The Void: Searching for Feminist Yiddish Periodicals



This text was produced as part of the L.i.P. workshop, and has previously been published in a slightly amended version in the Feminist Findings zine and on Futuress. In it, Maya Ober recounts her quest in Polish archives to find feminist Yiddish publications. As usual when searching the archives, absence is as informative as presence.

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EWA, issue 1 from February 19, 1928, the headline on the left translates to: “The question of the unification of Jewish women;” the one on the right to: “From the minority standpoint.”

Searching for past feminist Yiddish periodicals fills me with a void. This void has been with me for a long time; it accompanied me while growing up in a family of Eastern European Holocaust survivors. I missed the world of the large Ashkenazi diaspora, which was exterminated by the Nazis and their collaborators against the backdrop of silent indifference, decades before I was even born. I missed its culture. Its languages. Its writings. And its press.

Growing up in Poland, I would browse through the glossy issues of Midrasz, a monthly cultural journal that was published between1997–2019;or the socialist leaning Das Yiddishe Wort דאָס ייִדישע וואָרט Słowo Żydowskie (The Jewish Word), to which my mom subscribed. Słowo Żydowskie has been published since 1946 by the Social and Cultural Society of Jews, and it is still the longest existing Jewish periodical in Poland. Neither of these publications was even remotely feminist. Prewar Poland had a vibrant Jewish press scene comprising 130 daily newspapers and magazines in Yiddish, 28 in Polish, and around 20 Hebrew periodicals; these made up almost 7% of the titles and periodicals in the country. The online archive of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw captures this diversity: it includes daily newspapers from a wide political spectrum, magazines on theater and literature, children and youth periodicals, pedagogical journals, as well as publications focused on culture, politics, art, and even astrology. Through their online archive, one can browse through socialist, communist, zionist, and liberal periodicals; but there is not a single feminist publication. But what does this absence reveal? That there were no feminist periodicals, or that they were simply not archived?

Prewar Poland had a vibrant Jewish press scene comprising 130 daily newspapers and magazines in Yiddish, 28 in Polish, and around 20 Hebrew periodicals; these made up almost 7% of the titles and periodicals in the country.

“The doors of the Jewish press are still strongly shut for us women!” complained Pua Rakovski, Rokhl Shteyn, and Lea Proshanski in the first issue of Froyen Shtim פרויען שטים (Women’s Voice),a black and white weekly newspaper that started circulating in May 1925 in Warsaw. According to Yiddish scholar Joanna Lisek, the objectives of the periodical were clear: it demanded equal rights for Jewish women, postulating that “the woman has to play the same role and make the same contribution as the man.” Also absent from the Jewish Historical Institute’s website was Froyen Shtim, which stopped being published abruptly in the same year.

Froyen Shtim adhered to feminist rhetoric from the first wave of feminism, and was steeped in nationalist, colonial, and Zionist rhetoric. Its cofounder, Puah Rakovsky, was an especially controversial figure. She was a Jewish women’s rights activist and educator on the one hand, and an adherent supporter of the Zionist colonial-settler movement in Palestine on the other. Without a doubt, her work promoting literacy and formal secular education among mostly working class Jewish girls and women in Poland was important. However, her involvement in the World Organization of Zionist Women (WIZO) and other nationalist efforts that led to the dispossession of Palestinian people including many women, begs the question: can Rakovsky even be considered a feminist? Even though she self-identified as a Zionist feminist, Palestinian activists and scholars urge us to see Feminism as a movement striving towards equality and Zionism as a colonialist and racist ideology, which make both politically incompatible.

Khana Blankshteyn, Yiddish writer from Vilnius and the editor of Di Froy 1925-1933 די פרוי (“The Woman”), represents a different political stance. She was affiliated with the Jewish People’s Party ייִדישע פֿאָלקספּאַרטײַ, which demanded cultural and political autonomy in the Jewish diaspora, instead of being under the rule of Palestine. On the pages of Di Froy, a weekly paper distributed across Vilnius, Warsaw, Lodz, and Krakow during the 1920s, there is a concern voiced about the preservation of Jewish cultural and religious identity. The author recognized the triple struggle of Jewish women: their struggles due to gender; due to being members of an oppressed ethnic group as well as a personal, internal one; and due to Jewish women’s wish to preserve a traditional Jewish household filled with love and care, while also being attracted to the modern model of equal rights.

I haven’t yet found digital scans or physical copies of either Froyen Shtim or Di Froy. I have only extracted information about them from scarce scholarship on feminist discourse in women’s Yiddish press. One article’s footnote mentioned Ewa, the Jewish Feminist Weekly published in Polish from 1925–1933 and edited by Pola Appenszlak and Iza Wagner, which led me to the digital archive of the Polish National Library and an almost complete collection of scans.

