Sampter, Jessie (1883–1938)
Sampter, Jessie (1883–1938)
American poet and Zionist activist. Born Jessie Ethel Sampter on March 22, 1883, in New York City; died on November 11, 1938, at Givat Brenner, Palestine; daughter of Rudolph Sampter and Virginia (Kohlberg) Sampter; attended Columbia University, 1902–03; never married; children: (adopted daughter) Tamar.
The Seekers (1910); The Coming of Peace (1919); The Emek (1927); In the Beginning (1935); Brand Plucked from the Fire (1937); (translator) Far Over the Sea (1939).
Poet and Zionist Jessie Sampter belonged to a generation in which many assimilated German-Jewish Americans reconnected with their Jewish roots by helping their impoverished brethren who arrived in America from Eastern Europe after the Russian pogroms of the early 1880s. Sampter did not even know she was Jewish until age eight, yet she would go on to write in her unpublished autobiography "The Speaking Heart": "I have a people, a congregation. It is not in the Church nor in the Synagogue. It is in the streets, in the tenements, in the crowded 'Pale' of Russia and Poland, in the little agricultural settlements in Palestine…. It is my people, a chosen people. God has called it, has chosen it for suffering and service."
She was born the second of two daughters in New York City in 1883, into the cultured, well-off family of Rudolph Sampter and Virginia Kohlberg Sampter . Both her grandfathers had immigrated from Germany and eventually arrived in New York. Her father was a self-employed attorney and avowed atheist who supported the founding of the Ethical Culture Society by his friend Felix Adler. Not a healthy child, Jessie was educated at home. Her aspirations of becoming a violinist were cut short at age 12 when she contracted poliomyelitis which affected her hands and spine, making a back brace necessary. While she recuperated, Sampter engaged herself in writing articles and poems for the children's magazine St. Nicholas. During 1899 and 1900, she made an extended visit to England with her mother and other members of the family to further her education. Upon her return, she spent a year attending Columbia University—her father's alma mater—where she had some study of writing.
By 1909, her sister's marriage, the deaths of her parents, and an unrequited love affair left Sampter bereft of companionship. She applied herself to the formation of study groups among her cousins in order to generate discussion about politics, science, and spiritual matters. These weekly talks inspired her first book, The Seekers, which was published in 1910.
Under the influence of Reverend Merle St. Croix Wright, president of the Poetry Society of America, Sampter joined the Unitarian Church. Perhaps an act of even greater influence on Wright's part, however, was his introducing to her the work of the Jewish poet Hyman Segal. Whereas Sampter's earlier attempts to identify spiritually with both orthodox and reformed Jewish synagogues had not met with great success, Segal's poems in the Book of Pain and Struggle Called the Prophecy of the Fulfillment (1911), about the Eastern European Jewish immigrant experience, provided her with a spiritual connection to other Jews that until then had eluded her.
Through contact with younger Jewish intellectuals, Sampter learned a modern, social-activist approach to Judaism while developing concern for the hardships faced by Yiddish-speaking Jews of New York's East Side ghetto. At the same time, Sampter was becoming a Zionist. For a time, she resided in a Jewish settlement house, and she became an early leader in the women's Zionist organization Hadassah, which had been founded by Henrietta Szold , to whom she had been introduced by Segal. To convey the precepts of the Zionist movement to American Jews, Sampter organized a School of Zionism, and her teaching resulted in the publication of two manuals: Course of Zionism (1916) and Guide to Zionism (1920).
Following her recuperation from a nervous breakdown in 1918, Sampter relocated to Palestine the following year. She would live there until her death, making only three trips back to the States. On her arrival in Jerusalem, she was still too weak to get out of bed and so spent her time making children's toys. As she grew stronger, she went to work among the poverty-stricken Yemenites, and organized night classes for Yemenite working girls. In 1923, Sampter adopted a two-year-old named Tamar who had been orphaned. The following year, she moved to Rehoboth to continue her work with the Yemenites.
As a result of her time in Palestine, Sampter was able to write in both Hebrew and English. In addition to her poetry, prose, biography, Zionist essays, and articles on subjects such as Arab-Jewish relations, she also translated the juvenile poetry of Hayyim Nahman Bialik from the Hebrew to English. Following her travels in Galilee (the center of the kibbutz movement in the 1920s), Sampter's writing was influenced by the communal life she witnessed, as evidenced in her 1927 book of prose poetry The Emek. In 1933, she joined the Givat Brenner kibbutz and used her own savings the following year to build a rest home for aging members of the kibbutz. She died there at age 55 on November 11, 1938, after battling both pneumonia and malaria.
James, Edward, ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.
Badt-Strauss, Bertha. With Fire: The Life and Work of Jessie Sampter. NY: The Reconstructionist Press, 1956.
Gloria Cooksey , freelance writer, Sacramento, California