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Baron, Devorah

(1887–1956), Hebrew writer. Born in Uzda, a shtetl near Minsk, Devorah Baron received the type of religious education generally offered only to boys, in the heder of her father, Rabbi Shabetai (Shepsl) Eli‘ezer Baron. Growing up in a rabbinic home, she was exposed to halakhic decisions as they applied both to the community as a whole and to her own family. This experience marked her creative worldview throughout her life.

Baron’s first short stories, published in Ha-Melits under the editorship of Leon Rabinowitz (1902), excited the imagination of her readers so that by the age of 15 she was already a sought-after writer. In 1903 she joined her brother Benjamin and lived under his supervision in Minsk and Kovno. Her lifestyle until 1910 followed the same path taken by many young Jewish men: she moved from the shtetl to the city, replaced traditional studies with a general education, and eked out a livelihood by teaching Hebrew. She also spent time in Radoszkowicz, Marijampole (where she received a teaching diploma in 1907 from the Russian gymnasium for girls), Vilna, and Volkovysk. Beginning in 1908, Baron continued to work as a private teacher, at the same time seeking in vain for a full-time position so that she could eventually gain a foothold in the profession in Palestine. She also was a popular Zionist youth counselor. Her student years later served as a backdrop for her stories, and her early work experiences raised her consciousness about the exploitation of the poor.

While in Marijampole, Baron associated with a circle of young writers. A five-year engagement to Mosheh ben Eli‘ezer (Glembotzky; 1880–1944) ended in 1909. During the years from 1902 until her emigration in 1910 she published 44 stories (nine of which were in Yiddish). Only two of them were included in her later anthologies, and then only after she had made revisions. She dismissed the remainder of her early writings as “rags.”

In 1910 Baron moved to Palestine, settling in Neveh-Tsedek, where she edited the literary section of the weekly Ha-Po‘el ha-tsa‘ir and was the first woman to work in an editorial capacity at the newspaper. In October 1911 she married Yosef Aharonowitz, a leader of the Ha-Po‘el ha-Tsa‘ir Party and the editor of its house organ. In 1914, her daughter Tsiporah was born. During World War I, the family was deported to Alexandria by the Turks and did not return to Palestine until 1919, when they moved to Tel Aviv. Baron and Aharonowitz helped to found the journal Ma‘abarot and again edited Ha-Po‘el ha-tsa‘ir. In 1922 they both resigned from the editorial board and Devorah Baron became a recluse for the remaining 34 years of her life.

From 1921 through 1956, Baron wrote her finest stories and established her position as one of the most important writers of Hebrew literature, as well as one of its few female short story writers. Her first book, Sipurim (Stories; 1927), did not include her earliest pieces, though a later volume, Parashiyot (Episodes; 1951, followed by several subsequent editions), offered the most extensive selection that she would allow to appear in an anthology. In 1988 Nurit Govrin published two works: Ha-Maḥatsit ha-ri’shonah (The First Half), a comprehensive monograph on Baron’s life and works until 1921; and Parashiyot mukdamot (Early Stories), a compilation of 60 stories in Hebrew and Yiddish that had first appeared in 1920 and 1921. The reissue of this early work led to new scholarly approaches to Baron’s later stories.

Baron’s writings are characterized by sensitivity to the weak, oppressed, and ill-fated of society in general and to discriminated women in particular. Her protestations against an unfair society are most direct, biting, and furious in her first stories; she later wrote in a more veiled and understated style. This change from rage to restraint, from frankness to obscurity and concealment, seems based on her unspoken assumption that in literature the concealed is more powerful than the revealed, the implicit stronger than the explicit. However, comparisons between her early and later stories prove that the essence of her social protest, and her personal defiance, not only did not disappear but to the contrary loomed ever larger.

In her fiction, Devorah Baron chose to preserve memories of the Lithuanian shtetl. Social demands that discouraged other writers from this theme barely touched her even in pre-state Israel. Her reclusive lifestyle and eccentric behavior, which ultimately shrouded her in mystery, helped her to maintain visions of the past that for her seemed frozen in time. She declared her independence by marking out an exclusive territory for her stories. Her great strength lay in her ability to describe a comfortable, cohesive, and stable existence that unravels and begins to collapse. An almost ahistoric worldview binds her literary creations into one indistinguishable mass: shtetl heroes of the present embody biblical heroes of the past. There is a direct nexus between the cyclicality of nature and that of human days. In Baron’s writing, the finer distinctions in life are responsible for laying down the foundations of human experience, childhood is the seed that nourishes life, and the Lithuanian shtetl is the center of the world, where formative experiences take place.

Suggested Reading

Devorah Baron, The Thorny Path and Other Stories, trans. Joseph Shachter (Jerusalem, 1969); Nurit Govrin, Ha-Maḥatsit ha-ri’shonah: Devorah Baron (Jerusalem, 1988); Ada Pagis, ed., Devorah Baron: Mivḥar ma’amare bikoret ‘al yetsiratah (Tel Aviv, 1974); Naomi Seidman, A Marriage Made in Heaven: The Sexual Politics of Hebrew and Yiddish (Berkeley, 1997); Wendy Zierler, “In What World? Devorah Baron’s Fiction of Exile,” Prooftexts 19 (1999): 127–150.



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler