In The Lives of Jessie Sampter, Sarah Imhoff tells the story of an individual full of contradictions. Jessie Sampter (1883 – 1938) was best known for her Course in Zionism (1915), an American primer for understanding support of a Jewish state in Palestine. In 1919, Sampter packed a trousseau, declared herself “married to Palestine,” and immigrated there. Yet Sampter’s own life and body hardly matched typical Zionist ideals. Although she identified with Judaism, Sampter took up and experimented with spiritual practices from various religions. While Zionism celebrated the strong and healthy body, she spoke of herself as “crippled” from polio and plagued by sickness her whole life. While Zionism applauded reproductive women’s bodies, Sampter never married or bore children; in fact, she wrote of homoerotic longings and had same-sex relationships. By charting how Sampter’s life did not neatly line up with her own religious and political ideals, Imhoff highlights the complicated and at times conflicting connections between the body, queerness, disability, religion, and nationalism.
The Lives of Jessie Sampter: Queer, Disabled, Zionist
In this creative and compelling book, Sarah Imhoff investigates the life of the little-known Zionist thinker and activist Jessie Sampter, through biography as microhistory (or as Imhoff also terms it, “weird biography”). Applying the insights and frameworks of both disability studies and queer theory in a clear and accessible way, the author argues for attention to both intellectual and embodied ways of knowing. Through Sampter’s unusual story – a woman disabled by polio who never married or bore children but who devoted her life to a Zionist ideology that privileged healthy, strong bodies and promoted reproduction; a woman who had same-sex relationships and adopted a Yemenite orphan on her own in the 1920s – Imhoff illuminates the often contradictory relationship of the embodied self to political and religious beliefs. In doing so, she not only offers a fuller, more complex understanding of Zionism but also invites the reader to reflect on what it means to write someone’s life, why such a project should be undertaken, and what its value might be.
Help support the Jewish Book Council.