The Lives of Jessie Sampter: Queer, Dis­abled, Zionist

January 5, 2022

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.

Discussion Questions

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.