Book Review | The Mother of Hadassah—and Israel

By | Sep 13, 2021

To Repair a Broken World: The Life of Henrietta Szold
By Dvora Hacohen
Harvard, 400 pp., $35.00

Wherever she sat and led the discussion, there was the head of the table.” Thus observed an early associate of Henrietta Szold’s in Hadassah, the powerhouse American women’s Zionist organization that she founded in 1912. But this tribute could have come from any one of the thousands of colleagues, employees, friends and admirers of the woman who guided a panoply of Jewish and Zionist institutions from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries. Szold’s indomitable hand and generous spirit founded and shaped multiple organizations, from the most important Jewish publishing house outside Europe in many centuries to a network of clinics and hospitals in Ottoman Palestine, where even obtaining running water was a challenge. And in Dvora Hacohen’s new scholarly study of her life and work, Szold receives the comprehensive biography that she well deserves.

Szold did not have an easy life, and this is not a light read. Hacohen has mined Szold’s voluminous papers, reading her diaries, hundreds of meeting minutes, other published biographies and thousands of letters that her subject miraculously found time to write. The result is a window on the precarious early years of the Jewish community in pre-Israel Palestine (the Yishuv) and the early careers of many pillars of the American Jewish establishment.

Szold was born in Baltimore in 1860, the eldest of eight daughters, three of whom died at birth or in early childhood. Henrietta was profoundly influenced by her father, Rabbi Benjamin Szold, who immigrated to the United States from Hungary, and who occupied his pulpit at a time when American Judaism was navigating the challenges of religious reform, ethnic prejudice and a lack of communal institutions. The family’s Shabbat table—and Henrietta’s subsequent circle of friends in New York—reads like a Who’s Who of early-20th-century Jewish scholars, philanthropists and Zionists. At her father’s knee, she achieved fluency in Hebrew and her parents’ native German, and enough Aramaic to study Talmud (almost unheard of for a girl), acquiring French and other languages on her own.

She also imbibed the rabbi’s strong faith in the promise of America. Her parents, both immigrants who had encountered prejudice in Europe, saw the United States as a standard-bearer of democracy and equality, and they admired Abraham Lincoln’s opposition to slavery. One of Szold’s earliest memories was of her father lifting her up to the window to view the slain president’s funeral cortege as it passed by their Baltimore home. Her vision of American liberty and the obligation of Jews to fight intolerance was also shaped by a deep admiration for her contemporary, the poet Emma Lazarus. Long after the poet’s untimely death, Szold continued to be inspired by Lazarus’s determination to fight xenophobia and antisemitism and to work toward a Jewish national home in the Land of Israel.

Henrietta Szold, front center, with children from a Youth Aliyah village. Date unknown. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Hadassah)

Szold appears as almost a Zionist Zelig character, turning up at seemingly every important juncture in the history of American Jewry and the Zionist movement of her time. She attended the infamous “Trefa Banquet” in 1883 in Cincinnati, where a dinner in honor of newly ordained Reform rabbis featured shellfish and other
non-kosher food and is often seen as the breaking point between the organized Reform movement and other leaders of American Judaism at the time. When the National Council of Jewish Women was established at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, founder Hannah Greenebaum Solomon asked Szold to serve as the new group’s president (she declined) and to address the fair’s Parliament of Religions about women in Judaism (she accepted). She attended several early World Zionist Congresses and was present at countless important moments in the development of pre-State Israel—usually as the only woman in the room.

As the so-called secretary—in reality, the editor-in-chief and director—of the Jewish Publication Society of America (JPS) from 1893 to 1915, Szold synthesized world developments in the American Jewish Year Book, analyzing events such as the Dreyfus trial in France and pogroms in Russia. Under her meticulous care, JPS became the premier address for serious Jewish scholarship in the United States, publishing translations and English-language commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, studies of major Jewish scholars and their works throughout the centuries, translations of Jewish literature and the massive Jewish Encyclopedia project.

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Szold edited, translated and shaped most of the publication society’s output. At the same time, she became an integral part of a circle of scholars orbiting around Solomon Schechter at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), home of the future Conservative movement. Despite her gender, she received Schechter’s approval to take courses at JTS—a revolutionary step for a rabbinical school at the time—but only after she acceded to the Seminary board’s demand that she forgo any request to be ordained as a rabbi.

