets, rather than authors of prose. 1 1 See Anita Norich, “Jewish Literature and Feminist Criticism” in Gender and Text in Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature, eds. Naomi B. Sokoloff, Anne Lapidus Lerner, and Anita Norich (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1992), 1-15. Shortly after Norich repeated this claim, which had been taught to her as fact, the publication of Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers, ed. Frieda Forman, et al, (Second Story Press, 1994) demonstrated the existence of a significant body of Yiddish prose fiction by women. In the meantime, even this assessment of women as poets was itself innovative, as many conceptions of Jewish literary history excluded women even from the writing of poetry as well. During a time that Naomi Seidman once referred to as the “dark ages” (circa 1990) before critical examination of modern Hebrew and Yiddish women’s poetry, there was almost no critical apparatus to contextualize Jewish women’s writing, even poetry, in a larger narrative of women’s creativity in Hebrew or Yiddish. See Naomi Seidman, Gender Criticism and Hebrew-Yiddish Literature: A Report from the Field,” Prooftexts 14, no 3 (1994): 298-310. For an early reassessment of Hebrew literary historiography in light of feminist criticism see Michael Gluzman, “The Exclusion of Women from Hebrew Literary History,” Prooftexts 11: 3 (September 1991), pp. 259-278. In the pioneering collection Gender and Text in Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature (1992), edited by Naomi B. Sokoloff, Anne Lapiudus Lerner, and Anita Norich, this “preponderance of poets among women writing in Yiddish or Hebrew” is a subject of analysis, raising as it seemed to do the question of what appeared to be an alignment between gender and genre. Although the volume included essays on prose writers like Chava Rosenfarb and Ruth Almong, the editors note that their work is “not representative” of the place of women’s writing within the corpus of Jewish literature precisely because of its genre. 2 2 Anita Norich, “Jewish Literature and Feminist Criticism”, 12, emphasis in the original.

