Mother of Hebrew Writing

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 culture.

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?

Naomi Seidman: 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.

SCI: 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.

SCI: 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.

SCI: Baron had an unusual upbringing that allowed her to burgeon as a fiction writer.

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.

SCI: 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.

SCI: 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.

SCI: 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.

SCI: 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.

SCI: 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.

SCI: 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 start?

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.