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A Genre-Defying Tale for the Ages

Rokhl’s Golden City: The story of Glikl Hamel has endured for centuries, offering a unique glimpse into Jewish life—and specifically the lives of Jewish women

by
Rokhl Kafrissen
February 25, 2022
Original image: Wikipedia
Original image: Wikipedia
Original image: Wikipedia
Original image: Wikipedia

“So, I did a thing.” If you spend a lot of time online, you know that doing a thing is a particular kind of internet-speak, a phrase that can announce anything from getting impulse bangs to defending your thesis. (It’s usually the bangs.) It’s a coy way around giving name to your achievements, mundane or profound.

What doing a thing very often signals is that the speaker is a woman, one uneasy calling attention to herself or her achievements. Doing a thing is about carefully tooting your own horn, while simultaneously performing unease in the tooting (a humble brag), hopefully preempting the trolls waiting to shame you. Even today, it seems, when American women can do pretty much anything men can do, the way women are allowed to talk about those things is still radically different.

You probably won’t be shocked to learn that looking back hundreds of years, to the very beginning of the modern period, women were already writing their way around the need to name their own accomplishments, though, it turns out, for very different reasons.

I felt all the women who have ever done a thing on the internet looking over my shoulder when I recently read the memoirs of one Glikl bas Leyb (1645-1724), thus correcting a major deficiency in my own education. To be precise, what I read was the 2019 English language translation-adaptation of the 2006 bilingual, Modern Hebrew-Old (Western) Yiddish edition. The 2006 bilingual edition had the distinction of being the first publication of the Old Yiddish text since its initial publication in 1896.

Whether we know her as Glikl Hamel (Yiddish), or Glückel Hameln (German), Glikl eyshes Reb Chaim Hamel (Glikl, wife of Chaim Hamel) had a long and eventful life. She was educated and relatively well off (though she went through periods of serious financial distress). On account of her many business ventures, she was a woman engaged with the wider world, far beyond her own home. But it was not the events of her life that have ensured that Glikl is still a presence in the world, some 300 years after her death. Rather, it was her decision to create a detailed record of her life and its lessons: an extraordinary seven-chapter work written over 28 years.

We have relatively few memoir-type texts written by Ashkenazi Jews in the early modern period (that is, before the commencement of the Haskalah in the late 18th century). Glikl’s account of her life is the only such work we know of that was written by a Jewish woman in that period. Not only does it exist, but it provides a remarkably vivid picture of Jewish life in the German lands, a text with enduring appeal to both scholars as well as the average reader.

The joy of Glikl’s work has been greatly enhanced by the efforts of literary scholar Chava Turniansky. She created the 2006 translation into Hebrew, bringing together all of Glikl’s existing manuscript, in the original order (rectifying any textual injuries inflicted by earlier editions). Turniansky’s 2019 English language translation-adaptation provides an excellent introduction to Glikl’s text. Helpful appendices track Glikl’s various family trees. And Turniansky’s extensive footnotes clarify and illuminate Glikl’s world, with special attention to the Jewish sources that lend such richness to her language.

Over the seven chapters of the book, we learn about Glikl’s day-to-day life in great detail: her business dealings (including trading in pearls and gold, owning a hosiery factory, and money lending), constant travel, and the never ending cycle of matchmaking and marriage planning. We also see the Jewish community through her eyes. Within her anecdotes of communal life, we get glimpses, for example, of the shifting relations between Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities in Northern Europe.

But before we can even properly speak of Glikl’s work, we must pause to consider what exactly it is. The term memoir cannot adequately capture the variety of material therein, or the intent of its author. At one point, Glikl addresses her children, writing: “I intend, God willing, to leave all this for you in seven little books, if God grants me life.” A footnote tells us that Glikl “avoids specifying what she is referring to, here and in the text that follows, preferring indirect references such as ‘that’ or ‘this.’” Indeed, the problem of naming the thing Glikl set out to do is intriguingly vexatious.

Turniansky tells us that Glikl “gave her book no name, no title, no genre definition,” even though Yiddish literature was already developed enough to support its own various genres, as Turniansky notes: mayse (story), mayse-bukh (storybook), minhogim (customs), tkhines (supplications), and so on. Rather than being limited to one genre over the course of the book, Glikl draws freely on what serves her needs, depending on the nature of the topic at hand. 

Glikl only turned to writing after the death of her beloved husband, Chaim, and the intrusion of a new melancholy into her previously bustling life. Now Glikl almones Reb Chaim Hamel (widow of Chaim), age 45, she began writing the story of her life, from the time before her birth, up to just a few years before her death. Book One reflects the conventions of the musser-seyfer, a genre of moral instruction. The tone is inward looking and reflective. Turniansky calls Book One an “introduction to her spiritual world, a kind of manifesto of the faith, beliefs, aspirations, motives, and opinions of a God-fearing pious Jewish woman.” With the pain of her husband’s death still fresh, Glikl’s thoughts are on human suffering and the ineffable ways of God: “And so my dear children, do not despair … of repentance, prayer, and charity, for great God is most compassionate, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger for the wicked as well as the righteous …” An explicit appeal to her children not to lose faith in God, it also feels a bit like the author is addressing herself, the mourning widow, as much as her readers.

