Jewish women in the nineteenth century: Discriminated against as women or as Jews?

Social historian Daryna Podhornova, who researches women’s history, discusses the lives of Jewish women in gubernial cities and small shtetls, and explains how education was connected with revolution.

Iryna Slavinska:  We met on the occasion of your lecture on the status of Jewish women in the nineteenth century. But first, let’s talk about how appropriate it is to place Jewish women in a separate group.

Daryna Podhornova:  I think that Jewish women can be placed in a separate group because when we talk about gender norms—how women were perceived in society—it can be argued that these norms were established, one way or another, by religion: Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. Therefore, the perception of women in various ethnic societies could be different.

If we are talking specifically about Jewish families and how women were perceived in them, then we see a difference from Christian families. In Jewish families, the woman was truly a homemaker in quite a positive sense of this word. She had a very influential voice in the family. And if we look at how the marriage process took place, how a husband or a wife was chosen, in both Jewish and Christian families this was dealt with primarily by the parents, who made agreements and married off their children.

Iryna Slavinska:  Or matchmakers …

Daryna Podhornova:  Yes. Nevertheless, in Jewish families, the bridegroom came into the family of his future wife. And it was the parents of this woman who chose their future son-in-law, not the reverse, as we see in the Christian tradition. For Jews, the most honorable occupation for a man is to devote himself to God, to studying the Torah, studying at a cheder and a yeshiva, in schools. Thus, the economic component, well-being, and care are placed on the woman. In other words, the woman could deal not only with domestic affairs but also financial aspects. And if the family was more secular and the husband had his own business, for example, a shop, women most often acted as dynamic agents in these matters.

Iryna Slavinska:  I have a reverse question. Speaking about the Jewish community on the territory of Ukraine, how apt and productive is it to create a separate category for women?

Daryna Podhornova:  It makes sense. Gender norms exist in both the Judaic and the Christian tradition. One senses a different attitude to a “woman’s calling” and a “man’s calling.” For example, in some religious communities, this is manifested in physical aspects. When a service takes place in a synagogue, men and women sit in different places; a separate second floor is assigned to women. For a very long time, it was even enclosed, and women could only hear but not see what was going on. But in the nineteenth century, this changes on the territory of Ukraine, and this partition disappears. Women now see what is taking place, and men see the women. But the difference between men and women remains.

Iryna Slavinska:  If we are talking about the societal background, in what kind of world are Jewish women living in the nineteenth century? How do they grow up and develop? Do they go to school? What rights do they have? Of course, it’s not very typical in the nineteenth century to talk about the right to vote and other things that have become commonplace for women today, but perhaps there was already the right, for example, to manage property and money. To what extent were these things standardized? Let’s start with school. Did the Jewish woman attend school?

Daryna Podhornova:  Where the nineteenth century is concerned, this is a very timely question. If we are talking about the beginning of that century and schools, first of all for Jews, these are religious schools, not secular ones. They were for men only, and access for women was permitted in the last century. In Poland, this happened in the 1920s. Before that time, this was not even discussed.

Iryna Slavinska:  Let’s explain this difference between religious and secular schools. Are these schools something like a church parish school, if we compare them to Christianity? Does it not provide any other knowledge besides religion?

Daryna Podhornova:  It is focused specifically on religion, the ancient Hebrew language, in order to read the Torah. In fact, nearly the entire process consists of reading the Torah and interpreting it.

Iryna Slavinska:  Where could women obtain an education? Were they taught how to read?

Daryna Podhornova:  They were not taught to read Hebrew, as that was the religious language. They were taught to read Yiddish, a mixture of ancient Hebrew, German, and Slavic languages that existed at the time among the Jews in the nineteenth century. Often they could read a bit and write in Russian or maybe Ukrainian, mostly the former because this was the language of bureaucracy. This turning point takes place in the mid-nineteenth century with the imperial government’s assistance, strange as this may be. During this period the government was intent on secularizing the Jews, tearing them away from their traditions. Therefore, it begins to open schools and grant Jews access to an ordinary, secular education. This was done with the assistance of the imperial minister Uvarov.

Although there was open access, for a long time—for decades—an absolute minority of Jews studied in such schools. One can speak about a mass character only in the late nineteenth century. An important advance in this sense is the establishment of universities, which are actively opened throughout the nineteenth century. And although at the outset they were in great demand among the Jewish population, including women, by the late nineteenth century, as a result of the anti-Semitic policy, access to higher education is significantly restricted. On the territory of Ukraine, only nine percent of Jews could obtain diplomas.

