This Day in Jewish History

1989: Marie Syrkin, Advocate for Israel Who Wouldn't Live Here, Dies

'I have never seen such Jews before,' wrote the Zionist princess about Jews in pre-state Palestine, but couldn't learn Hebrew, and stayed in the States.

Headshot of Marie Syrkin shown on backdrop of a picture of Palestine in the early 1930s, from a missionary film on the country.
Wikimedia Commons

On February 2, 1989, Marie Syrkin, Zionist royalty and lifelong advocate for the Jewish state – who couldn’t actually bring herself to live in Israel – died, at age 89.

As the daughter of Labor Zionist theorist Nachman Syrkin, who had met her mother when both were attending the First Zionist Conference, in Basel in 1897, Marie was born into the movement. Yet, despite the fact that she had mastered five languages by age 10, Hebrew was not among them. Her lack of fluency in the language was a central factor in her not moving to Israel, even when tempting jobs were dangled before her.

Didn't look much like Theodor

Marie Syrkin was born on March 23, 1899, in Bern, Switzerland. Her father told her that during her pregnancy, Marie’s mother, Bassya Osnos, would gaze at a photograph of Theodor Herzl, hoping it would lead to her delivering a baby boy who resembled the Zionist leader. It was not to be.

Her parents were both trained physicians who had decided to devote themselves to the cause, and the family was always moving: As Marie put it years later, “Papa was always getting exiled, so we traveled a lot.” In 1908, they sailed for New York, and settled in the Bronx.

Seven years later, in 1915, Bassya Syrkin died of tuberculosis. Nachman had always been austere in his way of life, but now, he and his daughter lacked even a permanent home; instead, they moved from apartment to apartment, renting rooms, while he made his “office” a reading room in the New York Public Library.

Nachman called himself a “professional revolutionary,” but remained conservative with regard to his daughter. When Marie was 18, and she eloped with Maurice Samuel, who was to become a prominent writer and translator, her father interceded to have the marriage annulled, on the basis of Marie’s being underage.  

The following year, she was off to Cornell University, where she earned both her B.A. and M.A. in English literature. In 1919, she married Aaron Bodansky, a chemistry instructor. Their first child, Benya, was born in 1921.

Finally, Palestine

It was a turbulent time for Marie: While she was pregnant with a second child, Benya died of whooping cough, in late 1923. David was born in March 1924, and in September, Nachman died. Marie and Aaron also separated around this time, in part because of his unwillingness to see her with a career.

Marie took matters in hand. In 1925, she moved to New York with her infant son, and began teaching English at Textile High School. It was not a job she enjoyed, but not working was not an option, and she stayed in it for two decades. On the side, she translated Yiddish stories and wrote poetry, a constant in her life. In 1927, she married a third time, to the poet Charles Reznikoff, and they remained married until his death, in 1976, living much of the time in different cities, affording Marie maximum independence.

Her first visit to pre-state Palestine was in 1933, and it was energizing. She wrote back to Reznikoff: “I have never seen such Jews before. The features are those with which we are familiar, but the bearing, the color, the spirit -- that is something we have not known." She returned in 1945 to interview Holocaust survivors who had fought back, for what became the book “Blessed Is the Match: The Story of Jewish Resistance” (1947), and she became what may have been America’s most articulate and persuasive advocate for Israel in its early decades.

But, despite the urgings of her close friend Golda Meir – who offered to arrange to have Syrkin appointed chief editor of The Jerusalem Post – she never did settle in Israel, partly because she shared custody of her son, partly because of her non-fluency in Hebrew. Instead, she remained in the U.S., where she edited and wrote for the Labor Zionist journal “Jewish Frontier,” and contributed opinion pieces to all the major periodicals.

In 1950, Syrkin was named a professor of English at the newly established Brandeis University, where she remained till her retirement, in 1966.

After her husband’s death, Syrkin moved to California, where her half-sister lived. She died in Santa Monica.