In The Life of Glückel of Hameln: A Memoir, said to be the first life story written by a Jewish woman, readers are able to witness the daily life of Glückel (pronounced Glickel and translated as meaning “luck”) in 17th century Germany. It is a fascinating window into Germany at this time, the life of a woman at this time but most importantly the life of a Jewish woman of this time.
The manuscript is separated into 7 “books.” It has been translated into Hebrew and modern Yiddish from its original Jüdisch-Deutsch. The book I read, translated from the original Yiddish and edited by Beth-Zion Abrahams, is the first English version.
The English edition has illustrations and photographs from this time period of Jewish life in Germany as well. The entire manuscript is engaging. To read about this woman’s life with such intimacy, her daily experiences and business dealings. To hear of the amount of traveling she does in a horse drawn carriage, the highly-esteemed people she knows and her relationship to her faith is compelling. I was fascinated by the wisdom and the strength that comes through in her voice. Her spunk and her chutzpa.
Jews in 17th century Germany
I know only a little bit about Judaism and the lives of Jews in Europe before the events of the 2nd World War but this book let me know I know even less than I thought. Glückel details how the Jews survived and often thrived alongside their Christian neighbors while maintaining their own autonomous communities, their beliefs and traditions, their feasts and holidays. Glückel tells of the food and the markets, the families and their inter-relationships, the betrothals and the births and deaths.
She also writes of the many dangers to being a Jew and traveling through or to cities that were unfriendly to Jews, the common anti-semitism, and the always tenuous relationship between the Jewish communities and the powers that be.
“What she provided is unique of its kind. It is a cross-section of Jewish History in the Germany of her time. A history which, beginning with the Roman settlement of the Rhineland considerably more than a thousand years before, assumed a fresh form following the Enlightenment and Emancipation in the decades after her own days, and was brought to its cataclysmic end under Hitler and Nazis in our own time”(Abrahams in Introduction vii).
Jews could not be confident in maintaining their place, occupations or domiciles in the towns, cities and villages where they lived. They had to move around based on the views and temperament of local and state leaders and these could change very quickly.
Abrahams tells us that German Jews of the time “lived on a contractual basis, so to say, with rulers of states, duchies and principalities, and in some cases with free cities, which then helped to make up Germany; and in each community, they were dependent on the grace and good will of the local rulers”(viii).
Glückel began to write her memoir in 1689 after her husband died. She wanted to leave her children information about who they are as well as offer them memories of their father and life before he died. She also wished to instill morals and values into her descendants and offers many tales from the Talmud and stories from her life or that she was told that have moral messages. She ends her writing in 1719.
Betrothal and Marriage
Glückel was betrothed to Chaim the son of Joseph Baruch the Levite who lived in Hameln on the river Weser in Hanover at age 12. She married at 14.
In her introduction to the book, Abrahams notes that the early betrothals and matchmaking was due to the economic pressure put on the Jews by the “harsh and difficult conditions of having to buy rights of domicile and permission to transact business”(x). The early betrothals
“were a kind of insurance for future well-being. Children were betrothed and married in their early teens, long before they were capable of providing for their own needs or those of a family. The dowries that play so large a part in Glückel’s story were no luxury but a necessity, a provision for the future and a capital sum for starting business on one’s own. While they were still young, such youthful couples lived with one or the other set of parents, learning the facts of daily life from them, until some opportunity arose which enabled them to begin their own independent career”(x).
Indeed, throughout the book, Glückel works to ensure all her children are settled before she will allow herself to consider resting and retiring. Readers are able to witness the vast connections between the Jewish communities all over Europe of the time and how the matchmaking spread across these as a highly effective network and web.
Glückel knows how important this is to their futures. It is up to her to create good matches for them all as well as pay for them. She dreams to complete this work and travel to the promised land to live out her later years in service to God but she is never able to attain that dream.
Glückel’s marriage to Chaim was extremely happy. There was a lot of love and trust and partnership. Together they had 13 children, 12 of whom lived to adulthood. The greatest challenge was how early she lost Chaim.
