The Rebel­lion of the Daugh­ters: Jew­ish Women Run­aways in Hab­s­burg Galicia

By – November 30, 2020

In 1873, pro­gres­sives in West­ern Gali­cia (now Poland) man­dat­ed pri­ma­ry edu­ca­tion for all chil­dren, allow­ing even the poor­est fam­i­lies to afford basic school­ing. This also meant that reli­gious fam­i­lies couldn’t avoid send­ing their chil­dren to a state-approved school. Ortho­dox (here, most­ly Hasidic) fam­i­lies only object­ed to girls learn­ing Torah, so they sent their daugh­ters to the pub­lic schools and qui­et­ly kept their sons in the ched­ers. (Indeed, con­ser­v­a­tive Poles were per­fect­ly hap­py if Jew­ish boys didn’t get sec­u­lar edu­ca­tions, leav­ing them less like­ly to com­pete for Pol­ish jobs.) In school, Jew­ish girls learned about their Catholic neigh­bors, learned to speak Pol­ish and were exposed to all sorts of world­ly mat­ters. Some of these girls start­ed spend­ing more time with their Pol­ish girlfriends…and then with some Pol­ish boys, too. Or, a girl might decide she real­ly loved school­ing, not boys, and beg her par­ents to let her enter an upper school. Either or both sit­u­a­tions might trig­ger a quick, arranged mar­riage for the daugh­ter. After the shock of meet­ing their betrothed,” some girls took refuge in the near­by Feli­cian Sis­ters con­vent and, if they were over four­teen, con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty. These lost daugh­ters” became noto­ri­ous, as their fathers pur­sued them in the coun­try­side, the courts, and the press.

Manekin details three young wom­ens’ sto­ries. Michali­na Arat­en left her rich, urban Hasidic fam­i­ly and hid away in a vari­ety of con­vents before leav­ing Poland alto­geth­er. Deb­o­ra Lewkow­icz, a rur­al tav­ern owner’s daugh­ter, escaped to a con­vent and con­vert­ed, but then semi-renounced her apos­ta­sy. Anna Kluger, a gift­ed schol­ar, fled home with her sis­ter, not so much to escape her arranged mar­riage (this hus­band accept­ed her aca­d­e­m­ic pas­sion, at least) but to force her par­ents to pay for her school­ing. Barred from any Jew­ish edu­ca­tion, these three women, and so many oth­ers, found sec­u­lar cul­ture infi­nite­ly more appeal­ing than the pal­lid ched­er-boys they were promised in mar­riage. Manekin frames these girls’ strug­gles with­in the larg­er issues fac­ing Ortho­dox Jew­ry at the time. Speak Yid­dish or German/​Polish? Have the rab­bi deliv­er his talk dur­ing ser­vices (when women might hear it), or at the Shab­bos tisch after­wards, which women could not attend? Study Torah for its own sake,” as they did in yeshiv­as, or use Rab­bi Hirsch’s Torah in the way of the land” approach, which com­bined Ortho­doxy with an open­ness to Euro­pean culture?

So few women are includ­ed in Hasidic archives (even Anna Kluger, a direct descen­dent of the Sandz Hasidic dynasty, appears nowhere in their accounts), that Manekin has done us a great ser­vice by uncov­er­ing these sto­ries, even append­ing trans­la­tions of key doc­u­ments. A care­ful his­to­ri­an, she resists telling read­ers what these girls were real­ly think­ing,” allow­ing us to draw our own con­clu­sions. Beyond the tales of the run­aways, she details how the run­away cri­sis, and the rise of Jew­ish gym­na­si­ums for girls, led to the for­ma­tion of the Beit Yaakov schools for Ortho­dox girls, with their mod­est dos­es of yid­dishkeit and sec­u­lar learn­ing. Con­tem­po­rary con­trasts are inescapable — just as late- nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Hasidim fought to avoid teach­ing sec­u­lar sub­jects, so the strug­gle remains alive in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. Who would have thought pre-mod­ern Gali­cia was so rel­e­vant? Brava!

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

Discussion Questions

Rachel Manekin’s engag­ing study explores why more than three hun­dred Jew­ish young women from tra­di­tion­al fam­i­lies in West­ern Gali­cia (now part of Poland but then part of the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an empire), fled their homes between 1873 and 1914 with the intent of con­vert­ing to Catholi­cism. Focus­ing on three rep­re­sen­ta­tive run­aways to a con­vent in Kraków, Manekin describes each woman’s moti­va­tions, the furi­ous reac­tions of her par­ents, and pub­lic inter­est in these cas­es, which often played out in the court­room. She finds that the per­va­sive Pol­ish Catholic cul­ture in the small towns where these young women lived and received their sec­u­lar edu­ca­tions, togeth­er with an almost total lack of for­mal Jew­ish learn­ing, cre­at­ed sig­nif­i­cant accul­tur­a­tion as well as fam­i­ly con­flicts. Jew­ish women expe­ri­enced a dis­so­nance between their mod­ern edu­ca­tions in a sym­pa­thet­ic Pol­ish soci­ety, in which they some­times formed liaisons with Chris­t­ian men, and the expec­ta­tions of their par­ents, who were intent on forc­ing them into arranged mar­riages with young reli­gious­ly edu­cat­ed men with whom they had lit­tle in com­mon. Manekin’s schol­ar­ship is informed by exten­sive research in archival and lit­er­ary sources and she makes a con­vinc­ing case that the chal­lenges of moder­ni­ty required the insti­tu­tion, how­ev­er belat­ed­ly, of for­mal Jew­ish edu­ca­tion for girls from tra­di­tion­al households.