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Di Froy (“The Woman”), issue from April 8, 1925, with the headline “Our task.”

Ewa was bold. “Captivity of the Motherhood!” screams the headline of the October issue in 1931. Vocal about reproductive rights, the paper continuously raised the issues of birth control and women’s freedom of choice, demanding legal, safe, and free abortion as well as comprehensive sexual education. It’s a battle that Polish feminists are still fighting for today, 90 years later. Appenszlak strongly motivated her readers (other Jewish women) to exercise their right to vote. As a vocal pro-abortion activist, she also encouraged sexual education and planned parenthood. Like many of her Jewish contemporaries in Poland, Appenszlak failed to see the Jewish feminist cause beyond ethnic lines, and was also an adherent Zionist, succumbing to its colonial-nationalist discourse.

On the Polona digital repository of the National Library of Poland, I found scans of almost all issues of Ewa. Some show scares of time, but most are well preserved. The website prides itself in sharing “the most valuable treasures of the Polish culture and history.” Ewa was published in Polish, feminist periodicals written in Yiddish apperently are not precious enough. There might be many potential reasons for this situation, however, I can’t stop thinking about the triple oppression Khana Blankshteyn mentioned on the pages of Di Froy די פרוי. Pre-war Poland—even though multi-ethnic, was still based on a single-nation ideology. The Polish language was at the core of re-establishing the young state and its identity. Speaking Polish at home and abandoning any ‘visible’ signs of the Jewish culture, was the unwritten demand by the Polish mainstream to be considered part of the ethno-nationalist society. Therefore, Jewish women who decided to preserve their cultural, religious, and ethnic autonomy and to fight the patriarchy both within their communities and outside of them, were marginalized and rendered invisible. Consequently, their legacy remained missing from the virtual space of the National Library.

The situation is not any better at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw:  “We only have one issue of an American magazine called Bridges, from 2009,” replied an archivist from the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, in response to my inquiry about feminist or womxn’s periodicals. Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends was a bi-annual publication produced from 1990 until 2011 by a U.S.- and Canada-based editorial group. It supported a multiethnic feminist movement, integrating analyses of racism and classism into Jewish-feminist thought, as well as connecting readers across generations and languages. Bridges published archival writings, also of Yiddish feminist press. Politically, it was rooted in Radical Diasporism, seeing “Jewish home” wherever Jews reside, instead of striving toward a nation-state. It was also a periodical engaged in fostering Jewish values of social justice and Tikkun Olam (in Hebrew “repair of the world”), Bridges created a unique space connecting divergent voices of the Jewish community and activism, a home for allyships across the difference.

Politically, it was rooted in Radical Diasporism, seeing “Jewish home” wherever Jews reside, instead of striving toward a nation-state.

Today, this call for transnational feminist solidarity is pressing. As we witnessed the inspiring achievements of Latin-American pro-abortion activists, leading to historic approval of the right to free, safe, and legal abortion in Uruguay in 2012 and Argentina in 2020. Simultaneously, we have witnessed a continuous regression of rights and access to abortion in Poland. In October 2020, the Constitutional Tribunal in Warsaw ruled on an almost total abortion ban, even when the fetus has a lasting congenital disability. The decision sparked a new wave of protest across the country under the umbrella of the All-Poland Women’s Strike, a feminist decentralized social movement fighting since 2016 to legalize abortion in the country.

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Froyen Shtim (“Women’s Voice”), Issue 1, May 1925.

The “Captivity of Motherhood!” that appeared on the cover of Ewa magazine 90 years ago, seems to be continually relevant for Polish women. On January 25, 2022, a team of doctors in a Polish hospital denied medical care to 37-year-old Agnieszka T., which caused her death. She was hospitalized due to complications in the first trimester of her twin pregnancy. The heartbeat of one of the fetuses stopped, but the doctors denied removing it, which led to her death of sepsis. Agnieszka is not the first victim of the new draconian law, which led to the intensified campaign #anijednejwiecej (Polish translation of #niunamenos meaning, not one (woman) less). However, her story exemplifies the fight Polish Jewish and Christian women have been engaged in for already a century: the struggle against patriarchal ideology underpinning the Polish state. This endeavor could benefit from the idea of radical diasporism. In the Polish context, embracing this notion by the feminist movement could open up possibilities of radical reconfiguration of the Polish society and bring an end to the ethno-nationalist spirit Poland has embraced since its independence in 1918. ■