I suppose this story is my plea to the world: Don’t let this happen. To anyone. Anywhere. Anytime
T here were homeless people on my walk home from school. A drunk man, thin, with a red shirt. A man who I’d see on my way to the local library. He had a full white beard and a carefully reinforced cardboard box to sleep in. The red-shirt man was scary and I’d say Tehillim as I walked past. The white-haired man was sweet but sad.
And I’d wonder: If I were homeless, where would I find shelter? What’s it like to have no home? What’s it like to be displaced in spirit, pushed this way and that, never quite knowing who you are or to whom you belong?
This is what it was like to be a Jew in Prague. They lived at the seamline of society. Not quite German. Not Czech. Not quite part of the bourgeoisie. Not quite the Jews of old. Not part of the sophisticated West, but not Eastern Europe, either. So what were they?
In Prague, 1881, the Jews were outsiders. A product of Prague society, Franz Kafka compares his life to “a moment that is never quite lived.”
One diary entry: “Fretful that my life till now has been merely marking time…. It was as if I, like everyone else, had been given a point from which to prolong the radius of a circle…. I was forever starting my radius only constantly to be forced at once to beak it off. The center of my imaginary circle bristles with the beginnings of radii, there is no room left for a new attempt….”
There is a restlessness here, and almost a feeling of betrayal; who can guide me, guarantee that my life is, in fact, worth living? It was an experience that characterized that time, and feels familiar even today.
Prague was an in-between place in terms of the time period as well.
The 1880s was an interesting generation: There were shtetl grandparents, still Torah observant. There were fathers who had moved to the city, succeeded in business, and abandoned most of their parents’ Yiddishkeit. And then there were the children — Felix and Emmy’s generation — who found their fathers’ obsession with “making it” in bourgeoisie society unfulfilling. They yearned for something more, and in a strange twist of history, they received it in two ways.
The first was by means of the Yidden fleeing Russian pogroms. As these Ost-juden made their way through Europe, they gave their more secular brethren a taste of Shabbos, a tish, the fire of chassidus. Thus, the 1880s marked a generation where the sons were more religious than their fathers.
The other factor that ignited both more interest in Yiddishkeit, and also the nascent Zionist movement, was the rising anti-Semitism (actually, the very term anti-Semite was coined at this point). The Jews had spent the last few decades doing everything they could to fit into high society. They were cultured and refined, they knew music and philosophy and art, they brought up their children to revere politeness and order. And yet, they were still not good enough.
Thus was born the self-hating Jew. The confusion, betrayal, and despair this engendered led the Jews of Central Europe to look for different solutions to the “Jewish question.”
Seeds of a Story
How is a story born? What ideas are caught and mulled over until they start to take shape?
When a story is over, it’s hard to trace back the beginning of the process. To write a historical novel is both a peeling away and a reconstruction. You try to remove your own prejudices, your own assumptions, your own reading of the text that is our history. You arrive at a time period and begin to learn and think and question. What was it like to be a Jew then? What were the struggles? More personally, what was it like to be a Jewish woman? What were the norms and expectations? What worked and what didn’t?
Around three years ago, I read that Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, was married to a woman named Martha Bernays. The name Bernays may strike a chord of recognition. She was none less than the granddaughter of Chacham Isaac Bernays (renowned teacher of Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, a rav who fought the Reform movement and was conversant in Shas, poskim, midrash, and kabbalah). Martha recounted that the last time she stared into the Shabbos licht was the week before she married. There were no Shabbos candles in the Freud home.
It was a tiny nugget of information, but it niggled at me. What had that been like for Martha? Had she fought the decision or accepted it? Did she secretly light Shabbos candles out of her husband’s view, perhaps asking a gentile servant to extinguish them before he returned home? What did she hold on to despite her husband — and what did she manage to pass on to her children?
These are not just academic questions. Rabbi Akiva Tatz explains that the masculine power is emes, while the feminine power is emunah — holding on, maintaining loyalty and faith. How many women do you know today who “hold on” despite the emes being hidden? How many women take sole responsibility for their family’s ruchniyus? There are so many, and their courage and determination despite agonizing pain shapes their children’s future.
What else lead to this story? Watching a high school play that depicted a young girl, daughter of new immigrants to America, debating over whether or not it was worth dumping Yiddishkeit for a fancy gown with a matching hat. No, no, no. Please, I inwardly begged as I watched a sweet young teen recite her carefully memorized monologue.
Please don’t think your ancestors and mine were so shallow. Please, I begged the teachers (and beg them now), don’t crudely simplify or romanticize the past. Our nation — our womenfolk — would never abandon ideals for a hat. What happened was far more complicated, far more nuanced, far more human — and far more relevant.
History — his story — is made up of millions of strands of individual experience, each with its own color and texture. It’s the very real story of very real people, who lived in complicated circumstances and who inherited both trauma and grandeur. When history is a tool to push a particular agenda, it’s inevitably warped. And when it’s warped, we lose the opportunity to reflect on the past, step into it and walk around — and then consider its implications for our lives today.