Iryna Slavinska:  Let’s continue the topic of schooling. Among secular public schools that were opened for children of various backgrounds, there were not very many institutions for girls. And for a long time, there were no places where boys and girls could study together. Where did girls whose fathers sent them to secular schools study?

Daryna Podhornova:  In Kyiv, they could study at the Institute for Noble Maidens. But this institution was oriented, first and foremost, toward the Christian population. Jewish girls did study there, but they were a minority. A popular practice for obtaining an education was not studying in schools, but having a private tutor hired for them, who would offer a rudimentary education. Our listeners are probably familiar with one of the most famous stories about Sholem Aleichem, who was hired as a teacher by the father of his [future] wife, Golda [All sources state “Olga”—Trans.]. After some time, after she became a little older, a romance blossomed between them. Here it’s worth talking about the severe restrictions, because education that existed in the nineteenth century, even if it was secular, always had a religious basis.

When private schools were opened, they were very expensive. In Kyiv, the large and wealthy community of sugar magnates, the Brodskys and Halperins, could afford them, but the majority of the Jewish population, no.

Iryna Slavinska:  And where did they acquire professions, perhaps somewhere after an elementary education that included reading and counting? Could they go somewhere to obtain a profession?

Daryna Podhornova:  There was a large number of commercial institutions of learning where various professions were taught. However, the career marketplace in the nineteenth century often did not require a serious education. Of course, if we’re talking about such fields as medicine, this required a diploma of higher education. In the Jewish Hospital of Kyiv, there were many women who worked in the obstetrics or pediatric diseases departments.

Iryna Slavinska:  And before this, they probably studied in schools?

Daryna Podhornova:  Of course. For university, a secondary-school diploma was obligatory. But if we are talking about plants or factories, the work there was most often mechanized. No special knowledge was required. Although women without any previous education had access, it should be understood that they occupied the lowest positions in such work. They had no prospects for career advancement.

Iryna Slavinska:  We have just begun talking about the city, about Kyiv. Later, we will touch on the topic of small towns. But speaking of Jewish women in the nineteenth century in the big city, did they have any place where they could apply their talents in the world or was the house the only place where they could apply their energies?

Daryna Podhornova:  This is an interesting question, which can hardly be answered unambiguously. In the city, women had many more opportunities, but we can say that, along with them, there could be restrictions. If it was a woman from a poor family, more often than not she went out to work, not because she had emancipatory ambitions and desired independence. No, most likely it was because her family did not have enough money to live. Thus, she acted as another source of earnings. If we are talking about more well-off women, they usually did not work because, according to middle-class ideals, the woman devoted herself to her home and her family. But such women often headed philanthropic organizations. And this was not just a nice, public occupation, but work, because it required complex bureaucracy and financial skills.

Iryna Slavinska:  We have talked about the urban situation. Let’s move on to the provinces and look at the lives of Jewish women in the shtetl. The nineteenth century is a huge expanse, where many important changes took place, but let’s try to outline this history. What was life like for Jewish women in the provinces?

Daryna Podhornova:  Jewish women in the provinces did not comprise only one category. Everything depended on the families into which they were born, their property, and religious background. If we imagine how this woman was like, what is interesting is what caught the eye of all Western Europeans who travelled in the Russian Empire: Women in the shtetls, unlike their Christian neighbors, were very well dressed. Even if this was the province, they ornamented their hair with ribbons or pearls. They had nice clothing, even if they came from families that were not very well off.

If we are talking about a wealthy family, most likely the woman continued to live with her family until the end of her life.  And the husband came to them. This was the so-called extended family, like in Ukrainian families. The wife’s father probably tried to draw her husband into his affairs, so that the business would not fall apart. And the wife’s father kept everything in his hands. Since childhood, she helped in these matters. If it was a shop, for example, she could be a salesgirl and conduct financial affairs.

If we are talking about a woman from a poorer family, more often they lived separately: the husband, his wife, and their children. But if there was some sort of issue, then the husband and wife dealt with it as partners.

Iryna Slavinska:  Did a woman in shtetl conditions have an opportunity to learn how to read only at home?

