New translation does justice to reclusive early feminist writer

Naomi Seidman remembers her first encounter with the short stories of Dvora Baron, an early feminist eccentric who wrote in archaic, rather complex Hebrew.

It was during a graduate seminar in Jewish literature at U.C. Berkeley. "I had trouble even getting through the first paragraph," says Seidman, who is now an assistant professor of Jewish culture at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union.

Seidman likens Baron's ornate style to that of James Joyce in "Finnegan's Wake."

"I remember thinking that I would have to drop the class after trying to read the first story."

Seidman's curiosity triumphed, however. She not only stayed in the class, but later translated a Hebrew biography of Baron, written by Israeli academic Amia Lieblich.

Seidman's translation, published this spring as "Conversations with Dvora," was co-edited by Seidman and Chana Kronfeld, a U.C. Berkeley associate professor of Hebrew and comparative literature.

Like Virginia Woolf or Frida Kahlo, Baron is a complex, contradictory protofeminist. She was a professional woman whose friends were almost all men, a recluse who confined herself to bed at age 35 and refused to send her only daughter to school.

Yet her stories offer "a detailed, sensitive, passionate view of Jewish life in Eastern Europe," says Seidman, "from the point of view we don't often see: that of a child, or a silenced woman, or a very poor person."

Born in a Lithuanian shtetl in 1887, she was by her late teens already a well-known writer of short stories in both Yiddish and Hebrew. Baron later emigrated to Palestine and married Zionist revolutionary Yosef Aharonovitch.

But unlike her male contemporaries, she refused to embrace Zionist positivism in her stories. Instead, she continued to look back at shtetl life, writing of its harshnesses and injustices to young girls and women.

"She couldn't get past that," says Seidman. "For a lot of the male writers, the world of childhood was a perfect lost utopia. But for Dvora, there was a lot of unresolved rage. These men had their revolution, but she hadn't had hers."

Seidman puts the revival of interest in Dvora Baron down to two phenomena: the growth of feminist studies, and a new enthusiasm among Ashkenazic Israelis to learn more about their Eastern European ancestry.

A 1988 book by Israeli scholar Nurith Govrin, "The First Half," marked a turning point in Dvora Baron scholarship.

"Govrin's book showed that Baron had been a published writer for longer than people had known," says Seidman. "There were all these early, radical feminist stories that had never been collected, that Govrin brought to light. Suddenly, Dvora Baron began to look like a major writer, and a major feminist."

Lieblich's book, which is subtitled "an experimental biography of the first modern Hebrew woman writer," is cast as a series of imaginary encounters between Lieblich and Baron. Over 24 "meetings" the fictionalized Baron divulges her story while Lieblich probes its paradoxes, injecting her own thoughts and stories along the way.

In Seidman's translation, the Hebrew title "Rikamot" (Embroideries) was changed to "Conversations with Dvora" in order "to convey more to the English reader," says Seidman.

The book is part of the series "Contraversions: Critical Studies in Jewish Literature, Culture and Society," which is co-edited by Kronfeld and U.C. Berkeley Professor of talmudic culture Daniel Boyarin.

The book will introduce American readers to "a feminist precursor that American Jewish feminists don't know they have," says Seidman.

In translating Lieblich's book, Seidman was faced with certain linguistic knots.

"There are two distinct voices in the book — the narrator Amia, a woman of the 1990s, and a Dvora Baron as she was in 1955, a woman who speaks a bookish, somewhat old-fashioned Hebrew." Baron's Hebrew is archaic, says Seidman, because she began to write before the language became a vernacular, and because she secluded herself as the transformation to modern Hebrew was progressing.

There was also the biography's unconventional structure to consider.

"Amia's mostly a realistic writer," says Seidman of the author, "and she wanted people to see this as a series of real conversations.

"But I wanted people to remember every once in a while that Dvora was dead, to give it a surreal touch." This difference of opinion led to some clashes between writer and translator.

"Amia said to me, `You're a translator; you're not a channeler,'" laughs Seidman.

She is currently translating Baron's stories into English. A 1969 translation, "The Thorny Path and Other Stories," she says, "simplifies Baron's style, and doesn't capture its vagaries."

One of the stories, "Fradl," serves as an epilogue to the Lieblich book.

Baron's emotional distance from other women, her lack of activism and her harsh treatment of her daughter somewhat undermine her feminist credentials. But Seidman likes Baron better for being imperfect.

"I think Amia's book is a significant contribution to a larger discussion of feminism. The idea that women are better than men, that being subjugated makes you morally superior…those are dangerous clichés."