This literature has been hiding in plain sight, but we all assumed it wasn’t there.

Book Two moves on to various family genealogies, and the history of the Jewish communities of Hamburg (where Glikl was born) and Altona (a nearby city where her family lived for a time). It is in Book Two that Glikl recounts her own betrothal at 12 and marriage before the age of 14. Despite her youth, Glikl describes a loving partnership with her young husband, and he quickly establishes himself in the gold trade, which is good, because at the close of Book Two, she has already given birth to her second child (of an eventual 14 pregnancies over her lifetime).

Glikl’s memoir is chronologically organized, but in the very gentlest way. Her anecdotes wander from marriages to murders, with occasional digressions into parable and fable. If you’re expecting a rigorous organization to her material, you will be disappointed. As narrator, Glikl calls to mind your talkative aunt at a wedding, the one who may have made too many trips to the open bar. With her, yes, you’ll have to sit through updates on relatives you’ve never met, but, if you stick it out, you’re also gonna get the wildest family stories, along with a hefty serving of life advice.

As she grows into a woman of the world, Glikl is witness to various wars, and the coming (and going) of the false messiah Shabtai Tzvi. In Book Five, she loses her beloved husband, Chaim. The story is told across heartbreaking scenes of bodily frailty and terrible loss. When the traditional 30-day mourning period is over, Glikl finds herself abandoned: “no brother or sister of mine came to see us … to ask how are you or how are you managing.” She is deeply bitter that her family has abandoned her at her time of greatest need. Then, in one of her bold narrative pivots, she launches into a long fable, one whose lesson is that friends are unreliable and individuals must rely on themselves.

It’s understandable that in her bitter frame of mind, Glikl would choose to tell a story like this one. What’s unexpected is how that lesson unfolds. In her parable, a king instructs his son on testing the loyalty of his friends. He is to show up at their door in the middle of the night, with a dead body in a sack. (Don’t worry, it’s just a slaughtered calf, not a real human body.) The moral of the story is, quite literally, that real friends are the ones who will help you bury the body, no questions asked. And if they won’t do it, they’re not really friends.

With that lesson imparted, Glikl turns right back to the affairs of her house, describing how she auctioned off its contents and made enough money to pay off all her debts, with some left over to lend out at interest.

What is consistent throughout the work is that Glikl’s unique, confident voice leaps off the page. Despite her protestations to humility, she knows she has seen things others haven’t, and what she’s learned is worth sharing. And as author, Glikl skillfully utilizes moments which demonstrate how her life has been marked as noteworthy. When she is still a newlywed, for instance, Glikl and her mother conceive at the same time, giving birth almost simultaneously. Glikl recalls how they recuperated together, but “had no rest, due to all the people who hastened to see the wonder: a mother and daughter giving birth together, lying in the same room.”

Glikl’s memoir is fascinating, readable and (mostly) true. It was, as Turniansky writes in her introduction, “so utterly different from anything published and known in the Jewish world until then, that it is not at all surprising she didn’t have a proper name for it.”

Though this new edition actually came out in 2019, it appears to have fallen through the cracks of the pandemic. But Glikl is due for a bit of love: 2022 is the Year of Women in Yiddish at the Yiddish Book Center, with a brand-new course on Glikl and her world debuting in March. Indeed, women’s writing in Yiddish has seized the zeitgeist (at least according to The New York Times). At the beginning of February, the Times reported that “in the past several years, there has been a surge of translations of female writers by Yiddish scholars.”

According to translator Anita Norich, “This literature has been hiding in plain sight, but we all assumed it wasn’t there.” No one was looking for Yiddish novels by women. And why would they? After all, everyone knows that “women wrote poetry or memoirs and diaries but didn’t have access to the broad worldview that men did.”

What’s interesting about Glikl’s memoir (girl boss manual?) is the startling breadth of its worldview. Bursting with anecdotes, digressions, and genealogies, it strains against genre expectations, then and now. Since the manuscript was published in a scholarly form over a century ago, historians and others have been drawn to its rich trove of historical detail. But approaching Glikl’s marvelous work as a primary source brings its own set of problems.

