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Saturday, June 8, 2013

Rivka's War: A Jewish Woman As A Historical Participant in Russia and Palestine

My main reason for selecting Rivka's War by Marilyn Oser to download from Net Galley was that its protagonist arrived in Palestine at the same time as my maternal grandfather.  I wanted to know more about the situation in Palestine at that time.  Yet Rivka's adventures begin in Russia during World War I.  She was actually a combatant as a member of a women's battalion. So as a feminist, I was also interested in finding out how the women's battalion came about, and how Rivka ended up joining it.


This was a fascinating novel, but I never really grasped Rivka's motivation for joining the Women's Battalion of Death.  I understood that she was inspired by Maria Bochkareva, the founder of the Women's Battalion who was known as Yashka.  Yet Yashka was a Russian patriot.  Rivka was a Jew who had experienced persecution in Russia.  Why would she want to fight for the Russian Tsarist cause?  It's true that people don't always respond rationally.  Rivka's loyalty to Yashka clearly had an emotional basis.  Perhaps Rivka thought that Yashka exemplified her heroine, the Biblical Yael.  Perhaps Rivka  also thought that she was proving that she could be Yael herself.  For more on Yael in the Bible see Essay on Yael by the feminist Biblical scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky.

Due to my interest in women's history, I recognized the name of the English women's suffrage activist Emmeline Pankhurst as a character in this novel.   I hadn't previously known that she went to Russia.  I corroborated that with an excerpt from Emmeline Pankhurst biography on Google Books.  In addition, I found a discussion on the Women's Battalion of Death among women academics that included a mention of a photo of Emmeline Pankhurst saluting the Women's Battalion.  There is also a link to a bibliography about the Women's Battalion of Death at the top of the page. 

In Palestine after World War I, Rivka encountered more historical personages.  I was particularly interested in the obscure but influential figure Aaron Aaronsohn.  I want to find out more about him.  I particularly wanted to know why he chose to ally himself with the British.  I found two books dealing with him which have both been reviewed ambivalently by scholars and library professional publications.  Since both are apparently flawed I chose the controversial Aaronsohn's Maps: The Untold Story of the Man Who Might Have Created Peace in the Middle East by Patricia Goldstone because I thought it might add more to my knowledge of the period than the other book. 

This novel also led me to discover a couple of other research topics:

An  eye-opening scene at the beginning of the novel mentions that vodka was banned during World War I.   I discovered this paper on the role of vodka in Russian culture by Bryce David Andreason from the University of Lethbridge.  When you consider the common perception that vodka had brought about Russia's defeat in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, this prohibition of vodka is understandable. I would imagine that  it was probably as enforceable as the U.S. prohibition of alcohol that began somewhat later in 1920.

 I was also intrigued by a reference to one family smuggling their sons out of Russia to Cuba to prevent their being drafted.  This was evidently covert and atypical.  Most of the Jews arriving in Cuba during this period were Sephardic Jews from the Ottoman Empire.  See paper on Jewish emigration to Cuba by Jaclyn A. Steinberg from Emory University.  So I wondered about how these young Ashkenazi Jews coped with what must have been a culturally alien environment.  I may want to read more about Jews in Cuba.  I did find Tropical Diaspora: The Jewish Experience in Cuba by Robert M. Levine, but I also found a book about Jews in Brazil in the same bibliography: Welcoming The Undesirables: Brazil and the Jewish Question by Jeffrey Lesser .  I will want to read that sooner because I am intensely curious about the role of Jews in the development of Brazil's multicultural society. 

It surprised me to see in this novel that Jewish refugees from Poland were re-settled in Voronezh. I read in a number of sources online that Voronezh was outside the Pale of Settlement where Jews were confined in Tsarist Russia, and that Jews were forbidden to settle there. This was the only historical background element that I found questionable, but this is a minor quibble.

For me, a book that stimulates so much reading in a number of directions is an unqualified success, but readers will want to know about the quality of this book as fiction.  The characters were interesting and the plot was compelling, but the roles that both Rivka and her brother Mischa played didn't end up having the consequences that they expected. Neither the Reds nor the Whites of Russia were ultimately very supportive of Jews, and in Palestine 20/20 hindsight tells me that British rule would not end up being an improvement for the Jews.  So this book serves up huge helpings of historical irony. Readers who find irony entertaining will consider it a very satisfying read.


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