In 1743, Glückel of Hameln, wife, mother, and businesswoman, wrote a detailed memoir in Yiddish to enlighten her descendants about her life as a 17th century Jewish woman in Germany, describing experiences as dramatic as murders, pirates, and even a false messiah!
“My dear children, I write you this in case today or tomorrow your children or grandchildren do not know about their family. I have put it down briefly so that you may know from what kind of people you are descended.”
In the days before cloud backups and social media memories, if someone wanted to preserve their family history, it had to be done using paper and pen, or parchment and ink, as in the case of the story we are about to tell. Usually in the 1600s, these memoirs would be written exclusively by men, primarily because most women did not know how to write, presenting a bit of an obstacle. But a notable exception were the seven books composed by Glückel of Hameln, one of the first women to write a book in Yiddish, let alone seven of them!
Not wishing for her memoirs to deify her name, she notes early on that they should not be considered a book of morals or guides for her children, as the Torah already contains all the necessary steps for living an ethically perfect and exemplary life, but her memoirs did serve as a living legacy for Glückel, her beliefs, hopes, fears and ethical code, as well of course, as her life story.
In her memoirs, which begin with her birth – a somewhat obvious starting point – Glückel documents that she was born into a life of privilege in Hamburg in 1646. Her father was a diamond trader and a leading member of the Jewish community, who had amassed not only great wealth but also respect amongst both Jews and non-Jews alike. In fact, he was so well-regarded in Hamburg that when the government allowed the entry of Jews into the city, Glückel’s father was the first one permitted to live there!
Glückel had one brother and five sisters, but straying from convention, her father ensured that all of his children no matter their gender were educated at cheder, learned to read Hebrew, and knew all about the rules and rituals of Judaism. His wish was to have pious and educated children, and in this he succeeded, at least to the best of his abilities in a society without any higher education or gender equality. Glückel also spent many pages documenting the memorable events from her youth, such as the bubonic plague which claimed the life of her grandmother, or her sister Hendele’s betrothal to the son of a prominent rabbi, in which her dowry of 1,800 Reichsthalers shocked the community by being the highest sum ever paid for a wife!
At the ripe old age of twelve, Glückel’s father decided that she was mature enough to run her own household, and he arranged a marriage for her with young Chayim of Hameln. Chayim came from another wealthy and well-known family, constituting a perfect match, and two years later the couple were married and all set to move in with Chayim’s parents – after all, they were only 14! Glückel felt afraid and alone as a new wife in a far-off place, and described Hameln as being “a dull shabby hole” and a “back-country place”, so it is safe to assume that she didn’t much like the town. However, her parents-in-law were extremely kind and caring towards her and she developed an unexpectedly nice kinship with her father-in-law Joseph.
More settled now in her new home, and enamored by her loving husband, Glückel wrote happily of her days as a newly-wed. She gave birth to three daughters but not content with being a housewife, she soon became interested in her husband’s business. An educated woman, she quickly learned the ropes of entrepreneurship and became Chayim’s right-hand lady! She would give him financial advice and she even wrote that he listened to no one else but her in matters of business. Although his name was on the company (you know, with women not being able to own property or money and all that), Glückel was really the brains behind the operation, and often carried out Chayim’s duties and signed professional contracts in his name.
But it wasn’t all fun and games. Soon Chayim fell ill and despite seeing many doctors, nothing fully cured his ailments. This may have been because the “doctors” he saw were mainly barber surgeons with no medical training, but who can say for sure? Glückel’s two oldest daughters also fell ill, and her middle child, Mata, died aged three. Her oldest, Tzipporah, did recover however, lending her a mysterious charm as a miracle child.
Glückel also wrote about the rise and fall of the false messiah Shabbtai Tzvi and the upheaval he caused within her community, as well as the continuing development of the plague. She described how the trade and mail services were affected by inter-city runners who were particularly susceptible to the disease and often had the misfortune of expiring before they could complete the transfer of goods or letters. Pretty inconvenient.
At this point, it’s surprising that Glückel had time for anything other than bedrest, as she was giving birth every two years on the dot. She describes this as difficult which was perhaps an understatement, yet she carried on regardless, eventually birthing a mighty grand total of 16 kids, 12 of whom survived past infancy! But it seems that between all of the babies, she still had time for housework and business – supermum or what?! She mentions firing her servant “Clumsy Sam”, no awards for guessing why he was fired, and instead she hired a new servant called “Elegant Sam”, naturally a much better choice. She also documents the steady downturn of her husband’s company, as he steadily lost most of the family wealth in bad deals.