“In all their years together Chaim never transacted any business without first consulting Glückel, who even drew up his business agreements. She herself had received her education in Cheder, the traditional Jewish School; and while it did not take her as far as the Talmud and Rabbinics, the basis of Jewish learning, she was certainly taught Hebrew and the rudiments of other necessary knowledge. Her own capacity for writing in Jewish vernacular is attested by her autobiography, and knowledge of the current and Jüdisch-Deutsch literature is evidenced by her reference to popular works of the period and the way she utilizes some of the current moralistic tales then so popular”(xi).
Glückel the businesswoman
She was raised in luxury in Hamburg but when she married, was moved to her husband’s family home in Hameln. In Hameln, there were only 2 Jewish families left. Let’s just say, it was no Hamburg. Chaim’s father was a dealer in gems. They learned the trade from him. Eventually she and her husband moved back to Hamburg to develop their own business of trading and selling precious and semi-precious stones. Glückel writes this sweet passage:
“About the time we came to Hamburg I became pregnant, and my mother, long may she live, was in the same condition. Though I was still a child to whom such unaccustomed things came hard, I was happy when the All Highest presented me with a beautiful, healthy baby. My mother expected her child about the same time, but was pleased that I had had mine first and that she could attend me and the child the first few days. Eight days later she also gave birth to a daughter, so there was no envy or reproach between us. We lay in one room, beside each other, and had no peace from the people who came running to see the wonder of mother and daughter lying in childbed together”(39).
When her Husband died Glückel was 44 with 8 young children still to care for. She carried on the business:
“I was still quite energetic in business, so that every month I sold goods to the value of 5000 or 6000 reichstaler. Besides this, I went twice a year to the Brunswick Fair and at every fair sold goods for several thousands . . . I did good business, received wares from Holland, bought much goods in Hamburg and sold them in my own shop.
I did not spare myself but travelled summer and winter and all day rushed about the town. Besides this, I had a fine business in seed pearls. I bought from all the Jews, picked and sorted the pearls and sold them to the places where I knew they were wanted. I had large credits. When the Börse was open and I wanted 20,000 reichstaler, cash, I could get it”(126).
Reading the book made me wonder why more women didn’t write as Glückel did. Was she truly so different? Or were the other women’s manuscripts that were found, deemed unimportant and therefore lost or thrown out?
In many ways Glückel seems very modern in the way she seems on equal footing with her husband and runs the business. She doesn’t act like there is anything out of the ordinary with her actions. If she were it seems to me we would have read so in her reports of her daily life including people’s reactions to her. But we don’t. It also seems to me we would feel more defiance in her voice. But we don’t.
Glückel is accepting of her position as a woman and pious in her religious beliefs but she also has a lot of agency.
Perhaps women in the 1700s Jewish communities in Germany had more “rights” than we thought they did. Perhaps things actually became worse for women over time. I think for a lot of things and in various places that is often true. It is easy for us to forget that it was the industrial revolution that introduced the idea of the housewife and forced middle-class women into the home. That before the Victorian era that was not necessarily women’s reality unless someone was from an upper class. Perhaps there were times, places, religions where women actually had more agency in the past than their immediate descendants.
Abrahams tells us
“Centuries before career women were dreamed of, Glückel was engaging in business, conducting financial transactions on the Exchange, attending fairs in different parts of the country and even running a stocking factory”(xiii).
Can we assume this was normal for Jewish women of some means at that time? I believe it was.
So while it is unique to have this book and telling, I do not propose to assume that Glückel’s reality is so rare. It is the only one that was not erased. And for this reason the manuscript is an even greater gift. We cannot assume that Glückel is the only woman who wrote and we cannot assume that her life was the same as gentiles of the time, but so far only her testimony remains.
These questions are beyond the scope of this article but it is important for us to remember that women are not a monolith, and the intersection of being Jewish and a woman at the time of her writing is probably revealing that she experienced a different kind of life than her Christian neighbors.
