The Groundbreaking Memoirs of Glikl of Hamel https://mosaicmagazine.com/observation/arts-culture/2020/02/the-groundbreaking-memoirs-of-glikl-of-hamel/

The memoirs of this 17th-century Jewish woman have long fascinated historians. For the first time, a complete English edition brings her to life for today’s readers.

February 4, 2020 | Robert D. King
About the author: Robert D. King, professor emeritus of Jewish studies at the University of Texas, has a special interest in Yiddish literature and linguistics.

From Portrait Study of a Lady by the German-Jewish artist Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1825-1830. Sotheby’s.

Let us now praise famous Jewish women: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, and . . . Glikl!

Glikl who?, I hear a voice asking. Although widely known as Glikl of Hamel, or as Glückel von Hameln, she herself would have wondered who that person was. She always referred to herself in the traditional way as Glikl bas Reb Leyb (Glikl the daughter of a man named Leyb); or, after marriage, as Glikl eyshes Reb Ḥayyim Hamel (Glikl the wife of Mr. Ḥayyim Hamel); or still later, after he had passed away, as Glikl almones Reb Ḥayyim Hamel (Glikl the widow of Mr. Ḥayyim Hamel).

But for our purposes, the simple unadorned “Glikl” will serve, since it, more nearly than any of its expanded versions, fits this pious, well-educated, wealthy, and brave Jewish woman.

 

Glikl was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1645 and died in 1724 in Metz, then a fortified town in the French department of Lorraine. Ḥayyim, her first husband, was from Hamel—hence “Glikl of Hamel.”

In 1691, Glikl dipped pen in ink and began writing what would become her Memoirs:

I begin writing this in the year 5451 [1691] with God’s help, due to a surfeit of worries, troubles, and heartache, as will be told presently: and may God give us joy for as long as our afflictions and send our messiah speedily, amen. . . . My dear children, I began writing this, with God’s help, after the death of your pious father, since it afforded me some pleasure when the melancholy thoughts were upon me. I passed many sleepless nights in the throes of severe anxiety for we were like sheep without a shepherd—as our faithful shepherd was no more, and I feared I would give way to melancholy thoughts, God forbid.

What started out as the kind of journal or diary of the kind kept by so many of us would become something else and something quite wonderful: an account of its author’s accomplishments and fears, a compilation of advice to her children, an anthology of fantastic stories, and a chronicle of Jewish life in Germany and Western Europe in early-modern times. And Glikl’s Memoirs are unique in at least one regard: there is no other source quite so detailed for either Jewish or Gentile life in that particular geographical space in that particular historical era.

Her memoirs are also, if not exactly unique, then certainly groundbreaking in terms of both their form and their content. Earlier, in the 12th and 13th centuries, an extraordinary flowering of literature in Middle High German had yielded Tristan by Gottfried von Straßburg, Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, and the Niebelungenlied: epics about great deeds and the knights doing them, about their service to noble, unattainable ladies of high rank, about fruitless quests for the holy grail, about adultery and betrayal. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a medieval English tale of the same sort. And there are even Jewish works somewhat in the same genre: in Yiddish, the 14th-century Dukus Horant and the 15th-century Bovo Book, the latter of which became the most popular chivalric romance in the Yiddish language; in Hebrew, the historical “gests” of Alexander of Macedon.

All of these works, still read for pleasure and studied by scholars, give us entry into worlds as different from ours as life among the Bushmen in the Kalahari desert; their style is as unfamiliar and as refreshing as a Japanese haiku. From them we learn a good deal about how a noble knight should conduct himself, about horsemanship and weaponry, and even a bit about diseases like leprosy. What we don’t learn is very much about the texture of everyday life during those turbulent times: about the pain of childbirth, about the advice given by parents to their children, about the remedies in common use for minor aches and pains, about the sorts of fruit that people liked to eat.

Of such mundane information, Glikl’s Memoirs supply a treasure trove. About marriage arrangements, for instance:

[W]e betrothed my daughter Chana, may she live long, to the son of my brother-in-law our master and teacher R. [Mr.] Avraham Segal of blessed memory. Whether this match was to our liking or not, it was ordained by God, blessed be He, given that it was my mother-in-law’s will, may she rest in peace.

