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The Research Blog—Hebrew and Jewish Studies


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In and Out of Women’s Luggage: Narratives of Women’s Migration in Modern Hebrew Literature—by Tsila Ratner

By uclhwis, on 28 February 2016

In our jointly written book on women’s material culture in Hebrew literature of the late 19th and turn of the 20th century in Eastern Europe,[i] Hannah Naveh (Tel-Aviv University) and I studied the ways by which generic objects associated with traditional Jewish women’s trousseaus realize their potential as ‘biographical objects’. We followed the representation of the trousseaux’ contents from the epitome of the normative and generic biography of women’s passage to marriage of the time to their emergence as sites of resistance as women characters attach to them individual biographical meanings. As such they problematize the attempt to blot out the desires and aspirations of women’s life in order to ensure compliance with the controlled and prescribed mould of proper femininity according to the social-cultural norms of the period.

Based on our research and using the same underlying principles, my current discussion shifts the focus from marriage to immigration/emigration. It looks at the literary representations of the material contents of migration luggage women characters carry with them in Hebrew literature of the same period. In the context of migration these luggage objects raise issues of integration: whether they integrate seamlessly into the new home or resist integration; of identity positioning: how they position the pre-migration identities in relation to the present ones and how they position women characters in relation to the dominant public discourse; and of mobility, on which successful immigration relies.

[i]Hannah Naveh | Tsila Abramovitz Ratner, Tzena, Tzena: In and about the Dowry Box, Tel-Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2015.

About the book:

While the father of a bride-to-be should show his worth in monetary value, the girl herself needs to demonstrate her value in terms of proper femininity. And this is epitomised in the dowry objects and in the promise they hold for future married life. Just as a girl is destined to marry, and just as a woman is destined for running a proper family home, so all she does and produce is meant to set up fine dowry objects before her wedding and to expand them during marriage. Alongside reflecting on the material dowry as an expression of the woman’s compliance with a model of femininity upon which she has been brought up, this book also deliberate on the literary representation of the symbolic meaning of dowry objects as an extension of women’s identity and an expression of desires and aspirations which cannot be easily contained in the regulatory discipline. The dowry is endowed with the girl/woman’s energies which generate products and representations of their identity, and these energies might initiate a process that escapes commodification and represents an individuality that shuns subjugation. As such the dowry facilitates thinking of possible frictions between the prescribed meaning of its objects and their personal meaning for the woman who owns them, produces them and uses them in the everyday of her marriage. The dowry and its objects are therefore extended tools to achieve, preserve and constantly verify a performativity of proper femininity. At the same time they are also an opportunity of personal expression which might prove to be problematic in the social framework of marriage.