This period encompasses two of the most frustrating and heartbreaking aspects of Szold’s life: her male colleagues’ denial of a proper title (and associated paycheck) for her work at JPS, and the thwarting of her romantic attachment to Louis Ginzberg, a star intellectual who had arrived from Europe to teach at JTS. The two disappointments were closely related. Ginzberg is, in many ways, the villain of this biography: Hacohen argues convincingly that he not only led Szold on before suddenly marrying a much younger woman, but that he grossly exploited her by relying on her to edit and translate thousands of pages, with never a cent paid to her and no written acknowledgement. Many of her associates at JPS likewise balked at giving Szold her due. Cyrus Adler, Schechter’s successor as chancellor at JTS, acknowledged Szold’s low salary but demurred that “a dignified woman in her position would never [bargain for more].” Almost none of the works that Szold edited and translated mention her, aside from an occasional modest “H.S.” at the end of an editor’s note. (After reading the astonishing list of works that Szold shepherded through JPS with almost no acknowledgment, I had to resist the urge to rush into my university library and write her name into every JPS volume I could find.)

The shock of Ginzberg’s romantic rejection crushed Szold and angered her friends. But she found a renewed focus after an extended visit to Palestine and Europe with her mother Sophie. Friends had warned her that visiting Palestine would repel her and disabuse her of her romantic notions of “Zion.” Instead, Szold’s distress at the conditions there—especially in the cities—strengthened her determination to help. With a knack for raising money and a belief that education married to activism could change the world, she spearheaded the formation of Hadassah, one of the largest and most powerful membership organizations in the Jewish community.

Largely at Szold’s urging, Hadassah made the issue of health care in Palestine its first and most lasting social commitment. Hacohen does a great service to women’s history and the history of the Yishuv in reclaiming the stories of the first nurses and doctors that Hadassah sent to Jerusalem. Her profiles of storied characters such as Sarah Aaronsohn, a polylingual, dashing equestrian heroine who spied against the Turks and met a tragic death, suggest how many other fascinating, brave pathbreakers should also become household names.

Israeli historians use the phrase medina ba’derech—the “state on the way,” or “the proto-state”—to describe the network of institutions built during the decades leading up to 1948: the physical infrastructure, agricultural system, kibbutzim, the education system, the health network and the military. Szold helped develop all these areas except the military, despite facing sexism, empty coffers and natural and political disasters at every turn. Hacohen reveals how Szold tackled intractable problems in the Yishuv’s schools (among other issues, navigating between religious and secular
Jews—one of many reminders that what was old is new again), supported pioneering agricultural work, and, through Hadassah, professionalized the medical establishment at clinics and hospitals that served everyone in the area, Jew and Arab alike.

In her later years, despite health problems and chronic financial worries, Szold immersed herself in leading yet another major project. Starting in 1933 after Hitler’s rise to power, the Youth Aliyah movement sought to help desperate German Jewish parents who wished to send their children out of the country. The plan required a network of locations willing to take the children, funds to pay for their food and clothes, a means of transporting them to Palestine and a strong leader to persuade reluctant British diplomats to allow hundreds (ultimately thousands) of unaccompanied youngsters into an already-troubled territory. Well into her 70s, Szold not only met with potential funders and British officials but traveled frequently to kibbutzim around the country, convincing the struggling communities to house the children and help them adjust.

Ultimately, the woman who had never had children of her own became like a mother to many. A Youth Aliyah participant, missing his parents in Germany, wrote to Szold from Kibbutz Hulda: “Shmuel, our counselor, told us that you are the mother of all the children….I wanted to ask you, if you are everyone’s mother, could you be my mother too….And I would play with you, and you would take walks with me on Shabbat, just the two of us, and you would tell me about flowers and dreams and other things.” After Szold’s death in 1945, the State of Israel would establish its Mother’s Day holiday to coincide with her yahrzeit.

In a memorial address at the first Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus a week after Szold’s death, her close friend Rabbi Judah Magnes, first chancellor of the Hebrew University, proclaimed: “In everything she did, she sought the welfare of others, and in all things, she strove to be faithful to the lofty ideals that consecrated her life.” The thousands who accompanied her casket to its burial on the Mount of Olives would have agreed, as would the legions of descendants of children saved by Youth Aliyah, the hundreds of thousands of Hadassah members and the innumerable readers of JPS works that Szold nurtured and edited. Reading Hacohen’s account of Szold’s life demands an investment of time and intellectual energy, but its subject richly deserves the effort.

Lauren B. Strauss is a professor of modern Jewish history and literature at The American University in Washington, DC. 

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