1903 – 1994
by Gershon Bacon
Ita Kalish, Zionist activist, Jewish Agency employee and Israeli civil servant, journalist and memoir writer, was born April 5, 1903 in Maciejowice, Poland. Her father, Rabbi Mendel of the Warka Hasidic dynasty, at that time rabbi of the town, later succeeded his father Rabbi Simha Bunem of Warka as Rebbe of Otwock. Private tutors educated the young Ita, who evinced an early interest in religious education. As a child, she witnessed life in the Hasidic court of her father and grandfather and heard from her paternal grandmother much of the lore of the Warka dynasty going back several generations. These stories found expression decades later in her memoirs. Despite her father’s objections, Ita also pursued secular studies, with cousins and others in the extended household secretly providing her with books and newspapers in Polish and Yiddish. This continued even after Ita had been married off to a young Talmudic scholar from a wealthy family, as part of her father’s strategy for dealing with the winds of secularism that he saw threatening Judaism in general and his own household in particular. As Kalish tells it in her own words, this plan proved futile:
Father had great hopes for his young and beloved son-in-law and believed that the pure and naive scholar would know how to quiet the passion of his daughter to deviate from the way of life of her surroundings and take another path of life. … My father did not imagine that his daughter had long deviated from the narrow area set out for her …; Father had not considered that his daughter learned a foreign language and read “outside” books, even at the time she put her young daughter, who was born in the interim, to sleep. And then came the day that all his illusions melted away: he came to visit me in my apartment—a wing of his apartment on Dzielna 14—and there appeared to him, to his amazement, a pile of books in Yiddish and Polish. … In his storm of emotions he accused me with harsh words, confiscated my books and condemned them to be burnt.
On this occasion Ita stormed out of her father’s family compound, only to return after her father’s pleading. Her thirst for independence, however, was not quenched. As long as her father was alive she remained with her husband, but continued her secret secularization. Upon her father’s death in 1919 she left her husband and daughter and moved with her two sisters to Warsaw, where their apartment became a refuge and meeting place for young men and women who had fled from noted Hasidic families to pursue secular careers. Kalish supported herself by work as a clerk in the Warsaw office of the American Jewish immigration organization HIAS.
In 1923 Kalish kidnapped her daughter from the Kielce home of her husband and in-laws and left for Berlin (the Warsaw rabbinical court eventually awarded her custody of the daughter), where she continued to work for HIAS and also took courses in German literature and x-ray technology. She had a number of friends and acquaintances among Zionist leaders and Hebrew and Yiddish literary circles there. For a short time, during the hyperinflation in Germany, she moved temporarily to Paris and worked in the HIAS office there as well. After the Nazi rise to power in 1933 Kalish once again fled to Paris, where she stayed for a month at the home of the writer David Fogel and his wife. In May 1933 she arrived in Palestine. From 1935 until 1948 Kalish worked for the Jewish Agency and with the coming of Israeli independence transferred to the civil service of the new state, where she worked until her retirement in 1967. In Palestine too she continued to move in the social circles of writers and journalists, and contributed articles to the Labor daily Davar.
Ita Kalish’s memoirs, published first in Yiddish under the title A Rebbe’s Home in Long-Ago Poland (Tel Aviv, 1963) and later in an expanded Hebrew version under the title My Yesterday (1970), are a treasure-trove of information about the Jewish community in Poland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She possessed a keen eye for detail and her descriptions of the denizens of the Warka Hasidic court, her fellow “refugees” who had fled the Hasidic world, or the literary circles of Berlin are full of rich personal portrayals of the famous and the anonymous who crossed her path. Particularly worthy of note is the parade of strong women from the rebbes’ households whom Kalish describes, some of them independent businesswomen who ran the court behind the scenes, others strong enough to defy the rebbes. All of this was on the background of the Warka court, where in theory the rebbe dictated practically everything in the life style of the children, down to the shape and style of the dresses and head covering of the women of all ages in the household. Though on occasion Kalish refers to the differential treatment of young girls and boys in traditional Jewish society and her own opposition to it, it is difficult to term these memoirs a feminist document with a feminist agenda. The central theme of the memoir, as expressed in the title of the fourth chapter, is the “path of independence” as experienced by Kalish herself and her friends and acquaintances, male and female alike, who sought a way out of what they considered the stifling atmosphere of the Hasidic world. On that score, the author felt that women had an easier time making the transition, having been more exposed to secular culture, in contrast to the men who had little such contact, many of whom remained tragically homeless in both the religious and secular worlds.
