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Was Modernity Bad for Jewish Women?

Women’s History Month: Pauline Wengeroff, the late-19th-century Russian grandmother and memoirist who saw through the emerging patriarchy in Eastern Europe, was no Betty Friedan

Shulamit S. Magnus
March 10, 2021
Courtesy of Electra Yourke
Pauline Wengeroff, circa 1913Courtesy of Electra Yourke
Courtesy of Electra Yourke
Pauline Wengeroff, circa 1913Courtesy of Electra Yourke
This article is part of Figuring Out Feminism.
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In 1791, the National Assembly of the French Revolution issued a decree emancipating the Jews of France, freeing them, “of all … restrictions, and exceptions contained in preceding [discriminatory] decrees.” Shortly thereafter, a prominent merchant banker from Nancy, Berr Isaac Berr, addressed his fellow Jews of France.

“Gentlemen and dear brethren,” Berr wrote:

At length the day has come when the veil, by which we were kept in a state of humiliation, is rent. … We are now, thanks to the Supreme Being and to the sovereignty of the nation, not only Men and Citizens, but … Frenchmen! What a happy change thou hast worked in us, merciful God. From being vile slaves, mere serfs, a species of men merely tolerated and suffered in the empire, liable to heavy and arbitrary taxes, we are, of a sudden, become the children of the country, to bear its common charges, and share in its common rights!

Berr went on to prescribe what French Jews must do to show proper gratitude for the beneficence of the Revolution, including shed their Jewish group identity and consider themselves first and foremost, French citizens; learn perfect French; and, if not “born to a higher rank,” learn manual trades (give up the petty commerce and money lending of anti-Jewish stereotype).

When Berr spoke to and of “Jews,” as his language makes clear, he meant men. Until recently, when Jewish historians wrote of “Jewish” emancipation and the benefits of modernity to “Jews,” they, too, meant and studied only men. Some of those benefits, such as the razing of ghettos and the ability to live where one’s income allowed, affected women and men equally. Some benefits affected women indirectly yet powerfully: With lessened economic discrimination and new areas of activity open to Jewish men, women rose in socioeconomic status along with their families of birth and marriage.

European Jews as a group rose from widespread poverty at the turn of the 19th century to solidly middle-class standing by midcentury, a stunningly fast and peculiarly Jewish pace of upward mobility. Women and men acculturated—adopted the language, dress, diet, and leisure activities of the majority populations—enthusiastically, in hope of achieving social acceptance. Judging by many parameters, Jewish modernity was a great success.

But emancipation—the removal or lessening of legal disabilities against Jews, their socioeconomic rise, and efforts for acceptance in the non-Jewish world—was not the same experience for Jewish women and men. This was so because the societies into which Jews were entering were not egalitarian, but practiced discrimination against women in education, employment, inheritance and other property rights, and denied them political rights. Jewish emancipation gave Jewish boys and men greater educational options, which opened new occupational horizons that led to middle-class economic status. But those same opportunities—university study, legal and medical training and practice, journalism, new areas that Jewish men entered eagerly—were closed to Jewish women, because they were closed to all women until late in the 19th or into the 20th centuries.

More than this. The world of doing and earning that was Jewish women’s traditional, historical situation—running shops and commercial businesses, managing loans—did not accord with a new, modern middle-class ethic that created the “domesticated” woman. This new type of woman, modeled on the aristocracy, did not earn a living; she stayed home with a diminishing number of children. She and they—well educated, cultured, meticulously groomed and dressed children—became trophies attesting to the economic prowess of the husband, his middle-class manliness: proof that he could support a family without a wife’s earnings. In this new, middle-class family, for the first time in human history (with the exception of the nobility), children did not work and bring in money but consumed it in expensive educations and “proper” attire.

European Jews were not emancipated into non-Jewish society as a whole but into a distinct stratum of it: this new middle class. The vast majority of these Jews, though poor, did not aspire to become farmers or artisans (to join the “lower” classes); nor, a few exceptions aside, would they be accepted into the upper classes of landed wealth, the “old” families of status and political power. When Jews left the ghetto, they entered the emerging, modern middle class, produced by industrializing economies and living in rapidly growing cities.

Being middle class meant far more than having a certain standard of living. It meant a culture, one could rightly say, a religion, with strict requirements, norms, and rituals. Intensely self-conscious and competitive, it was obsessed with appearance and ridden with anxiety about any lapses that would send its members, Jewish and not, back into their near historical pasts as anything but middle class. For Jews, that anxiety was the more acute, because for them, the near past meant poverty and the ghetto, physical and mental; a heavy burden of discrimination and humiliation, and anxiety about even toleration, since expulsion was an expedient of the old regime. Driven by all these factors, Jews in the era of emancipation became middle class with a vengeance.