But also about eternal questions, like why a just God permits the unrighteous to prosper while the God-fearing suffer:

Now, it is well known how much misery, distress, and agitation we sinful human beings have in this transitory world. Moreover, we see how many righteous men suffer greatly and live in this world in great misery. On the other hand, we see, too, that many wicked men enjoy a life of pleasure and wealth; they and their children are successful, while the God-fearing righteous man and his children, poor wretches, suffer exceedingly. We may wonder at this, how it can be so? For Almighty God is a righteous judge. But I said to myself that this, too, is futile, for the deeds of God cannot be grasped or fully understood.

The specific language in which Glikl wrote was the everyday speech of Jews in Western Europe. It is often called Judeo-German or Jewish-German (Judendeutsch), but academic linguists prefer to call it Western Yiddish—the Yiddish spoken in Western and Central Europe as opposed to that spoken farther East, as in Poland and Lithuania. It was the language of Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812), founder of the Rothschild dynasty of financiers, who had his employees keep the firm’s books in Western Yiddish (written in Hebrew letters, which his Gentile competitors’ spies could not read).

This kind of Yiddish began to die out in Western Europe following the successful campaign by Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) to persuade German Jews to speak German without a “Jewish accent.” (The older German word for “speaking with a Jewish accent” was mauscheln, derived not from “mouse” but from “Moses.”) Western Yiddish, Glikl’s Yiddish, is spoken today by almost nobody. As for the Yiddish spoken in Poland and points East—today’s Yiddish, in short—it grew and prospered in Eastern Europe until most of its speakers were butchered in the Holocaust; nowadays it is kept alive mainly by ḥaredi Jews and Yiddish enthusiasts of all stripes.

In Glikl’s time, both kinds of Yiddish were easily mutually comprehensible, and she often writes of Polish Jews whom she knew and conversed with. Wherever they may have resided, Jews across Europe were united by religion and the Yiddish language.

 

Glikl’s Memoirs have fascinated historians and linguists ever since they were discovered by the scholar David Kaufman in 1896. We do not have her original manuscript, but copies made by her son and grandson were fortuitously passed down through her descendants. They were translated in 1910 into modern German by Glikl’s great-granddaughter, the feminist author and activist Bertha Pappenheim, and three years later by the German-Jewish scholar Alfred Fellchenfeld; the latter version became immensely popular among Jews and non-Jews alike, and by 1923 had gone through four editions. Subsequently it was rendered into numerous other languages including Hebrew, modern Yiddish, and (in an abridged 1932 translation by Marvin Lowenthal) English.

And now we have what will certainly become the received English version: Glikl: Memoirs 1691-1719, edited, introduced, and fully annotated by Chava Turniansky, and translated by Sara Friedman. This is the product of a decades-long labor of love by Turniansky, a professor emerita of Yiddish at the Hebrew University, who like Glikl sought diversion from melancholy after the death of her husband.

I have no criticism whatsoever of Turniansky’s work; her edition is superb, and her commentary, laying out the framework of the whole, helps us admirably through the murkier parts. (I do wish that, in addition to reproductions of hard-to-decipher pages from the Yiddish manuscript, she had also included a page or two in an easier-to-read modern orthography.) Sara Friedman’s translation not only is chaste, sprightly, and idiomatic but, with its comfortably archaic feel, also conjures up the feel of Glikl’s original.

What do the Memoirs tell us about this remarkable woman herself? Modest and self-effacing as she was, only bits and pieces can be gleaned from them. Her father, Leyb, was a diamond merchant; her mother, Beyle, was his second wife. When Glikl was three, the Jews were expelled from Hamburg and her family moved to Altona, now a suburb of Hamburg but then a neighboring town under the protection of the Danish king. Among the few Jews subsequently allowed to return to Hamburg were her family—a sign of the regard in which her father Leyb was held in the city.