This apparent certainty that women writers were largely poets has yielded a bountiful crop of critical studies of Yiddish women’s poetry. 3 3 See, for instance: Kathryn Hellerstein, A Question of Tradition: Women Poets in Yiddish, 1586-1987 (Stanford University Press, 2014); Joanna Lisek, Kol isze – głos kobiet w poezji jidysz (od XVI w. do 1939 r.) [Kol ishe: The Voice of Women in Yiddish Poetry (from the 16th Century to 1939)] (Sejny: Pogranicze, 2018.; Hess, Tamar, Galit Hasan-Rokem, and Shirley Kaufman,” Defiant Muse: Feminist Hebrew Poetry,” Judaism 48, no. 3 (Summer, 1999): 345-357; Adriana X. Jacobs, Strange Cocktail: Translation and the Making of Modern Hebrew Poetry (University of Michigan Press, 2018); Shoshana Olidort, “Performing Intersectional Identities: Four Jewish Women Poets in the 20th Century,” PhD Dissertation, Stanford University, 2021; Brenner, Naomi,“ Slippery Selves: Rachel Bluvstein and Anna Margolin in Poetry and in Public,” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues, no. 19 (2010): 100–133; Hinde Burstin, “On the Other Side: Dina Lipkis, Yiddish Poet of 1920s Kyiv” in Cossacks in Jamaica, Ukraine at the Antipodes ed. Alessandro Achilli, Serhy Yekelchyk and Dmytro Yesypenko (Academic Studies Press, 2020); Anna Elena Torres, “Circular Landscapes: Montage and Myth in Dvoyre Fogel’s Yiddish Poetry” Nashim 35 (Fall 2019), pp. 40-74; Zohar Weiman-Kelman, Queer Expectations: A Genealogy of Jewish Women’s Poetry (SUNY, 2018); Sheva Zucker, “The Red Flower – Rebellion and Guild in the Poetry of Celia Dropkin” Studies in American Jewish Literature 15 (1996), pp. 99-117; Melissa Weininger, “A Poetic Paradox: Gender and Self in Anna Margolin’s Mary Cycle,” In geveb (May 18, 2017); Avraham Novershtern, “The Voices and the Choir: Yiddish Women’s Poetry in the Interwar Period,” Criticism and Interpretation 40 (2008): 61-146, and several essays in the pivotal volume Women Writers of Yiddish Literature: Critical Essays, edited by Rosemary Horowitz (McFarland, 2015). As truly foundational as these studies have been, the focus on poetry has perpetuated a blind spot with regard to Jewish women’s prose writing, which has recently begun to receive more attention. Allison Schachter’s new study Women Writing Jewish Modernity, 1919-1939 offers a corrective to this oversight, which she claims is detrimental to the entirety of Jewish literary studies, and not simply an insult to the women writers themselves. As Schachter insists, modernist women writers’ “absence in the literature on modern Jewish culture means that we understand less about Jewish modernity than scholars realize” (6). The impression of women as poetic has tended to support a categorization of women’s writing as lyrical, beautiful, and emotional, which has in turn marginalized the study of women’s writing and precluded it from being read as authoritative, engaged with political, economic, or social critique, or central to the development of modernist writing. This has resulted not only in a partial story about women’s writing, but a partial story about modern Jewish literature as a whole. Schachter aims to center women writers and create a theory of modernist writing around their texts, showing that they were essential to the work of Jewish modernism. Schachter builds upon the foundational work of scholar activists and translators, such as Irena Klepfisz and Frieda Forman, who have been arguing against the invisibility of women prose writers for decades, in what must have seemed an uphill battle. 4 4 See Irena Klepfisz, “The 2087th Question or When Silence in the Only Answer,” In geveb, Jan 7, 2020,; Frieda Forman, “Shifshvester / Sister-Voyagers: The Feminist Passage to Yiddish Culture” in Di froyen: Women and Yiddish Tribute to the Past Directions for the Future (National Council of Jewish Women New York Section, 1997). She draws upon and contributes to a more recent uptick in attention to women’s prose writing in Hebrew and Yiddish. 5 5 Wendy I. Zierler, And Rachel Stole the Idols: The Emergence of Modern Hebrew Women’s Writing (Wayne State University Press, 2004); Carole B. Balin, To Reveal Our Hearts: Jewish Women Writers in Tsarist Russia (Hebrew Union College Press, 2000); Nurit Orchan, Yotzot me’arba Amot: Nashim Cotvot Ba’Itonut Be’Yiddish Ba’Imperia HaRussit (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center, 2013) In Hebrew; Brinn, Ayelet,” Beyond the Women’s Section: Rosa Lebensboym, Female Journalists, and the American Yiddish Press,” American Jewish History 104, no. 2 (2020): 347-369. doi:10.1353/ajh.2020.0031; Anastasiya Lyubas, “Gender, Language and Territory: The Tsushtayer Literary Journal in Galicia and the Contributions of Yiddish Women Writers,” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues, 37 (Fall 2020), p. 163-185. Together with these historical and literary critical studies, a host of translations of prose by Jewish women writers in the past several years has served to draw attention to this writing and to its previous absence from conversations about Yiddish and Hebrew literary history. For translations of women’s Yiddish prose into English see Anita Norich, “Translating and Teaching Yiddish Prose by Women” In geveb, April 2, 2020 Even since Norich’s bibliography was published a year and a half ago, several new volumes of translations have been published or are forthcoming of writers such as Salomea Perl, Ida Maze, Miriam Karpilove, Fradl Shtok, and Chana Blankshteyn; For examples of literary recovery and translation work of women’s Hebrew prose into English see The First Day and Other Stories, translated by Naomi Seidman and Chana Kronfeld (University of California Press, 2001) and “To Tread on New Ground”: Selected Hebrew Writings of Hava Shapiro, edited by Carole B. Balin and Wendy I. Zierler (Wayne State University Press, 2014).

