Malkah Shapiro, Poland, ca. 1910. (Nehemia Polen)

Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the

Shapiro, Malkah

(1894–1971), Hasidic writer and memoirist. Born Reyzl Malke Hapstein in Kozienice (Kozhenits), Poland, Malkah Shapiro was the daughter of Yeraḥmi’el Mosheh Hapstein (1860–1909), a descendant of the Magid of Kozhenits (ca. 1737–1814), one of the founders of Polish Hasidism. Her mother was Brakha Tsipora Gitl Twersky (1861–1930), a descendant of Menaḥem Naḥum of Chernobil (1730?–1797). In 1908, Shapiro married her first cousin Avraham Elimelekh Shapiro of Grodzisk.

In 1926, Shapiro immigrated to the Land of Israel, living first in Haifa, then in Kfar Hasidim (a settlement near Haifa cofounded by one of her brothers), and finally in Jerusalem. There, in 1934, she began to publish stories, essays, and poems in Hebrew-language journals. Her most mature prose work is the 1969 volume Mi-din le-raḥamim: Sipurim me-ḥatserot ha-admorim (From Severity to Mercy: Stories from the Courts of the Hasidic Rebbes; published in English as The Rebbe’s Daughter), which focuses on her childhood.

Shapiro’s coming-of-age memoir is set around the year 1905, when the author was 11 or 12 years old. In it, she presents a rare view of Hasidism through a girl’s eye, describing her fears about her biological maturation and her impending marriage at the age of 14; her introduction to the world of Jewish learning, especially textual studies; and her intense curiosity about the mysteries of Hasidic spirituality and Kabbalah. Shapiro paints a vivid picture of her family and of her father’s Hasidic court. The atmosphere is ethereal and dreamlike; social and personal relations are mannered and deeply respectful, mediated by governing hierarchies of master–disciple and parent–child.

In Shapiro’s account, her entire family is committed to an ethos of integrity and compassion, shaping every waking moment with reverential, meticulous care. While the author’s father is certainly a central figure, the women of the family, especially her mother and grandmother, play key roles, and their personal and devotional lives are portrayed with depth and vibrancy. In addition to directing the household and performing acts of kindness and charity, the women are also Torah scholars, transmitters of sacred traditions, spiritual exemplars of deep piety, and leaders who guide the entire Hasidic community, both men and women.

Shapiro describes a domestic scene in which people are seamlessly in touch with their natural and spiritual environment; it is a world of harmonious balance between action and contemplation. The courtyard resounds with nigunim (wordless spiritual melodies), Talmud-study chant, and moments of meaningful silence. Flora and fauna are personified as full participants in sacred rhythms and rituals. The air is heavy with fragrances of the forest and the spirits of departed ancestors.

In the memoir, Shapiro also evokes the particular Hasidic style of her Kozhenits lineage: deliberate, reflective, sober, and dignified. Sacred times and ritual practices are not to be rushed through but rather are to be savored—entered into with all one’s senses. Her work is an elegy to a type of Hasidism that was to become increasingly rare in the twentieth century, displaced by an urban form that was faster paced, more militant, and politicized. When she finally published the text, it also became a post-Holocaust memorial to the vanished world into which she was born.

Suggested Reading

Malkah Shapiro, Shenenu ba-maginim (Tel Aviv, 1952); Malkah Shapiro, Be-Lev ha-mistorin (Tel Aviv, 1954/55); Malkah Shapiro, The Rebbe’s Daughter: Memoir of a Hasidic Childhood, trans. Nehemia Polen (Philadelphia, 2002).