The Hermit of Oliphant
After the literary pioneer Dvora Baron immigrated to Palestine, she never again ventured out
In “The Thorny Path,” the first story I ever read by Dvora Baron, a paralyzed woman lies propped up in bed before the display window of her husband’s photography studio in their Eastern European village. I read the story in 1981, two years after I moved to Israel. My Hebrew was weak, and I struggled with the early-twentieth-century prose of novelists like Micha Yosef Berdischevsky, Uri Nisan Gnessin, Yosef Haim Brenner, and Shmuel Yosef Agnon. At the time, none of them left a particular impression, except Baron, who conjured a protagonist, trapped in bed, looking out on a world she cannot join. It made for a haunting image.
Mousha’s paralysis has doomed her to experience the circle—as she calls the small radius of her sight—as if it were one of Nahum’s photos. The story takes place during the summer:
The doors in the houses of the “circle” have been opened, and the daily activities . . . have been moved out to the doorsteps. In the tavern across the street, the proprietress, Lipsha, chopped sorrel leaves on the kitchen steps . . . and Heniah Levin, dark and delicate, peeked from time to time at the fabric store, where her handsome husband, the city boy, worked.
A quarter of a century ago, I did not know that Mousha’s creator observed the world in much the same way. The only woman to be accepted into the canon of early-twentieth-century Hebrew literature and a central figure in the modern Hebrew literary renaissance and the literary life of Tel Aviv, Baron spent her last thirty-three years as a recluse. Until her death in 1956, she observed life from the window of her tiny apartment on Oliphant Street, around the corner from then-fading (now café-lined) Shenkin Street.
Like many other Hebrew prose writers of her generation, Baron primarily wrote short stories, though she also published two novellas, For the Time Being (1943) and Since Yesterday, and a highly regarded Hebrew translation of Madame Bovary. Toward the end of her life she collected the stories that she felt best represented her legacy in Parshiyot (Tales), relegating all her other, earlier work—about fifty stories—to oblivion.
These works were anthologized by Avner Noltzman and Nurit Govrin in 1988, more than thirty years after Baron’s death. But by that time, the stories that Baron believed represented her literary legacy—not just the ones she had discarded—were no longer read by a broad public. Baron’s Hebrew of the early twentieth century feels stilted and overly formal in comparison with the colloquial language of today.
In recent years, however, the tide has turned. In 1991, psychologist Amia Lieblich published Conversations with Dvora, an “experimental biography” of Baron, which tells the story of Baron’s life through a series of imaginary conversations in the writer’s apartment, set in the months before her death. Six years later, the book was translated into English, and garnered strong reviews. And in 2001, a new English translation of a selection of Baron’s works appeared, under the title The First Day and Other Stories.
Four years ago, I had an opportunity to reacquaint myself with Baron. Sheila Jelen, a professor of English and Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland and the author of Intimations of Difference, an excellent study of Baron, asked me to translate into English some essays for Hebrew, Gender, and Modernity: Critical Responses to Dvora Baron’s Fiction. Once again, I was astonished by “The Thorny Path.”
When the story begins, Mousha is three years old. Her life resembles a fairy tale, with both an evil stepmother and a Prince Charming, her neighbor Nahum. Mousha and Nahum grow up and marry, Nahum sets up his studio, and the couple has a child. But childbirth paralyzes Mousha and she lacks sufficient milk. The baby dies. Mousha then has another child, Muni (short for Benjamin). A bris is arranged but the townspeople boycott it, since Mousha, immobilized, could not have immersed herself in the mikveh to purge herself of menstrual impurity. The newborn is the product of forbidden relations.
Mousha again cannot breastfeed and her stepmother offers to save the child by taking him away to a wet nurse on the condition that the couple agrees never to contact him. Years pass, and a friend of Nahum’s facilitates a meeting with Muni before Nahum dies. The young man returns home, takes over the shop, and photographs his mother. “He revealed and discerned all that was hidden, drew out all that was in her, and showed her truthfully to herself.”
Baron seems to suggest that truths about people are revealed not through direct observation, but through a mediating device—a window, a mirror, a photograph—which produces a truer portrait.
Baron was born in 1887 in Ouzda, just outside Minsk, where her father, the town rabbi, quickly came to appreciate her precocity and intelligence. He encouraged her—alone among her three sisters—to study traditional texts, letting her sit in on his classes for the community’s men and boys. Her older brother, Benjamin, with whom she was very close, schooled her in the modern Hebrew literature of the Haskalah—the Jewish Enlightenment. The combined influences of her father and brother provided her with precisely the knowledge she needed to enter the modern Hebrew literary world.
