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Shapira, Ḥavah

(1879–1943) Hebrew writer. Ḥavah Shapira was born in Slavuta, Ukraine, to a scholarly and affluent family of Hasidic ancestry. Despite being raised in a traditional environment, she received a rich Jewish and secular education and even enjoyed the support of her family while pursuing her literary goals. From 1899, she received the encouragement and patronage of the writer Re’uven Brainin. Though their relationship intensified after she separated from her husband in 1903, it ended painfully. In 1900, Shapira had moved to Warsaw to begin her literary career, and in December 1901 her first story, “Ha-Shoshanah” (The Rose), was published in David Frishman’s weekly Ha-Dor. From 1903 she studied in Vienna and in 1906 moved to Bern, where four years later she received her Ph.D.

Shapira continued to write short stories, publishing them in her collection Kovets tsiyurim (An Anthology of Portraits; 1909) under the pseudonym Em Kol Ḥai (Mother of All Life). Believing that topics of interest to women should be portrayed firsthand by women writers, Shapira announced in the book’s introduction that she aimed to promote the status of women in society in general and in Hebrew literature in particular. Indeed, her stories—often written in the spirit of feminist protest—generally depict women in distress and in positions of inferiority. Her writing employs motifs of psychological realism, peppered with simple metaphors. For example, women are portrayed as wilted roses or as birds with clipped wings.

Though a book of stories focusing exclusively on women was itself a great innovation, Shapira’s anthology received little notice and most reviews were lukewarm. It is perhaps for this reason that she gradually abandoned the short story and concentrated on essays. Her first article—a critical review of a novel by Gerhardt Hauptmann—appeared in 1913 in Ha-Shiloaḥ.

After being displaced during World War I, Shapira moved with her son to Prague in 1919. From then on she devoted herself to writing essays, which, until 1938, were published regularly in the journals Ha-‘Olam, Ha-Toren, and Ha-Do’ar. During the interwar period she was prominent as virtually the only female Hebrew critic and essayist. Shapira’s articles dealt with Hebrew and world literature; with the situations of Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe; with matters related to Jewish education in the Diaspora; and with affairs of the Zionist movement.

Shapira also published articles in German, Czech, and Yiddish, continuing to use her articles as a vehicle to protest the absence of women among Hebrew writers, readers, and literary characters. In 1938, she published a monograph in Hebrew on the life of Tomáš Masaryk, the president of Czechoslovakia, whom she greatly admired. At the end of the 1930s she tried in vain to compile all her articles into one volume. Between 1900 and 1941, she kept a personal diary that has survived intact, replete with feelings of distress, loneliness, and insult, and with expressions of personal and literary frustration. At the end of 1941 she was deported from Prague to Terezín, where she died on 28 February 1943.

Suggested Reading

Israel Cohen, ed., “Ḥavah Shapira’,” Yedi‘ot genazim: Sofrim ‘ivriyim she-nispu ba-sho’ah, 81 (April 1973): 738–743; Ḥavah Shapira, “Kit‘e yoman,” Genazim: Kovets le-toldot ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ba-dorot ha-aḥaronim (Tel Aviv) 2 (1965): 37–60; Rachel Yoktan, “Ḥavah Shapira’ (“Em Kol Ḥai”): Min ha-sofrot ha-ri’shonot shel ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-ḥadashah” (M.A. thesis, Tel Aviv University, 1999).



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler