The Lives of Jessie Sampter

Nov. 2, 2018

By Violet Fearon

Editor's note: This is one of an occasional series that looks at research sponsored by HBI through the annual Research Awards program.

Courtesy of Archives of Givat BrennerSarah Imhoff first encountered Zionist writer and educator Jessie Sampter at the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem. She was initially focused on Sampter's best-known work: "A Course on Zionism." Published in 1915 as a 95-page book promoting Zionism to an American audience "A Course on Zionism" was funded by the Hadassah Women's Institute, and was republished and expanded upon in subsequent years. A 1933 version called "Modern Palestine: A Symposium" had grown to over 400 pages, and included a foreword by Albert Einstein. "Jessie Sampter, I figured, would be a clear example of a typical American Zionist,” writes Imhoff. "She turned out to be anything but."

Imhoff first intended to write just an article on Sampter, but "the more I read, the more I wanted to write a whole book." The resulting work, "A Queer, Crippled Zionism: The Lives of Jessie Sampter," is unusual not just in its contents, but in its structure. Rather than a traditional birth-to-death narrative, Imhoff calls her book's genre "weird biography" in five chapters, Sampter's life is told through a variety of different lenses, all exploring in different ways "a Zionist whose embodied experiences did not conform to Zionist ideals" and, more generally, asserting that "this conflict between embodiment and religious thought was far from unique in American religious experience."

Imhoff's multifaceted style of narrative suits her subject. Born in late 19th-century New York City, Sampter was raised in a family of secular, second-generation German Jews; contracting polio at age 13 left her physically disabled for the rest of her life. She wrote of same-sex attractions, though she did not define herself as a lesbian; she embraced Judaism, but was influenced by "theosophy, 'Eastern' religions, Ouija boards, and palmists"; she considered herself both an internationalist and a Zionist. In short, she lived a "category-defying life," as Imhoff put it — a life that does not suit a single, linear narrative.

The first chapter focuses on Sampter's life in the context of American religion, challenging scholarly notions that "blurry lines between religions... is a contemporary phenomenon, born of the 1960s or postmodernism." Instead, Imhoff suggests that even in Sampter's time, religious ideas and rituals intermingled and influenced each other, and that people did not "[have] one single religious identity to the exclusion of all others."

The second chapter focuses on disability and the body, and how these themes interact with Zionism and religion. "In-depth biographical attention to a women — and especially to a disabled woman — is crucial to a fuller understanding of Zionism," writes Imhoff. Sampter's disability starkly contrasts with Muskeljudentum ideals, and those Zionist pioneers who "praised productive bodies that worked, built and farmed."

Imhoff argues that examining the field of disability studies is important to Jewish history, "not merely because some Jews are disabled, but more broadly because it helps to theorize bodies with greater nuance." In Sampter's life and works, she grappled repeatedly with the idea of breaking down the mind-body dichotomy. "Even for the able-bodied," Imhoff writes, "the mind-body dichotomy is never truly a stark distinction. And all the times that bodies fail to live up to norms, whether Zionist or not, can make us feel less than normal."

The third chapter "tells Sampter's story as a queer story," centering on "queer kinship and queer desire." Sampter never called herself a lesbian, but she lived in a long- term domestic partnership with a woman, and "wrote of homoerotic longings." This presents a difficulty not unique to Sampter — the challenge for scholars to do "historical justice" to sexuality without using identities that the historical figures in question did not classify themselves with. Imhoff suggests that in Sampter's case, " 'queer' is a better analytical fit... ; Sampter's biography offers a chance for us to theorize how we translate an embodied past into something legible and relevant in the present."

The fourth chapter is about political movements, exploring how Sampter "could make sense of the gaps between the ideal and the real... a narrative about how someone could simultaneously espouse nationalism and internationalism, Zionism and democracy." Lastly, the fifth chapter is "about Sampter's afterlives" — the effects her life had on others, from mid-century memorial volumes of her work, to the enduring legacy of her children's songs, to a billboard quoting her beside a highway in India.

Sampter led her life with fierce determination and enormous dedication to her ideals. Unusually, she did not only move to Palestine, but gave up her American citizenship. She published works in Hebrew, a language she learned later in life; her writings span poetry, journalism and philosophy. "The Lives of Jessie Sampter" illustrates "a life of commitment but also conflict, clarity punctuated by moments of opacity, a whole picture whose don't pieces always fit together perfectly — in short, a compelling real life."

Violet FearonViolet Fearon, a sophomore and Humanities Fellow, is the HBI student blogger.

Sarah Imhoff is associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies and the Borns Jewish Studies Program at Indiana University. She writes about religion and the body with a particular interest in gender, sexuality and American religion. She is author of "Masculinity and the Making of American Judaism" (Indiana University Press, 2017). She received a 2017 HBI Research Award for the work profiled in this blog.