Schachter carves out her role in this still fledgling—but growing—field by describing a particular subsection of modern Yiddish and Hebrew women writers—those who harness “the Jewish minority crisis as a potential model for modernist experimentation and for thinking about new forms of minority belonging” while “reflecting on the role of the woman writer” and who “understood that women, outside of traditional Jewish textual authority, were in a unique position to develop new ways of reading and writing” (16). Despite the volume’s bold title of Women Writing Jewish Modernity, Schachter does not attempt an all-encompassing view of what women wrote in Jewish languages in the interwar period. Her model is not universally applicable to all women writers in the period. For example, it glosses over the often women-authored middlebrow writing directed at women readers that played a key role in shaping the Yiddish press into an influential, diverse publication field. 6 6 See Ayelet Brinn, “Miss Amerike: The Yiddish Press’s Encounter with the United States, 1885-1924.” PhD Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2019. Schachter focuses on avant garde writers, recovering their “lost vision of Jewish modernist literary possibility” (5) and recuperating them within a high status modernism.

Schachter examines the work of five interwar women writers—Fradl Shtok, Dvora Baron, Elisheva Bikhovsky, Leah Goldberg, and Debora Vogel—taking them as case studies through which to determine the contours of a “transnational Hebrew and Yiddish feminist modernist aesthetic” (3). She argues that these writers’ work deserves separate treatment because “women writers in interwar Europe responded to the changes that modernity brought in ways that often differed from men”—their perspectives on the possibilities and limitations of modernity were deeply inflected by their gender (7). Rather than being exceptional—a term that tends to be used to dismiss women’s accomplishments as anomalous and deny them literary legacies 7 7 See Joanna Russ, How to Suppress Women’s Writing (University of Texas Press, 1983). —these women, Schachter argues, represent “a norm for women writers and artists of this period” whose work reveals “a different narrative of Jewish modernity” characterized by a “struggle to seek recognition in modern societies that devalued women’s labor and created institutional and material roadblocks for women writers seeking publication and recognition” (12). This struggle had implications for each of these writers’ output as their writing was undervalued and undercompensated, their work received little attention, and their literary careers were curtailed and were often dependent on and circumscribed by male gatekeepers. Schachter posits a way of reading these writers’ feminist modernist Jewish writing as a body of work—a corpus to which we might ascribe other similar writers in a way that would render them newly legible. Taking inspiration from Ewa Ziarek’s Feminist Aesthetics and the Politics of Modernism (2012), Schachter seeks to uncover and describe a feminist aesthetics born of political “impasses and dreams of possibility” that served as grounds for imaginary work; as Schachter explains, paraphrasing Ziarek, this writing “must grapple with a revolutionary vision that emerges out of a world that derides and rejects women… the revolutionary emerges from the very conditions that silence women” (4, 54).

In her reading of Fradl Shtok and Dvora Baron, Schachter engages with these authors’ depictions of women as artists, especially in relation to the writing of Gustave Flaubert, who served as “an important literary authority” for these writers and their milieu (19). In Schachter’s reading, Fradl Shtok uses Flaubertian free indirect discourse to represent and take seriously a fantasizing woman’s artistic potential and aesthetic authority, rather than, as Flaubert himself does, to dismiss such women’s longings as trivial or frivolous. Moving between her protagonists’ minds and collective narration, she represents women’s artistic lives as curtailed by public discourse that limits the scope of their ambitions, but still enable them to escape through an imagination that Shtok invests with dignity. Schachter presents Dvora Baron’s approach to free indirect discourse as attentive to women’s domestic and artistic labor and the parallels between them. Both in her Hebrew translation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and in her original prose fiction, Baron recovers women’s reading and desire as an “aesthetic experience that might compensate for her suffering” (70) even as it illustrates how meager the scope for women’s aesthetic experience is. To Schachter, both Shtok and Baron elevate everyday women’s desire into an aesthetic practice, placing themselves in the authoritative position of the narrator who can perceive and interpret women’s artistic feeling.