She published her first stories in Hebrew in 1902, when she was just fifteen, in the Eastern European Hebrew-language daily newspaper HaMelitz. Like many writers of the Hebrew literary revival, which got underway in 1886 with the launch of HaMelitz and other similar periodicals, Baron also wrote a bit in Yiddish early in her career. In 1903, she left home to seek admission into a Russian high school. Discriminatory quotas made it very difficult for young Jews to gain admission to such schools. They had to cram for and excel at a grueling series of entrance examinations, an experience Baron later portrayed in some of her stories. She managed to get over these hurdles and gain admittance to a Russian high school for girls in Lithuania, where she pursued her secular studies and earned a teaching certificate. Moving from one major Jewish population center in the Pale of Settlement to another—during these years she lived, among other places, in Kovno, Mariompol, Minsk, and Vilna—she continued to write and participate in Hebrew literary life.
In 1910, at twenty-three, she immigrated on her own to Palestine. Her reputation preceded her. She was immediately offered the post of literary editor of the important labor Zionist newspaper HaPoel HaTzair. The following year she married the newspaper’s editor in chief, Yosef Aharonovitch, a Ukrainian immigrant ten years her senior.
Her life soon took a tragic turn. Their only child, Tzipora, born in 1914, developed epilepsy. Five years later, Baron’s brother died in a typhus epidemic in Russia. Then, in 1923, she and her husband resigned from HaPoel HaTzair, after a public controversy over whether he was still the right man to run the newspaper. Aharonovitch carried on in public life—he was appointed head of Bank Hapoalim, the labor movement’s major financial institution. But from then on, Baron stayed home, not venturing out even to attend his funeral in 1937. While there has been much speculation about the reason for this behavior—depression, anorexia, a need for isolation in order to write—Baron herself offered no clues.
It was during Baron’s long seclusion that she wrote most of her mature work, and though she did not leave home, she did receive visitors, including editors and literary figures who continued to publish and promote her. Her stories appeared in journals and newspapers associated with the labor movement, and were published in book form by Am Oved, an arm of the Histadrut labor federation.
At the turn of the century, when Baron began writing, the young stars of the small, vibrant literary movement were men—Agnon, Brenner, and Chaim Nachman Bialik—who rebelled against religion and against the Eastern European yeshivot where they had studied as teenagers. While these men were not believers, they knew and valued Judaism’s sacred literature. And they argued that a legitimate modern Hebrew style could not be a hollow imitation of the literatures of other cultures, but must be firmly based in the literary heritage of the Jewish people. Their fiction constantly alluded to and borrowed vocabulary, syntax, and subject matter from the Bible, the Talmud, and the midrashim.
Baron’s female contemporaries—Nechama Puchechevsky, Sarah Feige Meinkin Foner, and Hemda Ben Yehuda—lacked this knowledge of traditional sources, and while like them Baron wrote of domestic matters, her religious education allowed her to set up allusions and ironies that only readers with traditional Jewish erudition could appreciate. In “Burying the Books,” for example, (first published in 1908 and again in a considerably revised version in 1922), the female narrator sits in synagogue, listening to a sermon about Balaam, the gentile prophet hired by the king of Moab to curse the children of Israel. As the narrator recounts the congregation’s ceremonial burial of sacred books, Baron weaves in themes from the Biblical story, along with a subplot that hearkens back to a midrash about a woman who brings a handful of flour to the Temple in Jerusalem as a sacrificial offering, only to be scorned by the priest.
As Jelen points out in Intimations of Difference, by delving into the minds of women, Baron risked utterly losing the interest of the male gatekeepers to the literary establishment—her fellow writers and editors.
Her stories offered sophisticated critiques of women’s status in both traditional and modern Jewish society. But the male critics didn’t always respond. Prominent literary figures in the early years of Israeli statehood, such as Dan Meron and Gershon Shaked, regarded Baron as a talented, but limited chronicler of the domestic side of the lost world of Eastern Europe. To be sure, most of her fiction is set in and around three Lithuanian towns, Khmilovka, Tochnovka, and Zhozhikovka. After her move to Palestine, Baron was criticized for continuing to write about the Diaspora, rather than the seemingly more worthy subject of the new Jewish settlements in the Land of Israel. Her choice solidified her reputation as a genre writer, valuable as an archivist of a vanished world, but with little to say to the modern Israeli. Still, she won several major literary awards in her lifetime, including the prestigious Bialik Prize in 1934 for her short story collection Kitanot (Trifles) and, in 1951, the Brenner Hebrew literary prize for Parshiyot (Tales).
Most of her early readers assumed Baron’s work was autobiographical. She did nothing to discourage this assumption, repeatedly making her protagonists the daughters of rabbis and calling characters in her stories Benjamin and Hannah—the names of her brother and one of her sisters. And then, of course, there’s “The Thorny Path,” a story about a woman confined to a few rooms, written by a woman who confined herself to a few rooms. In reality, her fiction was not a mirror of her life. Despite the sufferings of her protagonists—which arguably reflected her own—her stories typically have happy endings, which often involve the birth of a baby boy or, as in “The Thorny Path,” the return of a lost son. Yet these happy endings are like the happy ending in the book of Job. Job suffers—his children are killed and his home and wealth destroyed by a God who gives a free hand to a malevolent demiurge. In compensation, God makes him rich again, provides him with another house, and grants him more children. Baron’s heroines, like Job, wonder if consolation can ever compensate their initial loss.