One such example of the way in which we fail our ancestors: the common-enough declaration that the Jews stepped out of the ghetto and rushed to embrace the secular world, gleefully leaving their tefillin behind. (The ghetto here refers to the designated areas for Jews to live, not the Nazi ghettos.) Well, just what kind of life did they live there?
The Frankfurt Jundengasse, for example, housed 3,000 in a space for 300. The cost of a few cramped rooms there was the same as a mansion with a garden in the gentile side of town. The doors were locked at night, and even were Jews to stray out of the ghetto, they were not allowed to walk on the sidewalk and had to bow to every passing gentile. (Still, they were better off than those who had not received permission to dwell in the ghetto. Those betteljuden wandered the countryside with their families, begging for alms and shelter.)
The Seridei Eish (Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, 1884–1966) puts it like this: “The ghetto stood for hundreds of years and produced men of great stature, righteous people, who devoted their energies to Torah study and mitzvah observance, men whose entire joy and pleasure in life was to rejoice in the Almighty…. Nonetheless, within the ghetto’s walls there lived also masses of people who were not privileged to taste the Torah’s pleasures… they thirsted for life, and their inability to attain it made them depressed. They knew only difficulty, and the lives of a significant portion of them were twisted by an ascetic melancholy.” (Sheilos u’Teshuvos Seridei Eish, VI., p. 366)
Most of us can’t imagine the plight of the ordinary Jew just a couple of hundred years ago. So how can we access their lives? Are the lessons they teach relevant to us?
I believe so. When we close our eyes and imagine their suffering, we can then ask, What were the beacons that lit up their lives? Why did they marry, have children, continue to engage in this world?
One answer, I believe, is love. Love for each other. A sense of community. A sense of purpose. A clear identity. Emunah. The knowledge that one day, this galus would end and the world — and each individual life — be filled with splendor.
And then we can ask harder questions: What happened when the ghetto gates swung open? Which centrifugal forces splintered communities, and which held them together? Why was it that by the year 1900, only 15 percent of Jews in Central Europe were shomer Shabbos? What went wrong then? And what can hold us together today, when we fight assimilation not only of the Jewish People at large, but the drifting away that takes place within our neighborhoods, schools, communities, our very homes?
But lest you think that writing a historical serial is only about hard questions, let me tell you about the diamonds along the path.
A month or two before the serial began, when I was still filled with misgivings (every serial is another miracle — scratch that, every chapter is a miracle), I took my children to the library and browsed the “For Sale” section.
There, I found a pristine copy of Fanny Neuda’s techinos for Jewish women. I had read about these techinos: They were to be found on the bedside table of Jewish women across Central Europe and beyond. (Amazingly, it wasn’t the only book sent my way when I needed it. I also “chanced upon” an exquisite book of photographs culled from the daily life of Sephardic Jews of the Ottoman Empire — just where I had sent Becca!)
I opened the book and read these lines (translated to English) of Fanny’s introduction: “A woman need only gaze into her own heart to read the hearts of her sisters, need only call to mind her own experiences to feel their sufferings and joys.”
They were words I strived to fulfill as I conjured up my sisters from the past.
— Leah Gebber
Fact or Fiction?
Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, more than 50 years before the historical setting of Rocking Horse, and is a well-loved classic. But beneath the gloves and curled hair and the endless speculation about potential husbands is a dark and unsettling question that’s far from being universally acknowledged: What was the place of women who had good breeding but no education? What could they do if they did not have suitors who sought their hand in marriage?
Feminism has been painted with a tarred brush, but it can be helpful to pause and recognize the type of life that the original feminists fought against, and why they were willing to even give up their lives for the struggle.
When equipped with a substantial dowry and trousseau, a young woman could expect to have her future — that is, her marriage — arranged for her. But what of those who were not so blessed? In 1895, an editorial in the Orthodox family weekly Die Laubhütte stated: “Dowries are getting higher every year…. Soon middle-class girls will no longer be able to buy men and poor girls already have no chance to get married.”
A generation later, there was no substantial improvement: A letter to the editor of the most widely read German-Jewish newspaper bemoaned “the tendency among us Jews to put the dowry in first place in the choice of a wife.” Girls who had no dowries — like Hannah and Becca — would usually be consigned to spinsterhood — unless they were rescued by violinists seeking shelter in the shtetl.
Emmy’s life was also painfully constricted — not due to poverty, but due to the strict norms of bourgeoisie society. Accepted activities for a girl and wife were “riding, going for walks, tea parties, visits to the theatre and concerts, handwork.” Ironically, the girls and women of the shtetl were far less constricted to the gender stereotypes, and were usually full partners in the struggle for parnassah (though they may have envied their cousins in the city, for their few cares).
