Henrietta Szold: The Life of a Hero – Book Review

World War II was raging in Europe and the Red Army was advancing towards Berlin, but the headlines of all Hebrew newspapers in pre-state Israel on February 14, 1945, and for several days thereafter, concerned the death of Henrietta Szold. .

Chaim Weizmann, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and Judah Magnes carried his beer to the funeral. In attendance were David Ben-Gurion, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi Uziel, representatives of the British High Commissioner, Christian and Muslim officials, diplomats and thousands of people from all walks of the Yishuv, ranging from university professors to members of the kibbutz. , through teachers and nurses, and hundreds of children of the youth Aliyah. It was the largest funeral ever seen in Jerusalem at that time.

Szold lived a heroic life. Born in Baltimore in 1860 to immigrant Hungarian Orthodox Jews, she was dismissed by many of her contemporaries as an overeducated and over-performing American Jewish woman, and she was certainly underestimated. Despite this, she boldly founded Hadassah in 1912, the leading Zionist women’s organization.

In 1920, at the age of 60, with most people nearing retirement, she left for Palestine and vigorously took over the health and education portfolios for the Jewish National Council of the Yishuv. In 1933, she founded Youth Aliyah, the rescue and resettlement agency for Jewish children of the war years.

This scholarly and fascinating biography of Szold, artfully produced by Professor Dvora Hacohen of the Department of Modern Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University, is a window into Szold’s somewhat tormented soul; in his many unrecognized accomplishments during his years in the United States; and in the celebrity status she has earned in Israel. (Did you know that Mother’s Day in Israel is celebrated on her birthday?)

Hacohen’s biography of Szold is simultaneously a window into the precarious early years of the Jewish community in pre-Israel Palestine – including its abject poverty, the many Arab riots it endured, its infighting, its punitive suffering under the British, and more. (Living in Israel today, it’s hard to believe how backward and destitute the Yishuv was just 100 years ago. The book is worth reading just for this vivid description of the Yishuv’s difficulties!)

Hacohen draws on Szold’s voluminous diaries and her extensive worldwide correspondence (she is the first scholar to study them) to reveal the pioneering leader’s ailments, anxieties, and many professional victories, as well as his depressing personal world. She never married, which has been a source of frustration throughout her life. In fact, Hacohen suggests that a shattering romantic rejection in 1909 was the catalyst which, after a significant period of depression, led Szold to “open a new chapter in his life,” founding Hadassah a few years later and starting 30 years of constant travel. to and from the United States and Palestine.

Szold’s accomplishments in the United States are all the more impressive as during these years the role of women in public life, including Jewish community life, was relegated to “the back of the bus.” She played a central role in the development of the Jewish Publication Society of America at the turn of the century and was part of the orbit of scholars of the Jewish Theological Seminary. But in both places, she was only paid a pittance, and her name was omitted from many articles she wrote, edited and translated (aside from an occasional “HS” in the notes).

It was only in the pre-state Yishuv in Palestine that his indomitable drive for humanitarian and social work was finally recognized.

Hacohen’s book tells the stressful story of the first nurses and doctors Hadassah sent to Jerusalem; baby care clinics pioneered by Szold (“Tipat Chalav”, who dominates child care in Israel); the network of educational, agricultural and health institutions for which it raised funds and built in the decades leading up to 1948; and how Szold navigated intractable issues between religious and secular Jews and between Jews and Arabs.

She insisted on equal access for all, a principle that has since underpinned the work of Hadassah medical centers in Israel.

In his later years, despite chronic health problems and financial worries, Szold devoted himself to helping desperate German Jewish parents who wanted to send their children out of Germany after Hitler’s rise. She crisscrossed the country convincing kibbutz leaders to house these children and help them adjust, while persuading reluctant British diplomats to allow 30,000 unaccompanied children into Palestine rescued from the clutches of the Nazis and the horrors of the Holocaust. And she raised the funds for it, including the transportation costs, thus founding the Youth Aliyah network.

It was during her research for a previous award-winning book on Youth Aliyah that Professor Hacohen was drawn to the story of Szold’s epic but agonizing life. “What I discovered,” writes Hacohen, “is the figure of Henrietta Szold in all its richness and depth, as well as the winding path she followed to the top of 21st century Jewish leadership. . “

And yet, on his deathbed, Szold had a yellowish outlook on his own leadership accomplishments. She told her close friend Judah Magnes that “I have lived a rich life, but not a happy life”.

David M. Weinberg’s column on diplomatic, political and Jewish affairs appeared weekly in Jerusalem post since 25 years.


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