Thursday, February 23, 2012

Building Hospitals Out of Tears

(Note: readers who use Internet Explorer are reporting problems with my formatting. In Firefox the post is fine.)

I've always been fascinated by Henrietta Szold, the famous – and never-married – woman who in 1912 founded the Hadassah organization. Szold's efforts to bring sound medical care and education to Israel probably saved thousands of lives during her lifetime. By now, through the Hadassah medical centers, she has saved probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

But reading Irving Fineman's biography of Szold, Woman of Valor, made me realize that Szold's greatness runs far further than the success of Hadassah. It introduced me to her other achievements, and to the fact that she might have died in obscurity if a famous Talmudist at the Jewish Theological Seminary hadn't broken Henrietta Szold's heart.

Today is the 66th anniversary of Henrietta Szold's death, and I want to mark the occasion by filling in some information you won't find on Wikipedia about her.

Henrietta Szold's entire life (which started in 1860) was largely shaped by the fact that her father, Rabbi Benjamin Szold, was a prominent member of the American Jewish literati of the time; a devoutly observant Jew; and a warm, loving father who made Henrietta feel that she was "better than seven sons" when in fact she was the oldest of eight girls.

It was because of him that Henrietta spoke perfect German and was active in the vibrant German-American Jewish community of Baltimore. It was with him that Henrietta studied German poetry and classical Jewish texts, and because of him that Henrietta was used to hobnobbing with notable members of the American Jewish community of the time; Marcus Jastrow and Alexander Kohut were family friends. He nurtured her intellectual curiosity, discussed his writings with her (and later, her writing), and encouraged her to be socially, politically, and religiously thoughtful and active.

Did you know that Henrietta Szold founded the first night school for Russian-Jewish immigrants? In the wake of mass immigration to America following a series of pogroms, she saw a need to help her fellow Jews gain marketable skills and English fluency. But they were available only in the evenings, when their daytime labor jobs were done. So, during the day Szold taught at a girls' school, and in the evenings and on weekends she taught English to Russian men, women and children. When her classes became too large, she recruited other teachers, raised funds for her school, and acted as administrator.

She cared deeply for "her" immigrants, whom many Western Jews considered to be "uncouth," and the anti-Semitism from which they had fled gave Szold much food for thought. Over time, she became increasingly involved in Jewish causes, did writing and translation for the new Jewish Publication Society, and became active in the new Zionist movement. She developed a reputation as an inspiring public speaker and used that skill to raise funds for Jewish and Zionist causes. In 1898, she became the only woman to be elected to the executive committee of the Federation of American Zionists.

By now Henrietta was well into her thirties and living in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York, where she had moved with her beloved mother and one sister after the death of Rabbi Szold. Her social life revolved around the synagogue at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and she was employed by the Jewish Publication Society while working furiously for Zionist causes on the side.

Later, Szold would hypothesize in her diary that she'd never married because no one ever could live up to her father. It is possible, too, that she was loathe to settle down and take care of a home and a man when, as a spinster, she could stay busy devoting her enormous intellectual gifts, organizational abilities, and speaking skills to the Jewish community.

But when Rabbi Louis Ginzberg joined the JTS faculty in 1903, everything changed. To say that Henrietta was smitten would not be an overstatement. He was intellectual, elegant, well-spoken, handsome – he was someone that Henrietta Szold could admire. Almost immediately her world started revolving around him – around translating his work from German to English, around sitting in on his classes, around listening to him talk for hours during their weekly walks on Riverside Drive.

The dynamics of their relationship are – and were then, it appears – open to interpretation. And here is where we find Henrietta Szold at her most human. How many among us cannot sympathize with her confusion?

According to her diary – in which many dozens, perhaps hundreds, of pages were devoted to Ginzberg, who almost immediately became an important figure in the Conservative movement – she knew it was improbable that Ginzberg loved her, or ever could love her; she was 13 years his senior, and who had ever heard of such an age difference in a couple? Nevertheless she analyzed the nuances of every word he said to her, every letter he sent her when he traveled abroad, every Shabbat meal he spent with her and her mother, waiting, hoping for him to "declare himself."

Certainly it was impossible that she should say anything first. Such a thing would not be seemly for a woman. No, she must wait for him to make up his mind about her, or for his feelings to change, or for him to gather up the courage to propose. And if, sometimes, he traveled but did not send her letters, and if he never thanked her for her help with his work, surely it was because he saw her as such an intimate and deep love that verbalizing his feelings was not always necessary.

Later, Ginzberg would tell those closest to him that in the four years that he waited for Szold after Shabbat services so that they could walk and talk by the
Hudson River, he never realized that they were anything more than friends and intellectual equals. Perhaps he saw her as sexless. Perhaps he assumed that a relationship with such an older woman was so out of the question that surely no one, especially not a person as reasonable and intelligent as Henrietta, would ever consider such an outrageous idea. Maybe he really did think that her willingness to spend hours and hours translating his work for free and her willingness to be seen walking with him weekly were acts of friendship and nothing more, even when such weekly walks, at that time, were a sure sign of courtship.

Later, Szold would discover that JTS gossip had been divided about her; some could see clearly that she loved Ginzberg and were wondering what he was waiting for, but others felt that he was pursuing her, and that her Victorian reticence indicated that she was rebuffing him.

In 1908, Ginzberg, then thirty-five, traveled to Europe, and when he returned to New York he came to call at the Szold home. "Can we go into the other room?" he asked Henrietta. "I have something to tell you."

For a moment she was dizzy with anticipation, for surely he was about to declare himself at last. She led him into her room, and as soon as she closed the door, he said "You will be surprised to hear that I am engaged." His back was to her; she had a moment to compose herself before he turned around, to pray for the strength not to cry, though in the ensuing conversation, in which she spoke calmly, evenly, rationally, she felt she might crumple to the floor. His fiancée was 22 years old; he'd met her three times before proposing.

The trauma of Ginzberg's engagement was the spark that ignited Szold's subsequent journey into the pages of history. It was to get Henrietta away from New York – to give her a change of scenery – that Mama Szold insisted they take a trip together to Palestine. And it was in Palestine that Szold saw with her own eyes the deplorable hygiene and almost nonexistent healthcare in the Jewish settlements. The Zionist men of the world, she felt, were focused on politics and geography and strategy; it would take women to make sure the Yishuv was clean, and orderly, and safe.

After founding Hadassah and traveling the United States to raise money for it, Szold eventually moved permanently to Palestine, where for a short time she herself acted as head administrator of the Hadassah health organization. Right through her 70s and 80s she kept working, not only for Hadassah but for the Youth Aliyah movement, which brought hundreds of young European Jews to Palestine before the outbreak of the Holocaust. (Her work for Youth Aliyah deserves its own section on Wikipedia; unbelievably, it's not even mentioned.) Szold died in 1945.

Henrietta Szold is remembered now for the lives she saved, the organization she started, the icon she became of Jewish womanhood. But, personally, I love the story of Henrietta Szold because it goes to show that even those of us who engage in romantic follies, even those among us who fall in love with our friends and create fantasy worlds in our minds – finding meaning where there is no meaning to be found – even we fools can change the world.

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