The Jewish literary world — from time immemorial — has been a primarily male province. There were exceptions throughout history, of course, but these were also always exceptions that proved the rule. Only recently — meaning within the last 35 or 40 years, with the feminist movement that had its roots in 1960s activism, and flowered in the '70s and '80s — has the tide turned somewhat, though the bulk of literary enterprises, religious and otherwise, continue to be works by men.
One of those lone exceptions — and an extraordinary one at that — was the woman who eventually became known as Glückel of Hameln, after writing an extraordinary memoir about her life and many accomplishments. It has been reissued by the Jewish Publication Society in a translation from the original Yiddish by Beth-Zion Abrahams.
Aside from the literary quality of the memoir, the other most astonishing thing about Glückel's life was its eventfulness. Born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1646, she was the daughter of Beila and Leib Pinkerle. Her father was a successful trader in the Jewish community.
According to the translator's introduction, Glückel was 12 years old when she was betrothed, and 14 when she married her beloved husband Chaim, the son of Joseph Baruch the Levite, referred to in official documents as Jost Goldschmidt. He himself was a successful businessman who dealt in gems and precious metals, as his official name suggests. Joseph Baruch resided in Hameln, which is, in fact, the Hamelin town where the Pied Piper was so effective.
Glückel and Chaim lived for a time in Hameln, and though Glückel highly respected her father-in-law, especially for his knowledge and piety, she began to long for her family. So the young couple moved to Hamburg, where Chaim began a business of his own. They lived together for 30 years, during which time Glückel gave birth to 13 children, only one of whom died. This was a considerable achievement considering how high the infant mortality rates were back then.
Managing on Her Own
The couple was a successful team in other respects as well. Glückel helped Chaim with his business in various ways, including keeping the books. It is also said that Chaim never made a transaction without first consulting his wife.
But in 1689, Chaim died from the effects of a fall and left Glückel with children still at home. She managed on her own to marry them off and to continue Chaim's business with considerable success.
In 1699, she married Hirsch Levy, a wealthy widower, who was also a prominent member of the Metz Jewish community. But within less than two years, he went bankrupt, managing also to lose the money that his new wife had entrusted to him. Hirsch died in 1712, and Glückel then lived with her daughter Esther's family until her death in 1724.
Her memoir was begun shortly after the death of Chaim, as she herself said, to fill the long melancholy nights without her much loved first husband. She also insisted that she wrote to inform her children of their distinguished lineage, and to instruct them in how to live a proper and pious Jewish life.
But the work is so much more, as translator Beth-Zion Abrahams makes clear in her introduction. The manuscript, she writes, "is a cross-section of Jewish history in the Germany of her time." Glückel speaks about everyday matters and sometimes more lofty ones, and is at almost all times a highly effective stylist. Anyone who needs convincing only has to turn to Chapter Five, where she depicts her husband's accident and its terrible aftereffects.
The work in its totality makes clear yet again just how much has been lost to Jewish history and literature by having for so long denied women their chance to speak. Those who care about such things owe a debt of gratitude to Philadelphia's Jewish Publication Society for returning Glückel's life to print and, with any luck, to a whole new generation of readers.