“Feminism has not yet reached us”: Micca Alcalay, a Bosnian Sephardic woman in 1904 Austria


 
The ideal for women of my race is education, instruction, and raising girls to be good housewives. In Bosnia, all the young [Sephardic] women now speak three languages: Spanish, German and Slavic, which is the national language. At convent schools, they learn to do beautiful handiwork. A nun in Sarajevo told me that her Jewish students are the most diligent, clever girls she teaches, and they learn German easily. Feminism has not yet reached us here; man is what he is: the king of the world.

—Micca Gross Alcalay, 1904
 


Micca Gross Alcalay, formal portrait circa early 1900s.

This blog often presents newly translated first-person accounts of Jewish life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today’s “guest blogger” from the past is Marietta “Micca” Gross Alcalay, a Sephardic Jew born in Bosnia in the 1860s or 1870s. She lived most of her adult life in Trieste, Austria (now Italy). Below, she will tell us about facets of everyday life that history books often skip: greetings, songs, children’s games, a wedding tradition, and attitudes towards women.

Cultured and well-read, she had Continue reading

Jewish women beyond the balcony, Pt. 2: A forerunner to the modern Bat Mitzvah

Bar mitzvah ceremonies have existed for hundreds of years. There were sporadic attempts to create comparable rituals for girls, but none had a lasting impact until the 1800s.

The main precursor to modern bat mitzvahs was the nineteenth-century annual Religious Initiations for girls, mainly in certain German and Italian synagogues, but also less commonly in other countries such as Poland. Today, the Between Wanderings blog explores these “proto-Bat Mitzvahs” through letters published in Italian Jewish magazines around 1900. They tell us much about attitudes towards women and gender, even in the relatively progressive temples that embraced these ceremonies.

Let’s start with the words of Emma Boghen Conigliani, a noted educator and literary scholar who belonged to the Jewish Temple of Modena, Italy. This letter appeared in the 1899 volume of Il vessillo israelitico, starting on page 185:


Synagogue in Modena, Italy

The Tempio Israelitico di Modena (Jewish Temple of Modena), built in 1873. [2008 photo by Dread83, distrib. under GNU Free Doc. License.]

For several years, a beautiful new female celebration has been brightening Jewish temples: the religious initiation of girls. This ceremony, held in Verona on the first day of Passover starting in 1844, was introduced in Modena a few years ago by our revered and devoted Rabbi, Mr. Giuseppe Cammeo. He is deservedly well regarded by our whole Congregation, which he has served excellently, instilling all the moral and religious values that are the hallmark of every good citizen.

Synagogues in Ferrara, Venice, Milan, Rome and Trieste followed this laudable example, and it would Continue reading

Jewish women beyond the balcony, Pt. 1: Romania

In a Jewish magazine from the 1890s, I recently spotted a letter to the editor from a Sephardic Jew in Romania. It was like many other letters in old periodicals, except that in the middle, he slipped in this gem of a story about an Ashkenazic shul in Bucharest:


…During the High Holidays, I attended a Selichot service at an Ashkenazic synagogue at 2 o’clock in the morning, attracted there by a strange event that, at least to me, was completely new. This is because the chanting of Selichot was performed by a woman, with a self-assurance and a voice that would put the most talented Hazzan [cantor] to shame. Strangely, not only was the Hazzan a woman, but so was the person serving as Shamash, and so was the whole congregation. This happened daily at 2 a.m., and we men had to remain segregated. Honestly, it was curiously interesting to note the devotion and silence with which the congregants listened to their officiant praying. The Kaddish, however, was not included…

—Haim Cohen, Bucharest, Oct. 23, 1891
Il corriere israelitico, vol. 30, no. 6, p. 132
Translation © 2016 Steven Capsuto


These few sentences tell us so much about what was happening then. On the one hand, some congregations were already seeking ways for women to participate more fully in prayer services (sometimes in segregated services, sometimes not). On the other hand, such services were so rare that even Mr. Cohen, who was very active in Jewish life in a major city, had never heard of such a thing.

This got me thinking about the changing role of women in 19th-century Judaism. And that reminded me of letters in other 19th-century Jewish magazines, which talked about an early form of Italian bat mitzvah, similar to a kind that was already gaining traction in some German synagogues.

So for this week’s main post (which will be online this Wednesday), I’ve translated some letters that appeared in Jewish magazines at the time, describing girls’ religious initiation ceremonies in Italy in the mid-1800s to early 1900s. These group ceremonies, held annually, combined elements of Jewish bar mitzvahs with some of the visual aspects of their Catholic neighbors’ First Holy Communion ceremonies.

Stop by the blog this Wednesday.

Exterior of the Great Spanish Temple of Bucharest in 1904

We don’t know what Ashkenazic shul Haim Cohen visited that night, but we do know which Sephardic synagogue he belonged to: the Great Spanish Temple of Bucharest (Kahal Kadosh Gadol), seen here in 1904. Built in the 1810s, it was in use until its destruction in a 1941 pogrom.