No ‘simple housewife’ in early modern Germany

Glickl and her family witnessed some of the most important historical events affecting European Jewry during this period.

311_synagogue painting (photo credit: Courtesty of Nussbaum Museum)
311_synagogue painting
(photo credit: Courtesty of Nussbaum Museum)
Glickl Pinkerle Goldshmidt was not, as Solomon Schechter called her (and as Paula Hyman astutely pointed out), a “simple housewife.” Born in Hamburg in 1645 to a highly respected family, she most probably attended a girls’ heder (Jewish elementary school). She was well versed in midrash, ethical stories, tehinot (women’s Yiddish prayers), Taytch (the Yiddish Pentateuch), biblical stories and folk literature. Her Yiddish was superb, both oral and written; she probably could read Hebrew, although the level of her comprehension is uncertain. There are debates to this day as to whether or not she knew German.
Glickl and her family witnessed some of the most important historical events affecting European Jewry during this period. For example, the Chmielnitzki pogroms in Poland created a refugee problem in Germany; the influence of the messianic hopeful Shabtai Zvi was felt in the communities of Ashkenaz as well as in the Ottoman Empire. The end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1645 left Germany in a terrible state; the Jews suffered from its economic and political repercussions as well as from random attacks, persecution, plagues and diseases. In the second half of the 17th century, Jews in Germany were given temporary residence rights and/or expelled.
Glickl’s family fled from Hamburg to Danish-ruled Altona, eventually to return to Hamburg; neither one’s life nor one’s future was secure.
Nevertheless, Glickl was “lucky,” as her name indicates; the match made for the 11-year-old with Haim Goldshmidt of Hameln was truly a match made in heaven. These two created a loving partnership and raised a dozen (surviving) children. Haim dealt in used gold, then precious stones and imports. He was traveling constantly, attending fairs held in cities both far and near. Glickl prepared contracts at home, arranged for agents (usually more reliable family members) and worried incessantly about the safety and health of her beloved husband.
These fears were not unfounded, for he was not always in the best of health. At the age of 44, Glickl was a widow left with debts to pay and eight marriages yet to arrange. After selling her own jewelry to cover the debts and to maintain her “good name,” she proceeded to run the family business, buying and selling seed pearls, traveling to fairs, managing a sock factory and arranging impressive matches for her children. Yet facing life alone led to sleepless nights; rather than suffer, this businesswoman decided to make better use of her time and, at the same time, to bequeath to her descendants an awareness of their origins.
Thus, from 1690 to 1699, she composed the first portion of her detailed memoirs. Glickl had an incredible memory, a good sense of humor and a strong belief in God. She did not complain, and described her life without seeming to notice that she might be unusual. She believed that despite the inability to guarantee stability of any sort, one must devote oneself to working hard for one’s family. Her memoirs are interlaced with ethical stories and detailed descriptions of Jewish life.
A fear of becoming a burden as she aged led her to agree to a second marriage.
This entailed a move to Metz, where a daughter whose husband had suggested the match resided. While her second husband was well-intentioned, soon after they wed he suffered financial disaster, losing his wife’s dowry and additional funds.
This marriage was far less successful than the first. After he died, the widowed Glickl again picked up her quill (in 1719) and resumed composing what would be the final two books (of seven) of her memoirs.
Her descendants had the wherewithal to copy and preserve this amazing piece of literature, which has served as a source for the history and culture of Central European Jewry, as well as for research of early Yiddish and women’s studies. Chava Turniansky recently published a Hebrew translation that far surpasses any others (Glickl Memoirs 1691-1719, Jerusalem 2006). Reading these memoirs is an uplifting as well as an educational experience, for she was not, by any means, just a “simple housewife.”
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.