Daryna Podhornova:  Yes. At the time, very few schools existed. There is evidence concerning women who went from small shtetls to big cities to get an education there, if only at a school. But if she managed to get to university and obtain a diploma, this was an extraordinary breakthrough because, thanks to the diploma of higher education, she had the right to travel throughout the Russian Empire, even outside the Pale of Settlement. And she could remain in St. Petersburg and in Moscow. If she gained the right to study in a school in Kyiv, then most often this right was limited to the number of years of schooling. Afterwards, she either had to find another way to remain in the city or go back to her small town.

Iryna Slavinska:  I have noticed that in any national culture there are stereotypes about women and perceptions of how they really lived. What is the stereotype of the Jewish mother in the provinces?

Daryna Podhornova:  Most often the stereotype is that of a stout woman who’s pretty much her own person. It is reflected in jokes about Jewish women from Odesa. Some evidence indicates that they truly might have been like that in the shtetls; they were outspoken in their families and on the street. They could cause a scene. There is evidence about men being accused of infidelity—this was a huge scandal for a Jewish family, a direct threat to his business and reputation. Research into such court cases reveals a picture in which one of the driving forces is the man’s wife, who tries with all her might to protect him from gossip, as well as the family business. In other words, perhaps this stereotypical image has its own substratum.

Iryna Slavinska:  Let’s try to peel it like an onion by removing the layers of jokes and stereotypes and taking a look at real life, perhaps at violence, if such occurred; at things that are connected with control over bodies. Was this Jewish mother really so omnipotent in the conditions of the functioning of the real culture?

Daryna Podhornova:  There was another type of woman; she was severely restricted by all gender norms that were prevalent in society at the time, including those that regulated her external appearance, sexual life; whether it was possible to have sex before marriage or not have sex in marriage, if she didn’t want it. There were reflections of her as ritually pure or impure, which were connected with her menses; her status in the family, if she was an older woman, an older or younger daughter; her possible competition with her mother-in-law. When we say that the Jewish woman had comparatively more power than a Christian one, this does not mean that she was emancipated. A husband had more power and freedom of action in the economic, sexual, and family spheres.

Iryna Slavinska:  To what extent did this woman interact with her sisters of other ethnicities? Did they have joint leisure activities, studies?

Daryna Podhornova:  Most often communities were quite insular. To the question of whether she was more a Jew or a woman, she replied that she was a Jew. For the most part, Christians studied in schools. If there were Jewish girls there, they stuck to their own group. When Kyiv dentistry schools were being opened to Jews, most of their students were Jews. If we look at the Aid Society for Poor Pregnant Women, which declares that it is open to all classes and confessions and is founded by Jewish women, most of their clients will be Jewish.

Another example of how Jewish women perceived one another is the Bund, a Jewish workers’ organization that fought for the rights of the working class in the late nineteenth century in Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, and Ukraine. One-third of its members were Jewish women; they were quite active leaders. However, their speeches were aimed not at women and their qualities as workers but encompassed the entire working class.

Iryna Slavinska:  What are the sources of this research?

Daryna Podhornova:  I use bureaucratic documents because there are more of them. In the nineteenth century, bureaucracy was booming, just like today. Everything was recorded and documented in two or three copies. These documents are dry and written in the language of officialdom, but in them, you can find stories about women. There is also literature, for example, that same Sholem Aleichem. But there is a shortcoming of women’s history here because most often they come from the mouths of men. We don’t hear the woman’s voice, we see the male perception of women. There are memoirs by women. A few. In the case of Ukraine, this is from western Ukraine, Galicia, for the most part; in other words, part of Austro-Hungary. There is Belarus. Jews are fond of writing memoirs. Her own female voice and the recording of her own experience. But there are few such sources. There is also correspondence.

Iryna Slavinska:  At what point does it become apparent that from the circle of Jewish women emerges the future status of those who will join the social transformations in the country; those who will take part in creating parties and revolutionary events, including the Ukrainian Revolution?

Daryna Podhornova:  I think that this begins in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. What was important here was access to higher education. For example, there were Bund female leaders who did not have work experience, they did not work in factories or plants. Yet they were heads of workers’ organizations because they had studied at universities; some even in the West, for example in Geneva or Vienna. And because of these educational sources, they acquired those socialist ideas that they tried to implement later, after their return.

This program is created with the support of the Canadian philanthropic fund Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
NOTE: UJE does not necessarily endorse opinions expressed in articles and other materials published on its website and social media pages. Such materials are posted to promote discussion related to Ukrainian-Jewish interactions and relations. The website and social media pages will be places of information that reflect varied viewpoints.