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Rakovsky, Puah

(1865–1955), educator, Zionist, and feminist. Puah Rakovsky was born in Białystok, the oldest of 15 children, into a traditional Jewish family. Although most Jewish girls of her time received little Jewish education, her prosperous parents enrolled her in a heder and subsequently hired a tutor for her in Hebrew and Yiddish texts, as well as for secular subjects. Her studying came to an end when she was married off, much against her will, at the age of 16 to a yeshiva student, even though she had lost her faith. By the time she was 20, she had a son and a daughter. Persuading her parents and husband to allow her to study as an extern for a teaching license with the claim that she could then support the family, she finally succeeded in becoming a teacher. She then secured a divorce from her first husband. She subsequently married twice more for love and gave birth to another daughter in 1903.

Rakovsky devoted herself to teaching girls, whose lack of education, particularly in Jewish subjects, angered her. After two years in Łomża, in 1891 she was hired to teach in and direct a Jewish girls’ school in Warsaw. Two years later, she opened her own gymnasium for girls, which she directed until World War I resulted in its demise. The school became nationally renowned, especially for teaching Hebrew and Jewish subjects to female students.

From her earliest years in Warsaw, Rakovsky was involved in Zionist activities. Serving on the national board of the organization Benot Tsiyon, she dedicated herself to organizing women for Zionism and to persuading male leaders to invest in that work. In 1918, she wrote a pamphlet, Di yidishe froy (The Jewish Woman), urging women to become more active in Zionist work, to establish a national Jewish women’s organization, and to lobby for female suffrage in communal elections. She was a delegate to the 1920 London meeting that established WIZO, and served for a year as WIZO’s first representative in Palestine.

Returning to Warsaw, Rakovsky became one of the founders and secretary of the Jewish Women’s Association (YFA), a national organization sympathetic to Zionism, nonpartisan but explicitly feminist. Its central goals were to provide secular and vocational education to Jewish women, so as to prepare them for making a living in the straitened economic circumstances of Poland. In 1925, Rakovsky also served as coeditor of the association’s short-lived monthly journal, Froyen-shtim (Women’s Voice). In 1928, she published a second Yiddish pamphlet, Di moderne froyen-bavegung (The Modern Women’s Movement) to press women to lobby for civic and political equality. In addition, Rakovsky supported herself by working for the Palestine Office in Warsaw and by translating from French, German, and Russian into Yiddish. Among the 13 books that she translated between 1920 and 1931 were Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Leon Trotsky’s autobiography, My Life.

In 1935, Rakovsky immigrated to Palestine, where she continued to speak out on matters of educational and feminist concern. Her memoirs, Zikhroynes fun a yidisher revolutsionerin (Memories of a Jewish Revolutionary Woman) provide unparalleled information on Polish Jewry from a woman’s perspective. They were published in a Hebrew translation in 1951, with a Yiddish version in 1954. She died in Haifa on 13 May 1955.

Suggested Reading

Paula E. Hyman, Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representation of Women (Seattle, 1995); Iris Parush, Reading Women: Marginality and Modernization in Nineteenth-Century Eastern European Jewish Society (Hanover, N.H., 2004); Pu’ah Rakovsky, Zikhroynes fun a yidisher revolutsionerin (Buenos Aires, 1954); published in Hebrew as Lo Nikhnati, trans. David Kalai (Tel Aviv, 1951), published in English as My Life as a Radical Jewish Woman: Memoirs of a Zionist Feminist in Poland, ed. and introd. Paula E. Hyman, trans. Barbara Harshav with Paula E. Hyman (Bloomington, Ind., 2001).