His Story/Her Story: Hannah Rochel Vebermacher

Most of us know her as “Maiden from Ludmir,” but Hannah Rochel Verbermacher was name given to her at birth.

'Women Sing' band 521 (photo credit: Dan Peretz)
'Women Sing' band 521
(photo credit: Dan Peretz)
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.
At this 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 followers.
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 establishment.
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 spirit.
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 survive.
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.