Her story: A 19th-century Russian grandmother

How Pauline Wengeroff (1833-1916) identified herself in her 1910 two-volume memoir.

Jewish culture (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Jewish culture
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
The title of this piece is how Pauline Wengeroff (1833-1916) identified herself in her two-volume Memoirs of a Grandmother: Scenes from the Cultural History of the Jews of Russia in the 19th Century (1910). My paternal grandmother, like Wengeroff, hailed from the Minsk district in the Pale of Settlement. The sole surviving document regarding Dora Landress (Levine) granted her freedom of movement for 12 months within the Pale; this 16-year-old was deemed illiterate because she knew only Yiddish.
Wengeroff, on the other hand, was extremely literate by any standards.
Born into a wealthy and pious family, she received an education appropriate for a daughter. As a child, she studied in a girls’ heder with a melamed (teacher) and affectionately describes this early stage of her education. In addition, her mother hired tutors of Russian and German, and Wengeroff was exposed to European as well as Yiddish and Russian literature. This is not surprising; while the Haskala movement and the modern culture it espoused was perceived as undermining the religious mind-set of Jewish young men, no similar antagonism developed regarding Jewish girls’ exposure to this literature.
Besides, her father, Yehuda Halevi Epstein, was not as adamantly opposed to certain innovations of the Haskala as was his wife. Their daughter’s memoirs reflect family tensions of this nature: Epstein arranged for his sons-in-law to meet Max Lilienthal, the representative sent to enlighten the Russian Jews, yet his wife was infuriated upon discovering these young men, as well as her own sons, surreptitiously reading novels or displaying maskilic affinities.
Wengeroff was caught between these two worlds: She was strongly tied to tradition, but did not follow in her mother’s footsteps as the strict guardian of Jewish tradition and practice. Her mother is presented as an authoritarian, but Wengeroff’s husband Chonon turns out to be quite the despot. This son of Chabad Hassidim lost his faith and proceeded to undermine his family’s Jewish observance and ties to tradition, slowly but surely wearing away his wife’s objections.
Wengeroff elected to compose her memoirs in German (although she also published in Russian, which had been spoken at home along with Yiddish): the first volume (1830s-1840s) describes the world she felt was being lost.
Inserting “grandmother” into the book’s title seems to be a literary gimmick rather than a reflection of strong ties to her grandchildren. (See the translation, introduction, notes and commentary by Shulamit S. Magnus, Volume 1, Stanford University Press, 2010.) The second volume (1840s-1890) deals with her sense of the catastrophe that had befallen modern Jewry as a result of assimilation and acculturation.
Her personal journey is one glaring example of the fate of an upwardly mobile Russian Jewish family. As the couple and their children relocated, their ties to their families, as well as to Judaism, weakened considerably from the Pale of Settlement to Helsinki and St. Petersburg. Wengeroff bemoans her fate at having to yield to her husband’s pressure and desist in wearing her wig as well as keeping a kosher kitchen (except for Passover, the last vestige of her Judaism). She defines the conversion of two of her sons as tragic; at least one daughter also left the faith. Her children, many of whom were quite talented, apparently had minimal Jewish education and could not fathom the depth of their mother’s connection to Judaism; their father declared that no religion was necessary. When confronted with options, they succumbed to the lure of the modern world, which in the long run often rejected them.
Wengeroff was sensitive to the role of women in traditional as well as in modernizing society. In her opinion, the men did not consider the consequences of adopting modern ideas and seemed incapable of moderation in their actions. Did modernity truly require abandonment of all that had been transmitted and valued for centuries, and women’s relinquishment of their traditional role? These memoirs combine a lament for that which she and her family lost, together with detailed descriptions of these traditions. Her personal experience reflects a painful social process, as well as her desire to be remembered for her own gifts, both as a writer and as someone who treasured her Jewish identity.

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.