While the dynamics just described summarize the Jewish situation in Central and Western Europe, the striving, anxiety, and self-consciousness entailed in leaving the ghetto in the Jewish West were felt in Jewish Eastern Europe, too. So were gendered differences in the experience of Jewish modernity.

The telling of Jewish modernity in Eastern Europe has relied heavily on the memoirs of maskilim, “enlighteners,” who chafed at the intellectual and social constraints of Jewish traditionalism and advocated fundamental reform of Jewish society. Chief among their demands was the introduction of secular studies and a deemphasis on Talmud (in the education of males; females were never taught Talmud, formally), in favor of study of the Bible. Maskilim excoriated arranged, early marriage and the structure of traditional families altogether, not least, the power of women (in particular, mothers-in-law), in them, and championed companionate, romantic liaisons. Maskilim were critics, and their portraits of the ills of traditional society filled every manner of writing, from programmatic, to fiction and poetry, to a Jewish genre they expanded enormously: memoir.

Recent scholarship about the maskilim has questioned how typical their experiences and grievances were. Not least, we would note, the maskilim were all men. The experiences they depict in their memoirs, from misery in traditional heders to sexual impotence when they were married off barely past bar mitzvah age; to rage at abusive mothers-in-law (arranged marriages tended to be matrilocal), are entirely male.

There is rare historical testimony about all this in Pauline Wengeroff’s Memoirs of a Grandmother, first published in Berlin, in 1908. In this two-volume work, Wengeroff set out to tell the tale of the emergence of Jewish modernity in Eastern Europe through the experience of families, her own and some others, and in particular, through the experience of women. It is an unprecedented source in Jewish literature in its presumption, consciousness, and scope by a female author. Not least in its singularities is its insistence, quite contrary of the message of Berr Isaac Berr and many others whose male perspective has shaped our take of Jewish modernity, that modernity was bad for Jewish women.

Wengeroff was a contemporary of the maskilim and her lifetime coincided with the era of the Haskalah. By 1898, when she says she sat down to write memoirs, that era had passed and new movements—Jewish socialism, Zionism—had taken its place. Wengeroff’s memoirs are a full counterpart to the androcentric memoirs of the maskilim, with a very different take on both traditionalism and modernity. Her account, like theirs, is a voice from that time, a partial reflection of its realities. No less than theirs, they are also gendered. But because she writes from the perspective of women, the Other in Jewish society, her writing highlights the fundamental role of gender in the telling of Jewish modernity.

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.

Pauline Wengeroff, née Pessele Epstein, was born in 1833, in Bobruisk, Belarussia, then in Polish lands that Russia ruled. Her family was large, wealthy, and rigorously observant. Her father and paternal grandfather were building subcontractors to Czar Nicholas I. Her father had studied in the eminent Lithuanian yeshiva of Volozhin and his piety was all-encompassing, far more important to him than his business, attention to which he would give only in mid-morning, after prayer and time in the synagogue. Her memoirs open with a depiction of the sound of the earliest of those prayers emanating from his home office at 4 in the morning, followed by Talmud learning in its traditional singsong, all before he headed out to the synagogue.

Wengeroff’s mother sounds like something of a religious fanatic; she discarded all the poultry slaughtered for the family’s Seder meal because a piece of grain was found in the gullet of one of them. Wengeroff describes her mother’s daylong ritual, conducted with a gabete, a woman whom I liken to a priestess, on erev Yom Kippur, the eve of the Day of Atonement. The ritual included fasting; going to the cemetery and measuring the circumference of family graves with string; then returning home to fashion the holiday’s candles using that string for wicks. As the two women worked, passing the string between them, they recited Yiddish-language petitionary prayers (tkhines), composed for (and some, by) women, and wept, while Wengeroff’s mother confessed her sins and pleaded for forgiveness and intercession.

Nothing these women did was mandated in normative, that is, rabbinic, Jewish practice. On the contrary; they transgressed that practice, which forbids fasting on the eve of Yom Kippur lest this compromise fasting on Yom Kippur itself, understood to be mandated by Divine command. Highly gender-stratified, traditional Jewish society had female spiritual and ritual space, in which women had not only power but authority: the right to make and enforce rules, if only for women. Whatever the men of Wengeroff’s household were doing on this day was irrelevant in her account; we hear nothing of it. It is her mother and the gabete who occupy center stage, with the young Wengeroff, a girl in female space, the participant-observer, taking careful note.