In her reading of Elisheva Bikhovsky and Leah Goldberg, Schachter calls attention to the relationship between women writers and the cultural politics of the Hebrew language they adopted as an expression for their political and aesthetic commitments. In Leah Goldberg’s writing, Schachter locates a discomfort with “affinities between Orientalism and the secular revival of Hebrew as a literary language in Europe” (95). Goldberg disrupts the Orientalism of modern Hebrew through the figure of the woman Hebraist who does not rely on a traditional Hebrew textual education and instead enters the modern Hebrew literary tradition through independent adult mastery, an entry that is outside of linear historical trajectories. Although Baron’s writing “finds no clear way forward for a Hebrew woman writer whose only access to Hebrew is dependent on the language’s secularization” it nevertheless illuminates the gendered limitations of modern Hebrew and a feminist longing for escape from them (114). Elisheva Bikhovsky, a non-Jewish Hebrew writer who adopted a minority identity as a Hebrew writer, expresses her cosmopolitanism through her Hebrew writing and her attitudes toward multilingualism and translation as a way to disrupt the ethnonationalist connection between language and its native speakers. She sees women at the center of a project to create an alternative, non-nationalist Hebrew modernist future.

Schachter sees these two threads (artistic and linguistic) of modernist feminist Jewish writing intersecting in Debora Vogel’s prose-montage experiments, which she calls “the apotheosis of the feminist aesthetic principles laid out in this book” (163). 8 8 Debora Vogel’s has received renewed scholarly interest since the mid-2000s. In a special issue of In geveb devoted to Debora Vogel, editors Anastasiya Lyubas, Anna Elena Torres, and Kathryn Hellerstein share a short bibliography of recent scholarship and translations. See “Walking with Vogel: New Perspectives on Debora Vogel” In geveb, October 26, 2021. As a Polish-Yiddish bilingual writer, Vogel bridges the divide between the languages and aesthetic concerns of the modernist writers in each linguistic community. Vogel also resists the emerging notion that one must choose a single linguistic community and a single national cultural sphere – that is to say, she resists the logic of nationalism. As a writer working within the form of montage, she extends the impulses of Shtok’s and Baron’s free indirect discourse to foreground minoritized perspectives and resists aesthetic practices that seek to commodify and objectify women. She valorizes women’s aesthetic labor even as she notes how it has been cheapened through popular, commercial consumption of images of female bodies, bodies that long to be subjects, rather than objects, of art.

Through these five figures, Schachter describes what she understands to be the primary concerns of modernist, feminist Jewish literature: elevating the aesthetic within the everyday, addressing women’s political and artistic roles within their languages, and responding to a historical moment of heightened attention to, and shifting definitions of, minority and national culture and language. Schachter’s argument—that a body of women’s modernist, feminist Jewish writing exists and can be written about as such—is galvanizing, if not always fully convincing, as it is sometimes difficult to trace the connections she asserts between these writers. Schachter’s examination of a variety of themes and concerns at times leaves the reader wondering to what extent Schachter succeeded in her aim of “bringing together the work of these women,” though each chapter separately offers fascinating and bold readings of each writer (16).

One consistency in Schachter’s work that ties these writers together is its fascinating window into the transnational nature of Jewish literature in this period. Vogel’s affinity for Yiddish, for instance, derived from her “deep attachment to the multilingual, multiethnic legacy of Galicia” (144) and was supported by her relationship to the avant garde project of New York’s In zikh writers, with whom she corresponded. Bikhovsky’s prose relies not only on her position as a Hebrew writer in Palestine, but especially on her drive to represent a cosmopolitan Hebrew and conceive of it having a cultural position within the Soviet context. As Schachter argued in her earlier work, Diasporic Modernisms (2012), modern Hebrew and Yiddish writing arose out of interaction with secular European cultures that occurred as writers migrated into metropolitan centers and across borders. Schachter’s earlier work demonstrating the hybrid, multilingual nature of modernist Jewish writing is an undercurrent in her latest volume, though this is not explicitly addressed. Indeed, in many ways her current project is a continuation of her previous scholarship on modernist writing grappling with statelessness and the uncertain status of Yiddish and Hebrew.

