Bella was born in Vitebsk, White Russia, the youngest of eight children of Shmuel Noah and Alta Rosenfeld.
Her parents, owners of a successful jewelry business, were members of the ḥasidic community and conducted their family life according to Jewish tradition. However, they also sought out secular education and opportunities for their children. Chagall, who was educated in Russian language schools, became a student in the Faculty of Letters at the University of Moscow in her teens; she was particularly interested in theater and art, and as a university student, she contributed articles to a Moscow newspaper.
In 1909, while visiting friends in St. Petersburg, she met Marc Chagall; their attraction was instantaneous and they were soon engaged.Although both were from Vitebsk, their social worlds were far apart and the Rosenfelds were unhappy with the engagement.
The couple finally married in 1915 and their only child, Ida, was born the next year. In 1922, Marc Chagall moved his family to France. Bella was a constant subject in her husband’s art, often represented as a beloved bride. The Chagalls fled to the United States following the outbreak of World War II, arriving in New York in 1941.
Bella Chagall died in 1944 in the United States, apparently of a viral infection. Bella Chagall’s literary work included the editing and translation of her husband’s 1922 autobiography from Russian into French (Ma Vie, 1931; Eng. trans., My Life, 1960).
Her major work, Burning Lights (Brenendike Likht), written in Yiddish in France in 1939, was published posthumously in English in 1946. Chagall said that her visits to Jewish communities in Palestine in 1931 and Vilna in 1935 prompted her to write in Yiddish, her “faltering mother tongue.” In Burning Lights, Chagall arranges her reminiscences according to the calendar and observances of the Jewish year. Writing in the voice of her childhood self, Basha, she places female experience at the center of her luminous narrative.
Chagall’s selective portrait of her well-to-do urban family, living among and employing gentiles, successful in business, religiously active, and communally philanthropic, contrasts with contemporaneous depictions of the contained and impoverished Jewish life of the East European shtetl.
A great part of the genius of Brenendike Likht is Chagall’s ability to convey simultaneously the timelessness of traditional Jewish life and a dark foreboding prompted by the existential reality of East European Jewry in the 1930s. A second posthumous autobiographical volume, First Encounter, was published in 1983.