In the 19th century, due to massive social and political changes, large numbers of European Jews abandoned their distinctive modes of speech and dress, seized new opportunities for economic advancement, and joined the growing middle class—typically jettisoning religious belief and practice in the process. But bourgeois values, Shulamit Magnus notes, also meant an ideal of husbands and fathers as sole breadwinners. Thus “running shops and commercial businesses” or “managing loans,” once normal activities for Jewish women, ceased to be so. Nowhere is this change made clearer than in the memoirs of Pauline Wengeroff, a pious Russian Jew whose husband, after their marriage, rejected his faith:
Wengeroff’s experience of Jewish modernity was of a massive power shift between women and men that grossly disadvantaged women, taking from them meaningful roles and power in the spheres that patriarchal Jewish culture allotted them. The result of this shift, she asserts, was not just women’s repression and misery but the loss of Jewish culture altogether, since one of women’s roles was guarding and transmitting tradition within the family. Modernity, as forged by Jewish men, she felt and observed, was not a boon. It was a catastrophe.
In each of the many communities in which Wengeroff lived, she would note the struggle between traditional and modern Jewish life underway and the bitter social and family divisions this caused. Wengeroff also perceived . . . Jewish men as recklessly discarding tradition and women wishing to maintain and transmit it to their children—while also partaking of the best of modern European culture.
Wengeroff gives unprecedented testimony to the forced domestication of a brilliant, energetic woman, used to being productive and to seeing Jewish women active in spheres from religious ritual, to finance, innkeeping, healing, and midwifery. But [her husband] had drunk deeply from the well of middle-class aspiration: shortly after his loss of faith, he began to insist that Wengeroff “had no voice in business affairs.” Though none too adept—Wengeroff says that he lost her entire dowry in a business venture—he nonetheless objected to her participation in the couple’s business affairs, calling her input “meddling,” and wanting “to hear nothing of it.” In his opinion, “a wife, but especially his wife, had no ability in this area and [he] experienced my involvement as a humiliation.”
Her husband was not alone in combining anxiety about success and acceptance [in Gentile society] with tyranny against wives who wished to retain traditional practices. Rather, he joined a class of modernizing men who, she says, would light cigarettes with their wives’ Sabbath candles.