While Wengeroff’s first volume focuses on her childhood through adolescence, her second volume depicts her engagement, in 1848, to the scion of a well-to-do family of estate agents in Ukraine, who belonged to the Hasidic sect of Lubavitch, and her married life. Wengeroff’s father tested the prospective groom, Chonon Wengeroff, in Talmud; Chonon passed with flying colors. Wengeroff’s marriage was arranged, as we would expect from families of status and means, but she fell in love with her intended at their first meeting, as did he. Theirs was an arranged marriage that was also romantic, fulfilling a chief value of the Haskalah, about which Wengeroff was well aware. There was a maskilic cell in her home town and under her own roof: Her brother and brothers-in-law belonged to it, and she herself provided some of their contraband, secular literature.

A few years after the marriage, Chonon set off enthusiastically on pilgrimage to his rebbe (unnamed in the Memoirs, this would have been Menachem Mendel Shneerson of Lubavitch)—and there, he lost his faith. Chonon never spoke of exactly what transpired, but its consequences were quickly evident. His religious devotions, formerly fervent, became perfunctory. Then, one day, he appeared with a trimmed beard (rather than the full, untrimmed beard of traditional men), and in a European-style jacket, rather than the traditional caftan. No pleading or argument from Wengeroff or his parents (with whom the couple lived for some years after the marriage), had any success. The couple was soon sent off to establish their own business. This would turn into years of wandering across the Pale of Settlement as Chonon sought success to match that of his father, grandfather, father-in-law, and various other relatives of Wengeroff who had succeeded robustly.

Chonon had lost his faith, but Wengeroff remained quite attached to hers. He began pressuring her to diminish her observance: to give up her marriage wig, for instance. He ridiculed her traditionalism as out of step with the times, and his aspirations. Children were born into a home in which religion was a source of unending parental strife. Wengeroff experienced Chonon’s behavior as betrayal of their love. Frequently on the move, far from family who might support her, we get the impression of a desperately lonely, beleaguered Wengeroff, who took to writing a diary—she was a born writer—in which she poured out her distress. She later would embed fragments of it in her Memoirs.

Here is what she had to say when Chonon’s relentless pressure and ridicule finally broke her and she gave up her kosher kitchen, an unthinkable act for a woman raised as she was:

I have fought for fifteen years to maintain [my principles]. They have sprouted in my heart, flow in my flesh and blood. Now, however, they have become … mischief maker and scandal for my whole family, on which all tenderness, respect, and love … shatters.
What makes me so miserable … is the way my husband relates to me. He has never understood me or made the effort to consider me … It never occurred to him that I have my own principles and customs; that I came to him from my home, with memories … he demanded of me subservience and renunciation …

Addressing Chonon, she continues:

As you remained alien to my inner spiritual life. ... I created my own inner world, from which I can sever myself now only with such difficulty. Oh, God in heaven, only you can be impartial witness to my pain! Do you not understand, my husband?
I will offer this dreadful sacrifice upon the altar of my domestic hearth. Without this, I will not be able to say that I fulfilled my duty as wife and mother, until I had yielded to this wish, too, of my family.
What is my life without love, without affection, and in perpetual conflict with those closest to me? ... The sarcasm that I experience there constantly could have poisoned three lives, not just one! ... With this deed, I will put an end to the eternal mockery of religion in my house. Better that I commit this hideous deed and with it, save the genuine foundation of … faith. … These days one must be a Hillel, not a Shammai.

The crisis of the kosher kitchen came to a head in St. Petersburg, the czars’ winter capital, a city outside the Pale into which Jews were admitted only with permits, earned with proof of wealth. A cousin of Wengeroff’s, the banker Avraam Zak, had arranged a position for Chonon, who grabbed it, thrilled. But the Jews whose society Chonon sought there had long since given up kosher kitchens and women wearing marriage wigs. A traditional Wengeroff was an embarrassment, a threat to his social striving. All remnants of traditional observance had to go.

In each of the many communities in which Wengeroff lived (“I sing my wandering song once again”), she would note the struggle between traditional and modern Jewish life underway and the bitter social and family divisions this caused. Wengeroff also perceived a gendered aspect to the conflict, with Jewish men as a class recklessly discarding tradition and women wishing to maintain and transmit it to their children—while also partaking of the best of modern European culture.

