NEW YORK — There is a saying, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”
It’s a sentiment that underpins author Rachel Manekin’s new book “The Rebellion of the Daughters: Jewish Women Runaways in Habsburg Galicia.”
From the late 1800s until the eve of World War I, hundreds of young Jewish women living in Western Galicia, now Poland, fled their Orthodox, mostly Hasidic, homes to find refuge in a Kraków convent where some ultimately converted to Roman Catholicism. It wasn’t because they were lovelorn, or because of overbearing parents, or even because they no longer identified with Judaism. Rather they fled because they wanted more: more room to voice their opinions and, perhaps most importantly, more education.
Unlike Orthodox Jewish boys, who attended cheders, traditional schools where only Jewish subjects were taught, Orthodox Jewish girls were sent to Polish primary schools as per the Austrian-Hungarian government’s newly established mandatory education laws.
“When they went to school for the first time, they discovered their intellectual capabilities were respected. It was a new experience not shared by their parents because their parents had never attended school,” Manekin said in a Zoom call with The Times of Israel from her home in Jerusalem. “It was an experience not shared by the men the parents sought to make arranged marriages for their daughters. Of course, the daughters found nothing in common with those people.”
In time the Orthodox community in the region answered what became known as “The Daughters’ Question” with the creation of the first religious school for Orthodox Jewish girls. The school, founded by Sara Schenirer in 1917, seeded the ground for a worldwide educational movement of Orthodox Jewish elementary and secondary schools known as Bais Yaakov.
An associate professor of Jewish studies at the University of Maryland, Manekin said she closely identifies with her book’s subject, having been raised in a heavily ultra-Orthodox Israeli town and attending a Schenirer offshoot as a child.
“I can’t deny it’s something personal to me. I grew up in Bnei Brak and attended Bais Yaakov. I don’t consider myself a rebellious type, but when time came that a match was offered to me, I realized that was not the life that I wanted,” she said. “I couldn’t find common language with many of them and I knew I couldn’t stay there and be so different. However, unlike the daughters, my parents never gave me a feeling I was doing something wrong. They supported me with everything.”
The following conversation was edited for clarity.
The Times of Israel: Why do you think this story is not so widely known?
Manekin: I’m a historian of the Jews of Galicia and I make it a point to read everything that is published about this region and I never came across anything that tells the stories of these girls. As I researched, I found the [mainstream] press was actually full of stories about what was happening. The major Viennese newspaper the “Neue Freie Presse” constantly writes about those girls. There were even novels and plays about it. There were police investigations, correspondence with government officials.
There was so much documentation about it. I think it was suppressed, or isn’t widely known, because it was embarrassing. The rabbinical leadership had done nothing about it and these were unpleasant stories about Hasidic, wealthy, powerful families.
You write about Jewish education being complicated, citing the Talmudic statement that “whoever teaches one’s daughter Torah is as if he taught her lechery,” (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 20a) and its subsequent codification with Jewish law. Can you elaborate on that a little more?
The explanation I give has to do with the different educational paths for Orthodox Jewish boys and girls during this period. The 1873 Galician version of the 1869 Austrian mandatory education law required six years of schooling in state approved schools for both boys and girls, Jews and gentiles. Through political arrangements, the Orthodox leadership was able to keep their sons in religious schools.
As for their daughters, they saw no problem in sending them to Polish public and private schools. In fact, many were proud of their daughters’ accomplishments. So, the boys grew up Jewishly educated and the girls Polishly educated. Since most Jewish girls were given only a very rudimentary Jewish education at home, this only widened the gap between them and their parents, who never attended Polish schools, and between the sexes. When time came for marriages to be arranged, many girls rebelled.
When time came for marriages to be arranged, many girls rebelled
Nowadays girls are taught a lot more in terms of religious studies. What I think still remains a problem is the fact that the path to higher education is often blocked. There are graduates of Bais Yaakov and seminary schools that attend college, but it’s still not the norm.
Your book makes me think about the fight for education many young women face today around the world. Did you think about that when you were working on this?
Yes, education was and is still a factor. We know it’s not just an issue for Jews; Afghanistan and Malala [Yousafzai] comes to mind.
In the book I tell the story of Anna Kluger, who had a passion for studying. That’s all she wanted to do. She completed her baccalaureate exam and enrolled secretly in university and later got a PhD at University of Vienna. Those stories about women who have an intellectual passion are not told. The guts she had to follow her dreams.
What surprised you most about the research?
I have a friend who inherited her grandmother’s opera glasses. Her grandparents were from Krakow. The story in the family was that her grandfather was a Hasid but her grandmother would go to the opera, to lectures. She would dress as a proper Hasidic woman, but she did these things.
I think for us it’s difficult to understand because we expect harmony, everything has to fit, but life was full of contradictions for some women then. I’m not trying to claim they weren’t very pious or that all the women were alienated from Judaism. I’m saying that a growing number of women, because of their education, had their minds opened.
This was also the time that feminism was growing. The women go to lectures, to theater. There was a lot going on and women frequent these places. What else could they do in their free time? This sets up a clash between them and their families.
Did the fact of the young women seeking refuge in the convent exacerbate relations between Jews and Catholics at the time?
Yes, definitely. This is a period of heightened anti-Semitism in the Hapsburg Empire. There are excesses in villages outside of Krakow in 1898. There’s a book about it called “The Plunder,” that describes all of this. There is already some inter-religious tension.
This is a period of heightened anti-Semitism in the Hapsburg Empire
The Jewish press at the time refer to what is going on as abductions, but the Polish Catholic church was saying this was free choice of the young women. The demand by Jewish families and the police to search the convent for the girls also contributed to the situation.
Can you tell us a bit about Sara Schenirer and her impact?
In a way she was one of the rebellious daughters.
When she was younger, she attended public lectures for women, as well as the theater. But she ultimately abandoned these youthful pursuits and threw herself into the work of educating Orthodox girls to accept and to celebrate their different status.
I see Schenirer as a religious enthusiast and an Orthodox ideologue who spearheaded a movement that was simultaneously a revolution in Torah education and a counter-revolution in women’s education: a revolution in Torah education because formal Jewish education for Orthodox women was now finally and firmly established, but a counter revolution because the educational system she helped establish deliberately blocked women’s path to higher education. Recent scholarship has focused on the revolution and not the counter-revolution.
What is the most important thing you want readers to take away from the book?
The history of women is the history of families, the history of communities, the history of the state. It’s intertwined. If we don’t include the histories of women, we miss a lot of what is going on in a society so knowing their stories lets us see society more fully.
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