Despite this central theme of escape from the religious community, Kalish’s portrayal of that community is a highly nuanced and non-stereotypical one. Even within the strict boundaries of the rebbe’s court, some men and women managed to assert their independence in varying ways. It was one of her father’s trusted assistants who introduced the young Ita to the Torah commentary of Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786), maintaining that he respected Mendelssohn’s intellect even if he disagreed with his religious views. During visits to her parents in ?ód?, one of the women in her grandfather’s court found a way to escape the stifling dress code imposed by the rebbe through the collusion of one of the rebbe’s beadles, who would surreptitiously inform her of his upcoming visits to ?ód? on missions from the rebbe to check up on her attire in the big city. With all the opposition on the part of the rebbes to secularization, Kalish presents a memorable account of an “interview” for a prospective bride conducted by women from the strict Gerer Hasidic court, where the topic of discussion was none other than the works of the Polish novelist Gabriela Zapolska. All in all, Kalish’s memoir is a rich source on the inner life of the Hasidic courts of Poland at the turn of the twentieth century. In its respectful, sometimes nostalgic, yet critical portrayal of that world, it stands in contrast to the more sentimental, if also informative, memoir of her contemporary Malkah Shapiro, published in English translation under the title The Rebbe’s Daughter (Philadelphia, 2002).
Ita Kalish also published Conversations with [Hayyim] Hazaz (Hebrew; Tel Aviv, 1976), in which she reconstructs her conversations with the noted Hebrew author in the years 1936–1938. The conversations revolve mostly around literature and literary figures of the era, with some comments on contemporary events.
Halamish, Mordecai. From Here and from Near (Hebrew). Tel Aviv, 1966, 399–402. (Excerpt from the memoirs and portrait of the author); Hyman, Paula E. “East European Jewish Women in an Age of Transition, 1880–1930.” In Jewish Women in Historical Perspective, edited by Judith R. Baskin, 270–286. Second edition; Detroit: 1998; Idem. Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representation of Women. Seattle: 1995, 62–64; Kalish, Ita. “Life in a Hassidic Court in Russian Poland Toward the End of the Nineteenth and the Early Twentieth Centuries.” YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science 13 (1965): 264–278 (excerpt from memoirs); Lexicon of Modern Yiddish Literature (Yiddish). New York, 1981, vol. 8, col. 54; Personal communication. Civil Service Commission, Jerusalem, March 2004; Personal communication. Human Resources Department, Jewish Agency, Jerusalem, January 2004.
Setting the record straight on one woman's breakaway from Hasidic life
Ita Kalish broke away from her Hasidic Polish family in the 1920s and went on to lead a secular, independent life in pre-state Israel. Before she died, she set the record straight about abandoning her child.
By Ofer Aderet | Oct. 5, 2013 | 6:00 PM
In 1991, three years before she died, Ita Kalish found the time to write a brief memoir for her family. “And now, in my twilight days, I will tell the truth of the lie that was spread then,” she wrote.
For all of Kalish’s adult life, until shortly before she died at the age of 91, her family thought she had abandoned her daughter in Poland in the 1920s and run away from her. Only shortly before she died − which was years after her daughter’s premature death − did Kalish seek to correct the mistaken impression and tell her remarkable life’s story. This memoir complements an earlier account that she published in 1970.
It’s a story that turned Kalish into a symbol of a strong woman, brave and rebellious, who left the family − known for its ties to revered rabbis − in which she had grown up in Poland and charted an independent and secular course for herself in pre-state Israel. Not only do those circumstances make her case very unusual, but also the fact that Kalish actually set the story down in writing, in contrast to other women of that era, living under similar conditions, who opted to downplay, forget or flee their pasts.
Dr. Avriel Bar-Levav, of the Open University’s department of history, philosophy and Jewish studies, recently received Kalish’s memoirs, in the form of a small booklet, from her family. Bar-Levav, co-editor of the 2012 book “Secularization in Jewish Culture” (Open University, in Hebrew), together with Ron Margolin and Shmuel Feiner, gave Kalish’s work to Haaretz, and it is being presented here for the first time.
Kalish, granddaughter of the Rebbe of Warka and daughter of the Rebbe of Otwock, was born in 1903 in Maciejowice, Poland. Despite her descent from a Hasidic dynasty, she was captivated by the charms of the new, secular spirit of the 1920s, which was the product of the political and social revolutions sweeping Europe at the time. Her father took notice of this. “One of those days, he said to me with a sad laugh, although without a hint of complaint: ‘Your soul is secular,’” she wrote in “My Yesterday,” first published in Yiddish in 1963, and in an expanded Hebrew edition in 1970.
Her secular tendencies grew more pronounced, she wrote in her later memoir, as she began to read “modern books in Yiddish by ‘heretic’ writers, who write about freedom of religion, women’s liberation and the like.”
