Glückel of Hameln

Presented by David P. Stern on 7 August 1996 in Greenbelt, Maryland



      This year, 1996, is the hundreth anniversary of two great discoveries of old Jewish writings. Anyone knows at least one?

      ....     ....     ....

      One, of course, was the discovery of the genizah in Cairo. Jews do not throw away or destroy worn-out books, especially holy writings--they stash them away, in a grave or some safe place. Our own synagogue has a genizah, I am told, right under this floor.

      The old Ezrah synagogue in Cairo, Egypt, had a genizah room into which old books had been tossed from times immemorial. It wasn't exactly forgotten--local people knew, and sometimes dealers in antiquities would peddle scraps of parchment from the genizah to outsiders. In the 1800s this did happen time and again. In 1896 the genizah manuscripts attracted the attention of a Jewish scholar, Solomon Schechter, who discovered there a piece of the ancient Hebrew book "Wisdom of Ben Sirah," previously known only in Greek translation. After that the genizah material was studied by scholars and much interesting material was found--about 2/3 of the book of Ben Sirah, and many writings of Rabbi Sa'adiah Gaon, Egypt's great scholar who, among other things, translated the Bible into Arabic.

      Solomon Schechter of course went on to found the United Synagogue and start the Conservative Movement: but it was the Cairo genizah that brought him early and lasting fame.

      However, I would like to talk here about the other discovery made in 1896, the autobiography of a remarkable Jewish woman, Glückel of Hameln, born in 1646. The story of her life, seven books written in Yiddish, wasn't exactly lost, either. Her family had preserved it, but the world did not know until an Austrian-German scholar, David Kaufmann, published it in 1896. An English translation exists, by Beth-Zion Abrahams, published in 1962 by the Horovitz Publishing Co. in London and a year later by Yoseloff in the US.

      Glückel was a business woman, active, enterprising, the wife of a prosperous merchant in Hamburg, Germany, whom she diligently assisted and advised in his work. She had 13 children, of whom 12 survived infancy--a pretty good record for her time--and she was well educated, familiar with the bible, knowing Hebrew. Her reason for writing the books was to console herself after her husband passed had away--she married again after that, but her second husband's business and health both failed, and she was widowed once more.

      I would like to be able to add that Glückel's account is great literature, but in truth, a lot of it revolves around matters to which the modern reader will find it difficult to relate. Those were however matters important to Glückel: earning money, avoiding losing it, and above all, finding good matches for all her children. It was not a small matter. Marriages were always arranged by the parents--Glückel herself was betrothed at 12 and married at 14--but to find a good match for a daughter, an appreciable dowry was essential. Even then, it was a delicate business. Once the deal was made--which might have been as much as four years before the wedding itself--the dowry was placed in escrow, and if later it turned out that the match was not as great as it had seemed, and the wedding was called off, that money could not be recovered. It happened to one of Glückel's children, and she consoled herself that it was better to lose cash than to have a child enter an unhappy marriage.

      Sons of course also needed to find matches, and used their dowries to get started in business, usually trading. Sometimes the agreement included "kest", a specified number of years during which the newlyweds lived in the in-laws' home, and sometimes the son became his father-in-law's business partner, though this too did not always work out.

      But there is much more in the book, which is why it is a unique window through which one can observe the way German Jews lived 300 years ago. Glückel's most famous story, of course, is how the word reached Hamburg that the Messiah had arrived in Turkey, and his name was Shabatai Zevi, and of the tremendous excitement this news caused among all Jews. Her father-in-law sent her two barrels packed with food and clothes, for the time--coming soon, he thought--when he would set out from the port of Hamburg for the Holy Land. Only, Shabtai Tzvi turned out to be a false messiah and Glückel and her family in the end opened the barrels and consumed whatever was put in them.

      It was a relatively peaceful time for Jews, in the part of Germany ruled by Protestants, who were (like the Dutch) much more tolerant towards Jews than the Catholics. And Glückel documents very well the daily life of Jews in those days--trading, risking, sometimes even cheating each other. One such case was brought by Glückel's family to a rabbinical court, but they lost, because the majority of the judges came from the town of the other party. Sometimes they made great profit, and at other times they lost everything.

      A few snapshots. When the plague raged in Hamburg, Glückel and her family temporarily went to live with a relative in Hanover. There Glückel discovered that her little girl Zipporah has a boil under her arm. She did not think it was the plague, but who knows? However, if word reached the local duke, he would probably expel them and the other Jews, fearing that they were carrying an infection into his town. What is a mother to do? In this case, she hired two servants, who dressed themselves and the 4-year old girl in shabby clothes, and moved temporarily to a nearby village, renting a room in a peasant's house under an assumed identity. Glückel supplied them with kosher food, and when the girl recovered, they came back home.

      Again, she tells of two Jews of Denmark, who swindled a man out of diamonds, and then escaped in a boat. The man soon set out in a faster boat and captured them--not the jewels, though, which they threw overboard. They were brought to trial and sentenced to hang, and then one of them converted to Christianity and was spared. The other refused to do so and "sanctified God's name", to Glückel's great approval.

      Another of her stories is about a Glückel's father, who had lent money to two gentiles. Some time later they came back to the house and said they wanted to repay their loan. The father went upstairs to fetch their pledge and meanwhile asked his teen-age daughter, Glückel's half-sister, to entertain the visitors at the piano. As she played, one of the men told the other in French, "when he comes down, we will snatch the pledge and run away."

      However, the girl could not only play and sing, she also spoke French, as well as German and Hebrew. Think about this--the education of a Jewish woman 300 years ago, mastering three languages! Being a resourceful girl, when her father came down, she sang to him in Hebrew "Take heed! No pledge! Today here, tomorrow fled! " The father refused to hand the men anything before he received his money, and then one of them cried out: "We are betrayed! The hussy understands French!" And they both fled.

      Next day an officer of the local court came with the payment, telling Glückel's father, "it has paid you well to have your daughter taught French."

      There are many more of these, simple but revealing stories, about a harrowing ride with a drunk coachman, stories of sumptuous weddings, of a rabbi who left for a better paying job, about a panic in the synagogue in which women were trampled to death, and many others. There are also moralistic stories--"bubbe mayses" you might say, and with at least one of them, I strongly suspect that Glückel herself made it up.

      History is not just about kings and presidents, wars and revolutions. Kings and wars often have the better press and more thorough documentation, but much of the flavor and feeling of a period and place are in the daily life of people, which is rarely noted down. That was Glückel's achievement: she was a witness to an age, and her testimony today is in many ways, unique. Through her we know a great deal about the customs, relations, language and concerns of German Jews around 1700. Her story is a slice of life-- and reading between the lines, it is also the portrait of a remarkable, resourceful woman.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated 9 June 2002