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The Life and Times of Glikl bas Leyb: a 17th-Century Woman for the Ages

February 23, 2020 | by Judy Gruen

Nearly 300 years after her death, Glikl has become an unlikely literary celebrity.

Our society is awash in published memoirs, something unheard of just a few hundred years ago. With one exception: a Jewish woman named Glikl bas Leyb, born in Hamburg, Germany in 1645. She took up her pen in 1691 as a recent widow “with a deeply grieving heart.” She began writing about her life, her marriage, her children, her faith, and her business dealings as a diversion from “a surfeit of worries, troubles, and heartache” that caused her sad, sleepless nights:

“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…”

Glikl had no intention of having these “seven little books,” as she referred to them once published. Her narrative is a remarkable document, a startlingly honest and exceptionally well-told tale by a keenly intelligent woman with a natural flair for storytelling. In this way, Glikl has left us a rare glimpse not only into one privileged Jewish woman’s life, but into the larger society as a whole, from how business dealings and disputes were handled to the complicated negotiations involved with marriage betrothals, to the ever-changing geopolitical sphere and how it affected Jews.

Frankfurt in 1612

While her original manuscript is lost to history, one of her sons, Reb Moshe Hamel, made two copies that survived. In the late 19th century, a descendent of Glikl’s named Bertha Pappenheim first translated her memoirs from Old Yiddish into German. It has since been translated into Russian, French, Hebrew and English.

Nearly 300 years after her death in 1724, Glikl has become an unlikely literary celebrity.

I had read an earlier translation of this work published under the name The Memoirs of Glukel of Hameln, translated by Marvin Lowenthal. But like many translations, much of Glikl’s original writing, particularly many of the stories and fables she included as moral lessons for her intended audience, had been edited out. Recently, Brandeis University Press published a new edition, called simply Glikl Memoirs: 1691-1719, translated by Sara Friedman. This edition is also presented with an outstanding and fascinating introduction by Chava Turniansky, professor emerita of Yiddish literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an Israel Prize Laureate. Turniansky also provided the extensive annotations that confirm what Glikl claims about events and people about whom she writes. I cannot recommend this new edition highly enough. Not only is the translation more colorful and accessible to modern readers, but the inclusion of all of Glikl’s stories helps one better appreciate the full scope of her literary achievement.

She writes about the ever-present dangers that Jews lived with and the cries in distress over the endless plight of the Jewish people.

While some aspects of Glikl’s life are unimaginable to a modern reader, many others are timeless. She worries about her husband’s health when he must travel for business and strategizes with him about how to recoup financial losses from a business deal gone bad. She grieves over the losses of several of her children, and anxiously tries to provide guidance to a naïve son who continually makes poor choices and requires frequent bailing out: “It is true that even during my husband’s lifetime we had worries here and there because of the pain of bringing up children; some of these can be told, others cannot or should not be told.” She reminisces about an earlier time when “life in those days was so much happier than it is today, although people did not possess even half of what they have nowadays – may they enjoy it and prosper.”

Glikl's great-granddaughter dressed up as Glikl, in "Portrait of Mrs. Glikl Hamel" by Loepold Pilichowski

When she writes about the ever-present dangers that Jews lived with, or cries in distress over the endless plight of our people, we are Glikl, too.

Married at fourteen, Glikl gave birth to fourteen children, twelve of whom lived at least until young adulthood. She had eight young children at home when her husband passed away, including a baby, and it fell solely to her to raise, educate, and marry each of them off in dignity, as well as to provide for herself in her old age. Glikl was determined that all her unmarried children would also marry into other “respectable” families, which required substantial sums of money for both the dowries and initial support for the young couples.

On his deathbed, when Chaim is asked about any instructions going forward, he simply says, “My wife is in charge of everything.”

Glikl and Chaim were among the wealthy class of Jews at the time. Like many other Jews locked out of many professions, they traded in precious gems, gold and silver, and loaned money at interest. Chaim and Glikl prospered greatly, though they also suffered debilitating losses from the occasional bad investment, or theft from a dishonest employee. Glikl writes about her business partnership with Chaim as if it was the most normal thing in the world for a wife to play this role. Her shrewd analyses of potential deals made her husband put implicit trust in her. On his deathbed, when Chaim is asked about any instructions going forward, he simply says, “My wife is in charge of everything.”

After Chaim dies, Glikl takes his place at the commercial fairs in Leipzig, Frankfurt-am-Main, and other towns a considerable distance, buying, selling, and trading. When her son’s poor judgement led his fabric business to fail, Glikl bought out his stock and went into the fabric business herself, successfully. During a disastrous, short-lived second marriage, Glikl lost her fortune due to her husband’s financial mismanagement. Despite her advancing age, Glikl does what she has always done: she rebuilds the business on her own and clears the debts she accrued through him.