Glückel of Hameln’s Mysticism
Glückel’s Judaism is very mystical and includes the feminine in the 17th century. She speaks of great sages of her time and before and invokes their teachings, including one Rabbi Jochanan, who “could conjure up angels and demons, and was a great Kabalist and knew what the stars foretell. He understood the swaying of trees, and their boughs”(72).
Upon speaking of suffering she tells her children not to succumb to lamentation when times are difficult:
“What does sorrow and lamenting help? We ruin our health, shortening our life, and cannot serve the Almighty with a heavy heart, for the Shechinah cannot dwell in a sad body. When the Prophets wished the Shechinah to inspire them, they had all kinds of musical instruments played to them so that the body should be glad—as may be read in our books”(73).
It interests me to read that Glückel calls upon and interacts with the Shechinah, the feminine face of God or divine feminine in the Jewish tradition. She also has many supernatural experiences of foretelling and premonitions of deaths or seeing spirits of the dead. She has a strong intuition and what we may called “sixth sense” which she seems to try to hide and gets shamed for now and again. Her story of the medlars is interesting.
In her ninth month of pregnancy for one of her sons, she went to market with her mother and had a very strong craving for medlars—a ripe fruit from a plant of the rose family. In their haste, they forget to purchase them. When Glückel returns home, she delivers her son to much celebration and joy.
However, her son is not well. He develops spots on his body and is failing to thrive. Glückel decides that it has to be because she needed and craved the medlars and did not get them at the market. But it is Saturday, the Sabbath, when she realizes this and she cannot go to market or purchase anything because of Jewish law. Neither can any of her family or her community. She calls on a shabbos-goya (a gentile woman employed to help on sabbath) and sends her to buy some medlars. Her mother is very cross with her and thinks she is crazy.
“You’ve always got such nonsense in your head,”(102) she scolds.
Glückel persists and when the shabbos-goya returns with the medlars and the nurse offers one to the baby,
“he opened his little mouth so eagerly, as though he wanted to swallow it whole, and sucked away all the soft part. Before this he had not opened his mouth wide enough to take a drop of milk or sugar-pap such as one gives to babies. The nurse handed the child to me in bed, to see if he would suck. As soon as he felt the breast, he began to suck with the strength of a three-month babe, and from then til the day of his circumcision there remained no spot on his face or body. . . So you see, dear children, women’s longings are not all folly and should not be despised”(103).
Discovering A Descendant of Glückel of Hameln: Bertha Pappenheim (1859-1936)
While preparing for this post, looking for an image of Glückel, I stumbled upon one of her descendants. In fact the image at the top of this post is Bertha Pappenheim dressed up as her ancestress Glückel of Hameln.
Bertha Pappenheim was also an amazing woman. She founded the Jewish feminist movement in Germany in 1904 as well as the League of Jewish Women.
“Pappenheim believed that male-led Jewish social service societies underestimated the value of women’s work and insisted on a woman’s movement that was equal to and entirely independent of men’s organizations” (https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/pappenheim-bertha).
Pappenheim was born into a wealthy family in Vienna and was expected to continue on with the ways of a woman from the upper class but she found herself extremely bored and unhappy in the life allotted to her, even ending up in what was then something new: therapy under one of Freud’s students. Through her work with that student, Josef Breuer, Pappenheim created what has come to be called “talk therapy.”
She went on to promote education for women and urge younger women to do more than simply accept their fates but rather to fight for and create the lives they wished for.
Pappenheim wrote and performed in plays based on Mary Wollestonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women and the work of her ancestress, The Memoir of Glückel of Hameln.
Glückel of Hameln is a Nasty Woman Writer
© Theresa C. Dintino 2022
Abrahams, Beth-Zion. Ed. The Life of Glückel of Hameln: A Memoir, The Jewish Publication Society. Philadelphia 2012.
Kaplan, Marion. “Bertha Pappenheim”. Jewish Women’s Archive. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/pappenheim-bertha