As Bertha Pappenheim writes: “Until now, an axiom of proper education was to keep girls from knowing anything that occurred beyond the confines of their homes. They studied history from books which were ‘rewritten for girls’ but they remained cut off from the enormous demands of daily life. They do not understand the relationship of poverty, sickness, and crime. To them, poverty is a street beggar or a scene in a play, sickness is disgusting, and crime is a sin.” (“On the Upbringing of Female Youth in the Upper Classes — Zur Erziehung der weiblichen Jugend in den höheren Ständen.”)
The Untold Stories
So what really happened to Raizel and Fraydl and the girls from the shtetls? Was this an elaborate fiction, or was it based on fact?
Sadly, white slavery — the trafficking in Jewish girls — was a huge, though hushed-over, problem in the second half of the 19th century.
There’s a lot of documentation: police reports and court cases and even personal accounts. All evidence shows that young girls and young women were taken from Eastern Europe to Turkey, South America, and Central Europe. The methods ranged from brutally snatching girls off the streets (as happened to Perla) and drugging them until they arrived at their destination, to elaborate agreements with parents and promises of employment and opportunities in a new land. When they arrived at that new land, the girls were sold in marketplaces and were then subject to horrifying abuse.
It’s a difficult chapter in history. I first stumbled across it as a mere footnote. I searched for more information. I found an academic article: “A Generation of Monsters” about the 1892 Lviv trial in which traffickers stood trial for a decades-long conspiracy to smuggle young women into servitude. There were chapters hidden away in history books.
Bewildered, I went to archives and worked through Hebrew-language articles from the Jewish press, warning fathers not to be duped. Outraged and very, very sad, I stared at the pictures of the victims — black-and-white portraits of shtetl girls with modest clothing, innocent and sheltered.
So much came up for me as I made this discovery, and wrote this thread of the story. When I wrote about Perla, accustomed to life in the circus, I thought about children who become so accustomed to living with abuse that they don’t know what a regular relationship should look like. When I wrote about Raizel and Fraydl, I thought about girls I’ve met who have encountered evil that destroyed their carefree girlhood. There were nights I did not sleep, and times I cried in front of my computer. Outrage mingled with an old feeling of helplessness, and then became words on a page. I suppose this story is my plea to the world: Don’t let this happen. To anyone. Anywhere. Anytime.
Returning to our story, how could this have happened?
There are logical reasons, of course. The backdrop was complex: pogroms, poverty, families with many mouths to feed, lack of skills and education for a girl to earn her own living. In my own mind, things began to add up.
What happens when you are a member of a nation that has been outcast and sidelined and oppressed? What happens when you are a woman of that outcast nation? You are doubly disadvantaged. And what of a girl, not more than a child, with no choices, no power, no voice?
As I lay in bed at night, I thought of my great-grandmother, my namesake Leah. In 1881, she was just a teenager. Alone, she left home and family and made her way from Russia to England, desperate to create a future. What heavenly angel guided her steps and protected her from evil? Today, I was able to sit and write this story about her friends and peers because of the Hashgachah that led her to safe haven.
Rabbi Nosson Adler, chief rabbi of England, attributed it to the pogroms in 1881: “We cannot be surprised if ill-treatment and oppression ‘maketh a wise man mad’ by defective education, persistent exclusion from honourable pursuits, and consequent fear of starvation.”
Every year, thousands upon thousands were lost. In Buenos Aires, there is a large beis olam for these girls, for even in death they were pariahs.
And yet, it was women themselves who worked to remedy the situation. Lady Battersea in England and Bertha Pappenheim in Germany set up organizations for the protection of girls and women (albeit a few years after Sarah and Becca). Rabbanim appealed that girls be given a profession.
And in perhaps one of the most touching examples of Jewish solidarity, the girls in South America formed their own society — they called it Chesed shel Emes, and one of its goals was to make sure that when their life of travail and suffering was over, every one of its members would have a proper taharah.
Where does that leave us today? Why bring up unsavory facts about the past?
In answer, I’d like to quote Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, who lived and fought for Yiddishkeit in this era: “The only truth that can be lost beyond recall is that truth whose adherents no longer have the courage to speak up candidly on its behalf. Truth has never gone down in defeat as the result of opposition, it has done so only when its friends are too weak to defend it.” (Collected Writings 6, p. 104)
What is the truth here?
I believe it is this: That while human nature can be noble and altruistic and generous and transcend itself, it can also be avaricious and ugly and cruel. And there are people around us — and parts within us — that are vulnerable. There are those who, for a thousand different reasons, are sidelined. There are voices that are silenced.
It is when we put ear to the silence and begin to hear these wordless cries for help, when we begin to make sense of them and give them the casing of words, when we take responsibility for those around us, when we act to bring a sense of community and safety to those around us — then we also infuse humanity into our lives.
And then we can ensure that truth emerges the victor.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 728)
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