To the reasonable, balanced desire of Jewish mothers to impart to their children the ethics of Judaism, the traditions of its faith, the solemnity of the Sabbath and festivals, Hebrew, the teachings of the Bible … in exalted and beautiful forms [a maskilic curriculum if ever there was one]—together with the fruits of the Enlightenment, together with the new that west European culture had produced—to this moderate “plea and protest” she claimed, Jewish husbands always responded: “The children need no religion!”

Continuing her indictment, she says:

The young Jewish men of the time knew nothing of moderation and wanted to know nothing of it. In their inexperience, they wanted to make the dangerous leap instantly from the lowest rung of culture straight to the highest. Many demanded of their wives not just assent but submission, demanding of them abolition of all that was holy but yesterday. Preaching in society all the modern ideas, like freedom, equality, and brotherhood [the motto, of course, of the French Revolution], these young men were at home the greatest despots to their wives, ruthlessly demanding the fulfillment of their wishes. There were bitter conflicts within the family life that until now had flowed … [in so ordered a way]. Many, many women did not wish to give in. They let their husbands have full freedom outside the house, asking, however, that in their own homes, the old, beloved customs be respected. That this double life was not tenable in the long run is obvious. The spirit of the age triumphed in this contest, and the weaker yielded, with bleeding hearts. This is what happened to others and to me.

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 Chonon 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 Chonon 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.”

Wengeroff sees a causal link between the two behaviors, saying that Chonon sought compensation for his business failures with total control over the home, and her. Despite his knowledge and abilities, she says,

he did not succeed in money matters. … At least in his own house … he wanted compensation for this injustice. Here he wanted to be a total master. ... It was not enough that I gave him full liberty outside the house. I had to ‘reform’ myself and my house.

Her husband was not alone in combining anxiety about success and acceptance 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.

Precisely the power of women in the traditional domestic sphere was what the maskilim—the ideologues pushing modernity in Jewish society—targeted and wished to undo. The fact that this sphere lacked status in the male scheme of things did not matter—either to the maskilim or to women like Wengeroff’s formidable mother, or to Wengeroff herself, who was raised in this sphere and was groomed to assume her role as a wife in the women’s sphere she was to replicate in her own home. This is what Chonon took from her and which, she claims, Jewish men took from women altogether, while also denying them any say in the emerging, new culture. On top of this, they shut women out of economic productivity, closing off that avenue of women’s ability and assertion as well.

For all the obvious differences, Wengeroff’s main assertion and even some of her depictions bear an uncanny resemblance to Betty Friedan’s critique of postwar middle-class life in the U.S. in her classic work The Feminine Mystique. She, too, scores the suppression of women and constriction of their world in a new, expansive, and optimistic era. Women had been pivotally active in the wartime economy, often doing very untraditional work (“Rosie the Riveter”), critical to the war effort while millions of men were under arms. Yet, at the war’s end, women were driven out of the economy and domesticated in cookie-cutter, suburban houses, behind white picket fences and meticulously manicured minilawns. And went literally crazy.

Wengeroff, no simple apologist for tradition, was also not a feminist. Feminism, which existed in her time and of which she was aware—one of her daughters was active in it—means perceiving and rejecting a systematic and pervasive power imbalance between men and women. This Wengeroff does not do. Her grievance is the cultural shift that deprived her of the identity she felt destined to fulfill.

Both traditional and modern Jewish cultures were patriarchal: Men ruled and made the rules. But, aside from weighty rituals reserved for men, like Sabbath and holiday Kiddush, or leading the Passover Seder, traditional patriarchy assigned the domestic sphere, in particular, the kosher kitchen, to women, which creates female-dominated space. Wengeroff wanted arenas for her immense abilities. Traditional Jewish patriarchy provided these. Modern Jewish patriarchy did not.

Wengeroff was no forebear of Betty Friedan. What she shares with Friedan and other feminists, however, is the conviction that experience is gendered. And that what was ostensibly good for the gander in Jewish modernity was most definitely not good for the goose.

Shulamit S. Magnus, Professor Emerita at Oberlin College, is a Jewish historian who specializes in questions of identity and cultural change and the workings of gender in Jewish societies, and in the history of Jewish women. She is the author of four books, including a critical edition of Wengeroff’s Memoirs of a Grandmother, which won a National Jewish Book Award, and a biography of Wengeroff and of her writing, A Woman’s Life: Pauline Wengeroff and Memoirs of a Grandmother.