A wealthy and prominent Jew, and one of the first to have been readmitted to Hamburg after the 1649 expulsion, Leyb seems to have been unusually liberal and generous with his daughter. She attended a ḥeder, the traditional Jewish lower school in which a rabbi or instructor taught the Hebrew alphabet, transmitted some understanding of the Torah and Talmud, and tried to impart a moral compass to his pupils.

Although one normally thinks of the ḥeder as a male thing, Turniansky assures us it was not unheard-of in Glikl’s time for upper-class Jewish families in Germany to send not only their sons but also, if they seemed suited for that kind of instruction, their daughters. From her later business dealings it seems that she became bilingual, even adding some French to her command of both Yiddish and German.

Her name, derived from the German word Glück (happiness, good luck)—glik in Yiddish—took on the endearing diminutive –l signaling affection, as in “sweet little Glik.” She adds that both her father and her husband sometimes called her Glik’khen, using an alternative diminutive suffix. All of this suggests that she must have been well-liked.

At the age of twelve she was betrothed in an arranged match to Ḥayyim of Hameln, and married him at fourteen—not an uncommon occurrence in that day. Ḥayyim and Glikl had fourteen children, one of whom died at the age of three. (The survival of the remaining thirteen testifies to a superior diet and medical care and also to Judaism’s ritual rules of cleanliness.) Together she and her husband went into the jewelry business—she was as involved as he—and eventually became very successful, specializing in buying and selling pearls while also dabbling in a little bit of this and a little bit of that (as did, she writes, all Jews).

After her beloved husband died, Glikl continued running the business on her own. She then entered into a second marriage with Hertz Levy, which seems to have been happy though Ḥayyim always remained her great love. Hertz died in undeserved bankruptcy, but Glikl paid off his debts within a year and went on to still greater success in jewels, pearls, and gold.

Many pages of the Memoirs are given over to the marriage arrangements of her children. Glikl doesn’t always approve of their partners—she was, after all, a Jewish mother—but keeps this information to herself and her diary. Once they’re married, she has little to say about them in any case, and even less about her grandchildren.

 

As for her general outlook, Glikl’s Memoirs take it for granted that life is frequently a bed of thorns, and that one has no choice but to make the most of it:

[O]ur sages observed, “Better never to have been created than to have been created,” since one suffers so much in this sinful world; nevertheless, I thank and praise my Maker for creating me according to His will, as He saw fit, and I pray to God, great and kind, since He did create me as He saw fit, to extend His holy protection over me.

Indeed, she lived through turbulent times—including the ten-year Chmielnicki uprising in Russia, punctuated by massacres of defenseless Jews, and the international notoriety surrounding the career of the messianic pretender Shabbetai Tsvi. In short, Jews could never rest easy. The great 20th-century Jewish historian Salo Baron famously deprecated what he called the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history”—that is, a disproportionately tearful focus on the trials and troubles, the pogroms, and the persecutions endured by the Jewish people in exile. Still, one can’t deny that the Jews in Glikl’s time had their share of suffering.

But she herself is remarkably low-keyed about such matters, offering hardly a shrug about, for instance, her family’s expulsion from Hamburg. Although Gentiles occasionally tried to cheat her father and her husband—she never calls them “goyim,” preferring “the uncircumcised” or “not members of the children of Israel”—so did Jews, as she faithfully records. She herself traveled extensively, seemingly without hindrance or difficulties.

After her death at the age of seventy-eight or -nine, Glikl was memorialized in the Metz community’s Memorbuch (memory book) in words that mix ritual encomia with idiosyncratic glimpses into her special talents and values:

May God remember the soul of the elderly, esteemed, and pious woman Glikl . . . a housewife and most wise in the trade of precious gems and also most steeped in the respectable virtues, and who all the days of her life behaved in the manner of righteous women, doing good deeds for the living and the dead. Her words were pleasant to all people, and she prayed with great devotion, never stopping for vain conversation. . . . [M]ay her soul be bound up in the chain of life, together with the souls of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, amen. She passed away and was buried, with a good name, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah 5485 [September 19, 1724].

Let us now praise famous Jewish women, indeed, as well as those who for the first time have brought into English this complete and meticulously curated edition of her endlessly fascinating Memoirs.