Most of us know her as the “Maiden from Ludmir,” but Hannah Rochel Verbermacher
was the name given to her at birth in the beginning of the 19th century. Her
father, Monesh, was a wealthy, educated Jew whose daughter acquired an excellent
education. She studied Bible, Talmud, Midrash and Halacha and could write in
Hebrew. According to her own account, after having lost her mother as a young
girl, she fainted during a visit to her grave. This event was followed by an
illness and an epiphany.
Henceforth, she declared that she would devote
herself solely to study; upon her recovery, Hannah Rochel announced she was also
terminating the engagement to her betrothed. Some versions attribute this
decision to the stress of being separated from her beloved. Be that as it may,
after the graveside experience, she elected to isolate herself.
point, she obligated herself to full observance of the commandments, identical
to that of the hassidic men in her community.
She devoted herself to
study and prayer. Following her father’s death, this young woman began to
function as a hassidic leader and teacher holding court in her own study house.
She secluded herself there while gaining a reputation as a miracle worker.
Nathaniel Deutsch (The Maiden of Ludmir, University of California Press, 2003)
explained that the followers she attracted were mostly poor hassidim of both
sexes. Her environment contrasted sharply with the opulent courts that were
becoming popular as centers for the male leaders and their
Needless to say, her male counterparts did not look kindly
upon her activities. She had clearly crossed the boundaries established by the
rabbis; her status as a celibate single woman threatened the
She had chosen a lifestyle that combined the scholarly
with the spiritual, but the hassidim could not tolerate the presence of an
asexual mystical woman leader. Some of the tzaddikim were determined to
orchestrate her demise. One claimed that she was possessed by an evil
R. Mordechai of Chernobyl, a highly respected leader, sought to
hasten her downfall and declared that the soul of a tzaddik had undoubtedly
entered her body.
All of these rabbis insisted that she could not remain
single and must marry. By ultimately succumbing to their demands, she was, as
Ada Rapoport-Albert explains, being invalidated and forced back to a traditional
role. (S. A. Horodecky and the Maid of Ludmir Tradition, Jewish History, 1988)
Although it appears that this marriage was never consummated (she was twice
divorced), she lost her following as she could no longer fulfill the role of a
spiritually pure tzaddik.
HANNAH ROCHEL eventually settled in Jerusalem
in the second half of the 19th century. Some claim she served as a
leader/teacher once again; others claim that she simply died in obscurity. She
was buried on the Mount of Olives, but her headstone unfortunately did not
In 2004, there was an evening in the courtyard of Rabbi Ruth Gan
Kagan’s home in Jerusalem devoted to Hannah Rochel’s memory. Avigail Zohar, an
architect, designed a new headstone for her grave to be erected on the following
day, the anniversary of her death. In order not to ruffle feathers, no mention
was made on the stone of this teacher’s highly unusual activities while still in
Ludmir. This generous and noble act of restoring this woman’s headstone and
giving her posthumous honor reflects the need to preserve the memory of role
models from the past.
Hannah Rochel had made an unusual choice: she
attempted to emulate the hassidic tzaddikim with whom she was familiar. She
succeeded and became revered as a saint-like figure, teaching and offering
blessings behind a closed door. Yet the male establishment could not tolerate a
woman’s claims to spirituality and piety that, in their opinion, were reserved
for them alone. Once they undermined her position, she lost her following. A
century later, her memory was appropriately honored by a group of women in
Jerusalem; may she rest in peace.
The writer is a professor of Jewish
history and dean at the Schechter Institute as well as academic editor of the
journal Nashim. She has published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental
Jewry and on Jewish women.