Bertha Pappenheim costumed as her 17th-century ancestor Gluckel of Hameln

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Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition

Bertha Pappenheim costumed as her  17th-century ancestor Gluckel of Hameln
Bertha Pappenheim costumed as her
17th-century ancestor Gluckel of Hameln

By Dr. Henry Abramson

Widowed at 44, with eight of her twelve children still unmarried and her husband’s business on the verge of bankruptcy, Gluckel of Hameln took up quill and ink in the year 1690 to pour out her soul on paper and leave a spiritual legacy for her descendants. Her Yiddish-language memoir would ultimately fill seven volumes by the time she stopped writing in 1719. In it, she described her trials, tribulations, and unwavering trust in the Al-mighty throughout. Her book, originally intended as a personal document for the edification of her children, ultimately provided a rare glimpse into the life of middle-class Jewish women in the 17th and early 18th centuries.

Gluckel was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1646. Engaged at 12 and married two years later, she enjoyed a long and happy relationship with her first husband, a successful merchant of various commodities who traveled widely throughout Central Europe. The early volumes of her memoir describe some of the most tumultuous events of Jewish history in the 1600s. Her family took in Jewish refugees from the 1648—49 Cossack rebellions in nearby Ukraine, and she describes firsthand how some of her family members sold all their possessions anticipating a return to Israel under the would-be messiah Shabbetai Tsvi, only to be miserably disappointed and impoverished, with the debacle of his conversion to Islam in 1665.

The memoirs are written in an engaging and lively style, though with a certain underlying tristesse, characterizing her reflections on the halcyon days of her marriage, blended with quaint stories of her youth. She describes with humor, for example, how she and her mother once went into labor on virtually the same day, and enjoyed their postnatal convalescence in the ancestral home together. Two themes are at the forefront of her mind throughout: the welfare of her children and the state of her late husband’s business. She devotes considerable energies to both, and her writings record her efforts to secure appropriate education for her offspring (one fascinating vignette describes how she dealt with an unscrupulous tutor who was pilfering her son’s food allowance, even stealing the silver buttons from his Shabbos coat) and numerous and extensive negotiations for shidduchim.

Perhaps surprisingly, at no point did Gluckel consider hiring a man to manage her business affairs. She took on the considerable challenge of rescuing her late husband’s commercial activities personally, sending out sales agents to maintain relationships and seeking out new avenues of commerce. Within a decade, she single-handedly resurrected the business and set it on firm foundations, giving her a more advantageous position in the seemingly endless negotiations with suitors and their families. She worked tirelessly and without complaint on the most complex commercial challenges, confirming that 17th-century Jewish women were fully engaged in the larger economic activities of their families.

Gluckel succumbed to her children’s entreaties and remarried in 1700. Her second husband came from a prominent family and brought with him additional social status, but his business acumen was nowhere near Gluckel’s, and he lost much of his wife’s assets before passing away, leaving her twice-widowed and penniless. Gluckel was forced to move in with her daughter, a development she had long resisted because of her antipathy for her son-in-law’s mother. By the time the memoirs end in 1719, however, Gluckel came to recognize the deep affection and respect that her machateneste had for her, which she understood as another illustration of the kindness that the Al-mighty had shown her throughout her long and eventful life. She passed away five years later, at the age of 78.

Gluckel’s memoirs also illustrate her deep and abiding piety, with numerous exhortations to her children about the importance of Shabbat and Jewish tradition generally. Indeed, her work can be seen as an extended discussion of bitachon, or trust in the Al-mighty, as expressed in the life of one woman in early modern Germany. Her descendants included many prominent Jews, including the writer Heinrich Heine and the social activist Bertha Pappenheim, but Gluckel’s legacy extended far beyond her children, as her memoirs constitute a rare contribution to the legacy of Jewish spirituality.

Dr. Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish History and Thought. He serves as dean at the Avenue J Campus of Touro’s Lander Colleges and may be reached at abramson@touro.edu.

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