This transnational and multilingual component of modernist writing in Schachter’s volume leaves room for further exploration. Her work is limited to writing in Hebrew and Yiddish, and does not take into account writers working in German, such as Veza Canetti and Else Feldman, those writing in French, such as Irène Némirovsky and Elsa Troliet, or those working in Russian such as Elizaveta Polonskaya and Rashel Khin, many of whom were engaged in the worlds of European upheaval and the rise of nationalism, as well as the European literary trends that Schachter engages with in her study. Nor does she engage with modernist feminist Jewish writers in English, such as Gertrude Stein. Perhaps narrowing the scope of the study to texts in Jewish languages makes it possible to avoid the need to define or defend the Jewishness of a particular work of Jewish fiction, allowing for greater freedom within the analysis. The work Schachter has done to outline women writers’ thematics and strategies will have to be extrapolated to the broader European Jewish writerly world—and beyond!—by future scholars who could use Schachter’s description of modernist feminist Jewish literature as a metric against which to place other women writers of modernism she does not directly address. Schachter’s study of women writers of European origin follows a Eurocentric geography of modern Jewish literature that scholars of Mizrahi and Sephardic Hebrew writing push back against, arguing for a “global” model of Haskalah and interculturality in modern Jewish literatures. 9 9 Lital Levy, “Reorienting Hebrew Literary History: The View from the East,” Prooftexts 29:2 (Spring 2009), pp. 127-172. Future scholars engaging with Schachter’s model will have to consider to what extent it is applicable to the writing of Mizrahi and Sephardic women writers, and can render their work more legible, and to what extent it reinscribes their marginalization. How might Schachter’s model be different if she cast a wider lens?

It is striking, given the Hebrew and Yiddish focus of the work, that Schachter concludes her analysis with a discussion of English-language author Grace Paley. Rather than turning to a Hebrew or Yiddish writer to draw out the aftereffects of this history, such as Chava Rosenfarb’s stories of Holocaust survivors characterized by an unreliable narrative voice, Schachter brings her readers into the American, English-language, Jewish literary scene. Schachter’s conclusion gestures toward the literary inheritors of the traditions she outlines, but her discussion of Grace Paley is unsatisfying and puzzling, particularly as she names far more recent inheritors of a masculinist Jewish literary tradition, such as Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander. Who, I wonder, are the writers who can be said to be following in the footsteps of Devora Vogel today? If Schachter is invested in the notion of continuity and legacy, why does she land on a twentieth century American author to make this case? And what is at stake for Schachter in insisting on these writers having a legacy that “lives on” (166)? Is the impulse to institutionalize a certain mode of writing through its heirs ultimately a masculinist project of canon formation?

Indeed, one might ask if the tradition Schachter describes might better be characterized as one that has proved as ephemeral as the writings it encompasses, each so overlooked by critics that continuity within these feminist experiments was rendered impossible. Can we speak of legacies in marginalized writing, or is the lack of a legacy one of the devastating effects of such marginalization? The concept of a woman writer so exceptional that she is isolated, without predecessors or inheritors, is among the key strategies Joanna Rusk describes in her irreverent guidebook How to Suppress Women’s Writing. 10 10 Joanna Russ, How to Suppress Women’s Writing (University of Texas Press, 1983). What, then, should be our response to such isolation—do we look for golden chains of influence, however tenuous, and forge new canons out of women writers they link together? Or can we acknowledge writers as leaving diffuse, not easily traceable influences and cherish their work without demanding continuity as a marker of success? Relatedly, to what extent might insisting that the tradition Schachter describes is “modernist” replicate the literary hierarchies that have allowed scholars to overlook women’s writing when it was read as more popularly oriented? 11 11 Schachter’s project, shoring up the centrality of modernism in Hebrew and Yiddish and leaving out hitherto uncanonical kinds of writing, like letters, diaries, and serialized novels, accords with hierarchies of genre that have long been a principle of canonical exclusion. These hierarchies were a central concern in the “canon wars” of the 1980s and 90s, a time of earnest and intense battles on what works of literature should be taught in order for university students to be considered well educated. See, for instance, Patricia Meyer Spacks, “Forgotten Genres” in Modern Language Studies 18, 1 (Winter 1988), pp. 47-57. For an overview of the canon wars, see Rachel Donadio, “Revisiting the Canon Wars,” The New York Times, September 16, 2007. In his work-in-progress on popular Yiddish writer Sarah Smith, Saul Noam Zaritt offers an alternative model for reading women’s Yiddish literature – in his case centering not on avant garde modernist writers but on popular romance fiction. He posits that a focus on this fiction opens up Yiddish Studies to an appreciation for linguistic and cultural cross-pollination and pulls it away from a parochial Jewish-centered analytic lens. I thank Saul Noam Zaritt for sharing his work with me at an early stage.

