Now comprising most of southern Poland and part of northwestern Ukraine, Galicia is the former Polish territory that, from the late 18th century until World War I, belonged to the Austrian empire. Its Jews had their own dialect of Yiddish, their own liturgical customs, and their own way of making gefilte fish. While Galician Jews had a reputation for intense piety, the changing world of the turn of the century brought defections. Rachel Manekin notes some of the instances of young women leaving the fold—sometimes to pursue higher education, more often to pursue Gentile lovers, and sometimes conversion to Catholicism—and their stories as they were told in the press, and in literature.
In 1907, a Yiddish melodrama was published . . . based on the true story of a young Jewish woman, the daughter of a tavernkeeper in a small Galician village, who fled from her parents’ home on the first night of Passover, then converted to Christianity and married her Polish lover in 1889. In the theatrical version, the Jewish woman elopes with her lover after her mother reveals to her the identity of her groom-to-be, a Jewish yeshiva student, and the date of her impending marriage. Unlike the story on which it was based, the play ends happily for the Jewish audience, with the young woman returning to her family and her faith.
A similar story is related by [the great Hebrew writer] S.Y. Agnon in the chapter “Solomon Jacob’s Bed” of his novel Hakhnasat kalah (translated into English as The Bridal Canopy). The narrator tells the tale of a village tavernkeeper who quickly arranged a match between his daughter and a yeshiva student after he and his wife learned of their daughter’s romance with a Pole. The story is told from the viewpoint of the naïve yeshiva student, who knows nothing of the background to the engagement. . . .
What none of these writers anticipated was the change in the educational ideology within the Orthodox camp that aimed at controlling the drive for higher education among their daughters and channeling it to other areas. This change was first conceived by Sarah Schenirer, who was well aware of the problem of the prodigal daughters and personally experienced the double life of being attracted to lectures in [Cracow’s] Reading Room for Women on the one hand, and love for her ḥasidic parents and their religious values, on the other hand. Her solution to the rebellion of the daughters was to strengthen their religious identity and weaken the attraction of secular education. Her innovative approach was later developed by Agudat Israel into a formal and well-developed educational system that turned the passion for intellectual creativity and freedom into a passion for religion and commitment to Orthodox ideology and practice.