Born in Losusna, a small village in rural Belarus, Manya Vilboshvitz Shochat (1879 – 1960) was immediately subject to sharply different influences.
Her grandparents lived the “good life” as totally assimilated, self-indulgent Jews – her grandfather was a major supplier for the Czar’s army. Her father, Wolf, on the other hand, rebelled against his parents by refusing to attend the fine Russian Gymnasium they wanted to send him to and threatened suicide if he was not allowed to study with Rav Nachum, a pious Torah scholar in the shtetel near his parents’ sprawling estate.
He worked to instill in Manya and her twelve siblings a love for the Jewish nation and for the Land of Israel. He was also, oddly, a Monarchist and had a portrait of Czar Nicholas on his wall. Not a common site in Orthodox Jewish homes, but her father valued order and respect. She remembers her family hiding a gypsy who had been accused of being a horse thief. When she asked her father why they were helping a criminal, he said, “I know him since we were boys. We cannot be certain what is right and what is wrong. Only God can.”
Interestingly, her mother was a “modern” woman who did not share her husband’s warm spot for Judaism and tried to steer her children towards a respectable place amongst the Russian elite.
During the great famine of 1898, Manya volunteered with the starving and disease-ridden Tarter population living on agricultural collectives. She was always ready to help – everyone, anywhere.
That is what led her to leave her home and travel to Grodno to work in a factory owned by one of her brother (she disguised herself as a boy so she would not be recognized). It was in the big city that she came to understand the wretched working conditions the industrial age had brought to Russia.
She became a leader in the Socialist Jewish Bund but later felt it was not militant or clearly focused, and not traditionally Jewish or Zionistic.
Manya organized a strike in the factory asking for better conditions and an end to the fourteen-hour workday. She became a leader in the Worker’s Movement, a rather dangerous activity. She eventually found herself in jail. However, she did not cooperate with her interrogators and was not fazed by the threat of Siberian exile.
The Minister of Interior, Sergei Vasilyevich Zubatov, was impressed with her and tried to convince her to abandon revolutionary politics in favor of a state-acknowledged labor movement. Manya agreed when Zubatov convinced her that change must come gradually and without politics. He believed that the leaders of the Communist movement, if they came to power, would oppress the workers even more than the Czar.
Unfortunately, Zubatov was eventually sent to Siberia and Vyacheslav von Plehve, an anti-Semite, was appointed to his position. Soon after, government-sponsored pogroms were instigated to allow the masses to “let off some steam” on the traditional target.
The 1903 Kishinev pogrom sponsored by the “Black Hundreds” was the ultimate expression of the slogan, “Strike the Jews and save Russia.” The pogroms convinced Manya that her priority had to be defending her fellow Jews and not leading a social revolution.
Manya joined a group of Jewish conspirators planning to assassinate von Plehve. While she was in France raising funds for the mission, her comrades were caught and executed. Manya’s brothers, determined to get her out of Europe, led her to believe that her brother, Gedalya, a pioneer in Palestine, was ill and needed her help.
On June 2, 1904, Manya made her first trip to Eretz Yisroel – a trip that would change her life. Manya once recollected that the moment she stepped foot on the soil of the Holy Land, she regretted every day she had not spent there. Her efforts to change Russia and save its masses were now behind her. She had her very own land to bring back to life.
Unbeknownst to her, Manya was part of the “Second Aliyah” in the Zionist narrative. The first wave of olim had come a century earlier when students of the Baal Shem Tov and the Vilna Gaon founded the first agricultural settlements and new neighborhoods in Yerushalayim. They were families who lived on land purchased by Baron Rothschild.
This second wave was comprised of young single people like herself, mostly from Russia. They were socialist, rebellious and scornful of tradition. They sought work on the Jewish farms for food and board. They slept in the orchards and ate oranges and pita bread.
In these settlements, the Jewish farmers hired cheap Arab labor and Bedouin or Circassian guards to protect their property. Often it was a thinly-veiled protection racket. When Manya approached them with the idea of hiring Jewish young men and women as paid workers and security guards, she was scoffed at.
Frustrated, in 1905 Manya decided to travel to Europe to see Baron Rothschild and other Zionist leaders. Max Nordau, Herzl’s associate, told her to seek the aid of a psychiatrist. Her conversation with Baron Rothschild was more successful. He agreed to set aside land for the young pioneers, but offered no monetary support. Manya was delighted.
While in France, Manya was contacted by some of her old comrades. Pogroms in Russia were increasing and her friends needed arms and money. Could Manya help? While her mission was about Jews in Eretz Yisroel, she could not ignore the pleas of her suffering people in Russia.
Manya turned to Baron Rothschild again. However, the Baron insisted that he could not be mixed up in a possible French–Russian diplomatic confrontation. Manya would not take no for an answer. Finally, the Baron agreed on the condition she told no one. He gave Manya 50,000 francs to buy arms to be smuggled into Russia.
In 1907 Manya traveled to the United States in search of support, both for Jewish self-defense in Russia and in Eretz Yisroel. While there she lived on a commune in upstate New York in an attempt to learn from a living social-economic experiment. She returned to her newly adopted land with an even greater determination.
Along with Yitzchak Shochat and other like-minded pioneers, she founded “Bar Giora,” named after one of the Jewish leaders in the revolt against Rome before the destruction of Bayis Sheini. It was the first official, yet underground, Jewish self-defense group in centuries.
Manya was befriended by many who would later comprise the first leaders of the newly born Jewish state, such as Yitzchak Ben Zvi who would become the State of Israel’s second president. Ben Zvi gave her an even deeper appreciation of Jewish history and its connection to the Land.
On Pesach of 1909, “Bar Giora” became “HaShomer.” It widened its ranks and its slogan,” In blood Judea fell, in blood she shall rise,” was translated into bold and unexpected raids on Arab marauders. Jewish farmers began to hire them as workers/guards and their presence won the desired effect. They learned the Bedouin ways and dressed like them as they challenged them on their own turf.
With the outbreak of the World War I, Turkey outlawed Zionist activity, forbade speaking or teaching Hebrew and confiscated all weapons. HaShomer went into hiding.
Manya, who by then had married Yitzchak, was caught and imprisoned. When she told the Turkish governor, Baladin, that she believed in a Jewish state he raised his hand to hit her. She picked up a dagger and threw it at his feet.
The Shochats were expelled from Eretz Yisroel and returned in 1919. By then Great Britain was the new overlord of Eretz Yisroel. HaShomer was to become the Hagana, which would eventually spin off the Irgun. Manya was no longer a trailblazer. Times were changing and there were many new players. There seemed to be fewer places for a naive idealist.
Her marriage was not a happy one and so she dedicated herself wholly to her public activities. In 1930 she founded the “League for Jewish Arab Friendship” – another unfulfilled love.
The Shochats had two children, Gadi and Anna. Gadi was a RAF pilot during World War II and one of the founders of the Israeli Air Force. He took his own life in 1967.
When Ben Gurion once praised her mother, Anna replied bitterly, “I was an orphan with parents. They were always busy with every important cause except us.”
Alona, Gidi’s daughter, married the famous Israeli singer, Arik Einstein, and their two daughters became observant Jews and married the sons of Rabbi Uri Zohar.
Manya, the midwife of a reborn nation, passed away in 1962.