Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Impact of Work and Activism on Women's Assimilation

Although they were barred from holding leadership positions within the community, most Russian Jewish women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were not subject to the cult of domesticity; instead, the ideal of the working woman was championed. As most Russian Jews were members of the working class, families depended on two incomes to survive and therefore could not afford the luxury of conferring domestic roles onto women. Wives were especially encouraged to work if their incomes could support the family alone, thereby allowing their husbands to sit in the beis medrash (house of study) and learn Torah and Talmud. Women participated in all sorts of work: Rebecca Himber Berg, a Russian Jewish woman who was raised in Lithuania in the 1880s, recalled that her mother’s stepmother ran a tavern, a neighboring widow ran a kosher meat business, and many Jewish women in the community did piecework in the home. During the same time period, Rose Pesotta reports that her great-aunt owned a store and her mother served as its bookkeeper.

Women’s presence in the workforce outside of the home facilitated and routinized interactions with the world at large, giving them a sense of independence as well as a social network. Coupled with their background in secular knowledge and the understanding that Jews could not be full members of Russian society, Jewish women’s daily experiences with the outside world led many to leave the fold.

The appeal of leadership positions and influence within secular sociopolitical movements like the General Jewish Labor Union, or Bund, also attracted observant Jewish women to leave their communities and assimilate. Although active Bund leaders were overwhelmingly male, there were opportunities for women to join and shape the Bundist experience: two out of thirteen of the Bund’s founders were women, as were six of the 48 most important Bundists before 1905. Overall, women comprised approximately a third of the Bund’s membership, but they were among the most active members, serving in roles from fundraisers to smugglers. As the Bund largely opposed Orthodoxy and religious practice, women who wanted to join basically had to assimilate.

Another part of the reason Jewish women flocked to the Bund was because of its (theoretical) dedication to gender equality. People involved in the Bund championed an overall remake of social conditions for Jews, the eradication of sexism and gender roles being one facet of this remodel. Practically speaking, most Bundists did not ponder gender issues extensively, but the overall Bundist socialist agenda supported parity between the sexes. Lyrics to a popular Bund song urged singers to “see to it that all are equal.” As many Jewish women chose to leave traditional Judaism and assimilate into secular culture and politics because of their dislike of the different treatment of the sexes in the Jewish community, this promise of gender equality attracted them.

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