The Hamburg Exchange, on a copperplate engraving by Johan Dirksen, early 17th cent.

She discusses money frankly and with a hard-nosed, practical eye. When writing about a complicated and protracted negotiation over the dowry amount for one of her children, she consults with the local rabbinical scholar and, getting his agreement with her position, holds her ground: “When he saw he could squeeze nothing more out of me. . . the wedding took place in mid-Tammuz, as respectable and splendid affair as we Jews can manage.”

Title page appended to the complete copy of the manuscript. Universitätsbibliothek Johann Christian Senckenberg, Frankfurt am Main.

Henry Abramson, Dean of Touro College in New York and noted historian, observes, “Glikl’s memoir is valuable for many reasons, but one of the most important is that it provides us with a rich picture of her economic activity--pretty much sui generis for a woman of the period, Jewish or non-Jewish. Her story also emphasizes the fragility of Jewish existence at the time: capricious decrees by local officials, spontaneous violence, and random abuse required a prudent focus on material security, particularly in liquid form, to be ready for whatever might happen.”

Glikl writes vividly and dramatically, not only about her personal life but about the riveting historical events in her lifetime. One of her earliest memories is of her father sheltering ten refugees who had fled Poland during the notorious Chmielnicki massacres, part of a political uprising by Ukrainians against Polish rule. The mass murder of tens of thousands of Jews is also known as “Gezerat Tach v’Tat,” the evil degree of 1648-49. Though the refugees were ill with infectious disease, Glikl’s father took them in – at great personal risk – and arranged for them to be cared for in their attic. Glikl’s grandmother, who insisted on climbing the stairs several times a day to help care for them, died as a result.

Glikl’s praise of her father knows no bounds: “Anyone who entered his house hungry left with his hunger satisfied. He gave his children, boys and girls alike, an education in both higher matters and practical things.” Indeed, Glikl refers to sitting in cheder, and it is such a tease that she never elaborates on what sort of formal education she had.

Outbreaks of infectious disease, including plague, were common and an ongoing source of worry. When Glikl’s four-year-old daughter Tsipora was believed by townspeople to carry plague, she and Chaim were forced to send her away with a maid for many weeks. Not only were neighbors fearful for their own sakes, but if the ruling Duke at the time learned that a Jewish home held contagion, it would be “a catastrophe” for the Jewish community as a whole.

Anti-Semitism was a basic fact of life that Jews had learned to work around as best they could. They were subject to onerous and discriminatory taxes. Their residency rights or rights to conduct business in a certain town could be revoked suddenly. In fact, when Glikl was only two years old, Jews lost the right to live in Hamburg and had to move to Altona, traveling each day back to Hamburg for business. (Technically, Jews had no residency rights in Hamburg at the time, though Glikl’s father had made some private arrangement allowing them to reside there.) Jews could be falsely accused of stealing from or murdering a non-Jew. Or, as Glikl relates in one of her long and dramatic episodes, a Jew could be murdered by a non-Jew and no justice would be served.

Glikl writes of an incident where a young wife named Rivka becomes convinced that a rough character had murdered her husband for the money he had carried with him. The husband had gone missing and no one had seen him for days. Other Jews cautioned her not to make accusations, but Rivka, whom Glikl describes as very clever, managed to get a confession out of a witness. Jewish community leaders finally convinced the local authorities to search the residence where Rivka knew her husband’s body would be found, but they were warned, “Beware, if you do not find the body, you are all lost, you know the rabble here in Hamburg. We won’t be able to stop them.”

When Shabtai Zvi and his messianic promises were revealed as a fraud, it was a crushing blow to Jews worldwide, particularly so close after the massacres in Poland. Glikl’s father-in-law had sold his home and packed his belongings in a trunk, waiting for the letter to arrive indicating the time had come to move to the Holy Land. Glikl writes:

"When I recall how young and old alike all over the world began repenting of their sins, as is well known, it cannot be described. Ah God, Lord of the universe, we were hoping that You, compassionate God, would have mercy on Israel, Your wretched people, and redeem us…”

Glikl’s piety allows her to approach this trauma as she does with all other bitter disappointments in her life – with continuing faith:

“Your people do not despair; they await Your mercy daily that You may redeem them. Even though he may tarry, still I await him every day.”

In her introduction to this new edition, Chava Turniansky observes that Glikl’s high level of literacy should not be surprising. In this early modern period, Jewish women wrote letters, literary compositions, and other correspondence. A thriving literature of mussar literature was written for and consumed by women, and the biblical verses and Talmudic references that Glikl includes prodigiously “were active components of spoken Yiddish at the time,” she writes.

Glikl’s memoir may have been meant for her family only, but thankfully, it has become an invaluable bequest to us all.

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