In the meantime, her children were growing up fast! Her oldest daughter got engaged at the age of 12, taking after her mother, and a large and lavish wedding took place, enthusiastically documented in detail by the excited Glückel. Her oldest son Nathan also started helping out with the family business, but it seems that he didn’t manage to turn around their bad financial luck either. And to top off all the excitement, Glückel casually mentions that pirates are now rife off the coast of Hamburg, wreaking havoc on their society in ways that only a pirate can!
But even if pirates and poverty sound pretty bad, the real struggles were still yet to come. Glückel’s father, and both of her parents-in-law, died in fairly quick succession, leaving her distraught. Despite the men in her life technically now being heirs to all of her inherited fortunes, Glückel’s progressive family left the money to grieving Glückel herself, as her loving children gathered around to take care of her. But in 1689 a tragedy struck which she could not overcome: the death of her beloved husband. Left alone with eight unmarried children and a failing business, Glückel fell into a deep depression.
It was during this depression that she had the idea to write down her memoirs, which provide all the contents for the tale that you are currently reading. The idea was to comfort herself with writing – a common therapeutic practice throughout history and to this day. Thankfully she stuck with it, for now we have a wonderful insight into the life of a 17th century Jewish woman.
Glückel documents her husband’s traumatic decline and death in detail. Wanting privacy, Chayim decided not to consult a doctor after falling on a sharp stone, and when he was finally convinced to seek help, he decided once again to put his life in the hands of a chirurgeon-barber, the old-timey untrained ‘doctors’ who you hear about in horror stories, cutting off limbs willy-nilly and replacing patients’ blood with milk or leaches, or something else plainly unhelpful. Of course, the barber in a doctor’s coat did not heal Chayim. In his dying days, Glückel tried to comfort her husband with sexual acts, but a holy man, he refused her body, for she was still a niddah (spiritually impure), and had not yet gone to the mikve (cleansing bath). Chayim recited the traditional Shema prayer as he passed away the following Shabbat, and the family went into a deep mourning period.
Despite leaving Glückel in 20,000 Reichsthalers of debt, Glückel cleared her husband’s name using her inheritance within just one year, and slowly she started to recover from her loss. Only one chapter later she is again consumed with documenting the ups and downs of regular life: the little disagreements with her children, the state of affairs in her hometown, and the lifecycle events which were so important to the Jewish mothers of the 17th century, and of course those of the 21st century too!
Enter Cerf Levy into the picture, a man from out of town who was hailed as a wealthy businessman who had also recently lost his wife. I’m sure you can see where this is going! In June 1699, Glückel received a proposal of marriage from Mr. Levy, but she was hesitant, for not long had passed since the death of her beloved Chayim. Eventually she agreed to the marriage but from day one, she realized her mistake. She felt that she had betrayed Chayim and her promise to G-d to only love one man, and she saw the hardships of this second marriage as punishment for breaking her first wedding vows.
Cerf Levy came with baggage. He had rude children and “lackey” staff, and it turned out that he was neither rich nor bright. Twelve years later, dissatisfied and deprived, Cerf died on July 24. Poor Glückel was left with nothing. She never wanted to burden her children with an old and incapable mother, but after repeated offers, she finally moved in to her daughter Esther’s family home three years later in 1715, the exact end to her life that Glückel had “sought to avoid”.
As her days drew to their inevitable culmination, it seems that Glückel did not know what an astounding, bright, and good woman she truly was. She describes her life as “containing both pleasures and pains, as does the world itself.” Her seventh and final book closes with a foresight of her own death: “In the month of Nisan, 5479, a woman was kneeling by the bank of the Moselle River, washing her dishes. It was ten o’clock at night, and all of a sudden it became as light as day, and the woman looked up to the Heavens, and the Heavens were opened and sparks flew therefrom; and then the Heavens closed, as one closes a curtain, and all was dark again. G-d grant that it be for good!”
Glückel was a singular woman, so very bright, and so very holy. But more important than that was the fact that she is able, nearly 400 years later, to teach people today about ordinary German Jewish life during her era, while providing us with an extremely rare female perspective. She is not praised because of how distinct she is, but in fact because of how normal she is. How she loved a good wedding. How she hired and fired her staff. How she felt joy, loss, guilt – all the human emotions. How she struggled with her morals and how she longed to follow her dreams. How she coped with hardship. How she lived, as we all do, day to day, with “pleasures and pains, as the world itself.” We today are not so different to the Yiddishe Jews of old. After all, we’re all human.
The European Days of Jewish Culture exhibition on the topic of Memory deals with preserving and documenting the memories of individuals and communities across eight European countries in a visually suggestive way, evocative of postcards or windows into days long past. The exhibition will be shown in cities around Europe this September, and has a digital component available here on our website.