Mother of Hebrew
Dvora Baron (1887-1956), a
pioneering writer of the modern Hebrew renaissance, is the subject of our “lost
classics” interview with scholar and translator Naomi Seidman. Who was Baron?
That may be the first question readers ask upon hearing her name. Born in
Lithuania, she began writing fiction in her early teens, and was so
precociously talented that readers assumed her to be an adult male writing
under a pseudonym. Baron (ba-RONE) was steeped
in Hebrew—which was considered both the “masculine language” and the “holy
tongue”—and she became one of the first woman writers to not only draw on the
tradition of religious writing, but to subvert it, in her fiction. Baron wrote
of women’s experiences, Seidman says. And though her writing was thought to be
“artless,” it in fact presented a sophisticated critique of patriarchal Jewish
A maverick and an iconoclast, and one of the more personally idiosyncratic
writers of her time, Baron has been forgotten and rediscovered by successive
generations of Israeli readers. Which is where Dr. Seidman comes in. Among
scholars of Jewish literature, few have done more to raise Baron’s profile than
she. Dr. Seidman is the translator of Conversations with Dvora, an avant-garde biography of Baron, and also a collection of Baron’s
short stories, The First Day and Other Stories. In a conversation with Secular Culture & Ideas, Dr. Seidman discussed the merits of Baron’s
writing; the strange circumstances that bookended Baron’s life; and her
complex, unconventional brand of feminism.
Secular Culture &
Ideas: At a time when most Hebrew fiction was by men, and
about men, Dvora Baron was writing about women’s experiences. What types of
stories were these?
Stories that were understood to be autobiographical. Back then, there was only
one way to become a modern Hebrew writer: first, you went to yeshiva; then you
decided it was all bogus and left. For Dvora Baron, that particular narrative
didn’t obtain, because there weren’t yeshivas where girls could study Hebrew.
So instead, she wrote stories that presented a critique of patriarchy. How was
that couched in her fiction?
Naomi Seidman: Well,
in some ways, the most radical thing you could do to provide a feminist
critique was to pick up a pen. Second, what’s your perspective? If it’s not the
dominant one—if you tell the story of a divorce, say, from the woman’s
perspective—you’ve already undermined the standard narrative.
Writing in Hebrew, which was considered both the “masculine” tongue and the
“holy” tongue, seems doubly subversive. Plus she was writing about the European
shtetl, not the Promised Land.
Naomi Seidman: If you were a Hebrew writer, it meant you were taking on a
national role in the revival of the Jewish people. You were supposed to write
about pioneers and road-builders and kibbutzniks. Nobody really quite
understood what she was doing.
Baron had an unusual upbringing that allowed her to burgeon as a fiction
Naomi Seidman: Her
father was a rabbi, and, being somewhat liberal and enlightened, he allowed her
to study Hebrew. Later, Baron became part of that wave of young Jewish students
looking for a secular education in their teens, although she only got a couple
of years. What she did get was an enlightened
Hebrew education, which was possible in the 19th century. There were
traditional rabbinic types who also believed in a rational approach to Judaism.
I’ve read that some men thought not attending Yeshiva was actually advantageous
for women, since their minds weren’t gunked up with religious learning.
Naomi Seidman: Right.
Because women were excluded from religious education, their heads weren’t so
full of garbage. That was the idea—that there were Jewish rationalists in every
Jewish family, but no one had paid any attention to them. They were the women.
And so women were thought to be especially receptive to Enlightenment ideas.
Naomi Seidman: Some maskilim
[Enlighteners] thought that the Enlightenment was going to take hold in women,
and in some sense, this was borne out by the very rapid secularization of
Jewish women. In many Jewish households it was daughters who were secularized
first. Not universally. But it was a recognizable phenomenon.
Later in Baron’s life, she moved to Tel Aviv and continued to write about women
and the shtetl. She also decided, at some point, to never leave her home.
Naomi Seidman: She stopped taking in a lot of new material and just kept
reworking the childhood stuff, or whatever was obsessing her. She really was a
person who lived inside her own head, at a time when that was frowned on. You
weren’t supposed to have an interior life; everything was for the collective.
She spent her last three decades in her apartment.
Naomi Seidman: She dropped out of the conversation. I think she was truly an
odd person. She really was.
I’m curious about her evolution as a writer. When Baron began to write, people
suspected she was actually an adult man using a pseudonym, so advanced were her
stories. Yet as she matured, she came to disown much of her juvenilia.
Naomi Seidman: Her earlier writing was very overtly feminist. Later she backed
off from what seemed to her overtly angry or polemical short stories. She did
turn to Israel in a few of her later short stories, and she wrote about the
persistence of sexism, which was supposed to have gone away. It’s a very
non-idealized depiction of Israel, very different from the pioneering stories
that were being written elsewhere.
Her stories are now—thanks largely to you—available in English. There are also
books about Baron. For readers unfamiliar with her work, what’s a good place to
Naomi Seidman: There are some wonderful short stories in The First Day and Other Stories. Especially the first two. “The
First Day” is a very powerful story about the first day of a girl’s life, a
baby girl whose grandmother is very upset that her daughter has given birth to
a girl rather than a boy. She’s supposed to be a boy. And she’s mistreated for
being a girl. When her father comes home, he comforts the baby and comforts his
wife—so it’s the woman who’s the bad guy and the man who is comforting. It’s
just a very dramatic way to talk about patriarchy. This story was in the 1923
collection, which is really her peak.