She added: “I lived life my own way and as I pleased. I read different books, ones that were strictly forbidden among us, I went to the theater and to concerts in secret, lest Father find out − heaven forbid − since these things were forbidden ... I had a group of male and female friends, all children from Hasidic homes who had also turned to ‘bad culture’ ... We decided, my friends and I, that we would correspond with each other. Everyone would write me a joint letter. They wrote to me in Yiddish, about, among other things, ‘heretic’ literature and highly forbidden matters.”
After her father’s death, in 1919, she moved in with the parents of her rabbinical student husband, the Kaminers, who were related to the Gerer Rebbe and lived on a lavish estate in Polczyn. She, however, take her husband’s name. “The boys sat studying Talmud day and night, and the girls were housewives and took care of their small children,” she wrote, adding that her husband’s mother, Malka Kaminer, headed the household. “She ruled over everything and took great pride in her lofty family origins.”
The good relations between the two women quickly came to an end, after Malka discovered Kalish’s correspondence with her friends from Warsaw. “Gradually the relations between me and my mother-in-law cooled to the point where one time, after a serious conversation, she said to me, ‘You are not suited to the lifestyle of Polczyn − actually, you want to live differently, in your own way,’” Kalish wrote. “It is true that I felt like an alien transplant. The conversations with my mother-in-law deteriorated, until one day she forced me to leave the house.”
In her slim 1991 book, Kalish, who separated from and later divorced her husband while their daughter Zina was very young, sought to put paid to the lie that she said had stained her past: Contrary to family lore, she explained, she did not abandon Zina, but rather was compelled to leave her behind, in 1923: “I left, and my little girl, the apple of my eye, remained with her father, as did all my possessions − pearls, a diamond and furs ... Rumors spread about me, and I was heartbroken that I had to separate from my child. I cried day and night from heart-wrenching longing for my little girl who was miserable without her mother. I did not leave my child on her own without a mother, but rather they forced me to leave her.”
The next stop on Kalish’s journey was Warsaw, where she sold a ring that she had in her possession and used the money to rent an apartment. “My heart gnawed away at me with longing for my child,” she wrote.
Kalish was permitted to visit her daughter every three months at the Kaminers’ new home in another city, after they were forced to relocate in the wake of the Communist Revolution. “After each farewell, great sorrow appeared on the face of my daughter who missed the mother’s love that had been stolen from her. I began demanding that my daughter be returned to me. Her father refused and that led me, after much thought, to a bold decision: that I must abduct my daughter,” she wrote. “And that is what I did. Something I would never have dared to do in my father’s lifetime.”
‘From country to country’
So it happened that Kalish came to visit her daughter one Friday evening, and went with her for a walk around town. “I reached the center of town and saw from a distance a carriage standing with a gentile driver. I ran toward it anxiously, and asked him to bring us quickly to the closest station where the train going to Warsaw would pass,” she wrote. “The driver saw I was frightened and perhaps thought I was drunk, but in return for 10 dollars I gave him he drove with me at once.”
In the midst of their journey, her daughter, who was then 5 and a half years old, woke up and said: “Mother, you stole me.”
Their escape route passed through Warsaw and ended in Berlin. There began “wanderings that lasted six years, homeless, from room to room, from country to country,” Kalish wrote. Only after six years was Kalish granted official custody of Zina by a Warsaw rabbinical court. She worked as a clerk at the Warsaw office of the American Jewish immigration organization HIAS, and later for the organization in Berlin and Paris. In Paris, Kalish and her daughter lived, among other places, at the house of the poet David Fogel and his wife.
On April 15, 1933, she and Zina boarded a ship for Palestine. There, she found employment at the Association of Israelis of Central European Origin, and later accepted the invitation of Moshe Sharett, then head of the Jewish Agency, to work at Palcor, the news service established by the Agency.
Eventually, Zina got married and raised a family, settling on Kibbutz Na’an. She died of cancer at 63. “For a full year she suffered horrific suffering, and I sat by her side day and night,” wrote Ita. “In her final hours, I remained alone with her. The moment I gave her the last spoonful of tea she breathed her last. The 63 years of her unquiet life were over. I do not have my only daughter.” Thus ends the 1991 recollections penned by Kalish.
Kalish herself was buried beside her daughter on the kibbutz. She is survived by three granddaughters: Ana Netzer of Kibbutz Geva; Eilat Galili (mother of actress Einav Galili); and Naomi Geva, who was married to the illustrator Dudu Geva.
“Her personal writing reveals new aspects and adds yet another brick to historic documentation,” Bar-Levav sums up.