These concerns notwithstanding, Schachter’s work is monumental, not only for what it accomplishes, but even in its limitations, for what it sets out to accomplish. Schachter’s monograph is, astoundingly, the first monograph to consider early twentieth century women’s prose writing in Hebrew and Yiddish as a body of work, and any reviewer, all criticisms aside, must applaud the importance of such a study. The obstacles to writing about women’s writing are many, but can be summed up in the question often posed to Carole B. Balin as she worked on Jewish women writers in tsarist Russia, “You’re writing about what?” 12 12 Carole B. Balin, To Reveal Our Hearts, 11.

In Women Writing Jewish Modernity, Schachter notes that recent recovery efforts have begun to expand our understanding of the scope of modern Jewish literature to incorporate the work of women writers. But for Schachter, this is only the first step—a step actively participates in through her own work in her recent translation, with Jordan Finkin, of Fradl Shtok’s writings. 13 13From the Jewish Provinces: Selected Stories by Fradl Shtok, trans. Allison Schachter and Jordan D. Finkin. (Northwestern University Press, 2021). Rather than simply adding more texts into the canon, she argues “we must read women’s writing and assimilate it into the core of historical and cultural understanding” (8). In other words, we not only need translations and reprints; we also need scholarship that theorizes alongside this emerging body of work and gives us tools and models to understand these works as an interrelated body of texts and incorporate them in new, fuller narratives of modern Jewish literary historiography. After all, as Schachter notes, the writings of Grace Paley have been widely available, praised and anthologized, but have rarely received critical attention because they have been “illegible” within established literary frameworks (169). This accords with even some of the most recent and innovative scholarship on modern Jewish fiction, in which the model for modern Jewish literature still describes an almost exclusively male world, and women’s writing, even when taken into consideration, is discussed as an enterprise that exists outside the normatized theoretical framework. 14 14 See for instance Saul Noam Zaritt, Jewish American Writing and World Literature (Oxford University Press, 2020), which presents a new conceptualization of Jewish American writing in dialogue with theories of world literature and transnational American Studies, but notes that such an approach to world literature is not aligned with the work of women writers such as Anna Margolin and Grace Paley, whose approach to world literature receives treatment in a substantive epilogue.

As Schachter herself notes, this volume is just the beginning of “a new cultural narrative that refuses to allow the now all-too-familiar masculinist doxa of modern Jewish life – that for Jews, becoming modern was a project about becoming men” (16). Thus, the study offers an opportunity for further scholarship that is urgently needed. Schachter calls us to think beyond the androcentric, to imagine and create an understanding of modern Jewish literature that places women at its center.

Kirzane, Jessica. “Review of Women Writing Jewish Modernity by Allison Schachter.” In geveb, February 2022:
Kirzane, Jessica. “Review of Women Writing Jewish Modernity by Allison Schachter.” In geveb (February 2022): Accessed Apr 22, 2024.


Jessica Kirzane

Jessica Kirzane is the assistant instructional professor of Yiddish at the University of Chicago. She holds a PhD in Yiddish Studies from Columbia University. Jessica is the Editor-in-Chief of In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.