For example, one of my absolute favorite moments in the text is Glikl’s encounter with the followers of Shabtai Tzvi. Believing that he would redeem the Jews and bring them to the land of Israel, she says, many Jews made haste to sell all their property. Glikl’s father-in-law is also a follower, and makes his own preparations. Since Hamburg, where Glikl lives, is a major port, he assumes the Messiah will be bringing the Jews out from there. In preparation for the trip, he arranges two large barrels full of nonperishable foodstuffs to be stored at Glikl’s home.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for Shabtai Tzvi to reveal himself as more charlatan than Messiah. Her father-in-law’s barrels sit at Glikl’s home for years, a lingering symbol of the tragic foolishness of the Jews who believed in Shabtai Tzvi, and a darkly comic indictment of the gullibility of her own father-in-law. It’s one of the more unforgettable moments in the book. But in a 2004 Nashim article examining the use of Glikl’s text as a primary source, historian Robert Liberles tosses cold water on the barrels, calling her recollections “problematic.” Without further detail, he argues, we can only take the episode as an “entertaining anecdote” without greater significance. In a footnote, Liberles cites the historian of messianism, Gershom Scholem, who “raised doubts about the extent of the phenomenon of Jews selling their property on account of their messianic excitement.”

It’s obvious that Glikl was not a reporter or a scholar setting out to faithfully record the events around her. Her narrative strategies throughout the text are varied and eclectic and the text offers so much to readers. I understand the imperatives of historians and scholars to carefully judge evidence and draw trustworthy conclusions. But it feels silly to reduce the discussion of Glikl to a binary choice between “primary source” and “entertainment.” And something about the urge to dismiss Glikl’s anecdotes in this way really bugs me. I guess because I find her account all too believable.

Having died many years before, in 1982, Gershom Scholem never got to experience the mind-boggling success of the Left Behind series of the late 20th century. Left Behind was a certified cultural phenomenon; an end-of-days rapture fantasy that has sold something like 65 million books and inspired movies, video games, and a kids’ spinoff, all built around the promise that true believers were going to be yeeted into heaven very, very soon. And, OK, the pet insurance for the rapture thing was a hoax, but lots of people did materially alter their lives in anticipation of imminent end times.

The image of Glikl’s father-in-law and his early modern MREs feels extremely relevant to our own dark time. The past three decades have seen the rise of the modern prepper movement, a perfect American blend of end times theology, existential dread and dehydration technology. Not only do people believe in end times, they’re investing heavily in it.

Glikl and her community were living in the aftermath of the bloody massacres of the Khmelnytsky Uprising. Is it so crazy to think that some of them, having witnessed their own mini apocalypse, and prodded by messianic promises, would go to extremes like selling their houses and stockpiling beef jerky? Absolutely not.

Then again, I don’t think Glikl cared whether her readers took her stories at face value. Her purpose was to get at a deeper truth about the world as she saw it. It seems to me that Glikl’s reluctance to title her book is its own kind of enduring message. We’re invited to read this work she spent so long crafting, without preconceptions, to see what happens when we meet the past on its own terms, in our own time.

MORE: Purchase a copy of Chava Turniansky’s definitive English language edition of Glikl: Memoirs, 1691-1719 Register for the Yiddish Book Center’s new course, “Glikl and her Sisters: The Creative Lives of 17th-Century Jewish Women,” Tuesdays, March 8-29, or check out the Yiddish Book Center’s excellent reading resources page for the book.

ALSO: Opening Feb. 25, The Utopian Avant-Garde: Soviet Film Posters of the 1920s, an exhibit exploring “the origins, high points, and eventual demise of golden age Soviet graphic design.” At Poster House, 119 West 23rd Street … The Singing Windmills makes its world premiere March 2-13 at Pushkin Hall on West 86th Street. This new theater piece grapples with the tragic destruction of the National Jewish Theater of Russia in 1949 as well as the murder of its artistic director, Solomon Mikhoels. The play is in Russian, with English subtitles, and the cast features names familiar to Yiddish theater fans, including Yelena Shmulenson … On March 10, YIVO will host the American premiere screening of Song Searcher: The Times and Toils of Moyshe Beregovsky. One of the most important names in Eastern European Jewish ethnomusicology, Beregovsky “crisscrossed Ukraine with a phonograph in hand during the most dramatic years of Soviet history to record and study the traditional music of Ukrainian Jewry.” Get your ticket for the in-person movie screening here … Also on March 10, the New York Public Library presents a new episode of their afternoon Doc Chat series “What’s Cooking in the Yiddish Kitchen, Recipes for Immigrant Women.” Two of the most interesting people I know, NYPL librarian Amanda Miryem-Khaye Seigel and Performance Studies icon Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett will “explore the world of Yiddish cookbooks published by food companies, featuring products like matzo, peanut oil, baking powder, kasha, and Crisco.” More information here … In early April, the Dance Theater of Harlem will present brand new work with live music by the Klezmatics. More information and tickets here … You only have two more months to get to the Museum at Eldridge Street and see Debra Olin: Every Protection. In large mixed-media and installation works, Olin “explores a woman’s formative experience of childbirth and childrearing.” Olin draws inspiration from the famous questionnaire developed for S. Ansky’s ethnographic survey of Ukrainian shtetls (through April 24) … Spring Yiddish classes at the Workers Circle are starting very soon. And there is, quite literally, a class for every skill level and time. Find yours here.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.

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