The Life of Glckel of Hameln: A Memoir

Glckel of Hameln. The Memoirs of Glckel of Hameln. Translated by Marvin Lowenthal. New York: Shocken Books, 1977.


Reviewed by Rivka Chaya Schiller, YIVO, NYC




Glikl bas Judah Leib, more commonly known as Glckel of Hamelin, was the author of one of the earliest known autobiographical accounts reflecting on life in various towns and cities dotting western-central Europe[1] and written by a Jewish woman. Born in Hamburg in either 1646 or 1647, Glckel was married at age fourteen to Chayim Hameln, at which time she went to reside with her husband in his parents' home in Hameln (Germany).[2] She would soon thereafter become the active partner and an apparently equal decision maker in her husbands business, as evinced by the following words, uttered by Chayim Hameln on his deathbed upon being asked if he had any last wishes: None. My wife knows everything. She shall do as she has always done.[3] Glckel further bolsters this statement when she asserts that I too did my share. Not that I mean to boast, but my husband took advice from no one else, and did nothing without our talking it over.[4] Chayim Hameln and his wife, Glckels livelihood was based primarily on trading in jewelry and precious stones, as well as money lending and other business enterprises. 

At first glance, The Memoirs of Glckel of Hameln appears to be the family chronicle of a rather astute, enterprising, educated,[5] and literate Jewish woman of mid-seventeenth- century-early eighteenth century Germany. Indeed, Glckel states as much in the following message, aimed at her children:[6] I am writing down these many details, dear children mine, so you may know from what sort of people you have sprung, lest today or tomorrow your beloved children or grandchildren come and know naught of their family.[7] 

In its microcosmic reflection on the lives of Glckel, her family, and the Jewish communal sphere of her day, The Memoirs of Glckel of Hameln serves as a sort of social history. Yet at the same time, it provides rare first-hand historical documentation of events that affected both Jews and the greater society of that given time and milieu. Furthermore, the sheer existence of this literature is unusual and rare in that it was written by a Jewish woman from the early modern period, a time when literacy among (Jewish) women – or men, for that matter – was not something to be taken for granted. 

                  On the historical level, Glckel makes reference to several wars, including the Swedish-Danish War of 1657-58, as well as to the onslaught enacted by Chmielnicki and his followers against the Poles and Jews, particularly, in eastern Poland, in 1648. There are likewise references to the plague, which occurred during the lifetime of Glckels grandparents, as well as during her own lifetime. Intriguingly, Glckel also illustrates the mad fervor surrounding Sabbatai Zevi and the drive toward relocating to the Holy Land for the ultimate redemption. This latter movement was so widespread and close to home for Glckel and her family, that even her own father-in-law had prepared himself for the day of redemption by selling off his house, lands, and good furniture – all because he expected to depart for the Holy Land within a short time.[8] 

                  One important point of which a reader should be cognizant while reading Glckels accounts is the fact that she was a member of upper class Jewish society. Thus, the people with whom she regularly came into contact and whom she describes in her memoirs were likewise, for the most part, members of bourgeois and high society. Indeed, Glckels inner circle of family (frequently, through marriage) and acquaintances reads like a veritable whos who of early modern Jewish European history. A number of these individuals, who included the likes of Judah Berlin, Leffmann Behrens, Samuel Oppenheimer, Samson Wertheimer, Samuel Lvy, and Samson Baiersdorf had even reached the ranks of court Jews, a status that placed them on a plane far above that of common Jews of their time and social surroundings both in terms of powers and privileges.[9]

                  Among the more prevalent seventeenth and early-eighteenth-century institutions common to Ashkenazi Jews of Glckels background was that of child marriage, which by all of Glckels accounts, essentially, appear to have been business transactions. This is not surprising, given the relatively high mortality rates of the era, the fact that Jewish life was frequently in jeopardy, and the sheer fact that adulthood began at a far younger age than it does today. There are several examples of this throughout Glckels memoirs, including the aforementioned early marriage of Glckel to Chayim Hameln, which followed a two-year betrothal, beginning when Glckel was twelve. Other such cases of early marriages and lengthy betrothals (necessitated in certain cases, because the bride and/or the groom-to-be were/was not yet fully matured) include that of Glckel's grandson, Elias. He was betrothed, but did not marry until four years later, for both bride and groom were exceedingly young[10] Glckel similarly comments in conjunction with her son, Samuel, who also had a lengthy betrothal period: But as his bride was young and tiny, the wedding was postponed for nearly another year.[11]          

                  Although Glckel emphasizes to her children (on page one of book one of her memoirs) that this will be no book of morals, the tone she uses throughout her accounts is one of moralism and self-accusation/self-flagellation, a style that is more in keeping with religious-homiletic works, and perhaps foreign to many contemporary day readers. However, it is evident that this was a mode of literary expression that was popular in Glckels time and to which she was clearly exposed, as a cultured Jewish woman. By the time Glckel began recording her memoirs in c. 1691, following the death of her first husband, womens musar – or Jewish-religious moral and ethical books – had become fairly widespread, and was an encouraged form of leisure reading. Among the more well known of these works, which Glckel, in fact, recommended to her children, are Brantshpigl and Lev-Tov. Both of these works had been reprinted several times by the time Glckel was growing up in the mid-seventeenth century.[12]

                  Glckel tends to attribute every personal (and communal) catastrophe to sinfulness, which appears, at least from this readers perspective, too great and unfair a crucible for one woman alone to bear. Nowhere is she more self-flagellating than in regard to her poor choice of marrying Cerf Lvy, which she did eleven years after her first husbands death in 1689 (as seen in the following related excerpts): Doubtless the Most High saw my manifold sins and never gave me the thought to take myself a husband But the Most High pleased otherwise, and because of my sins He allowed me to resolve upon the match I will now put before you.[13] 

The Most High God laughed at my plans and proposals; He had long before decreed my ruin and disaster, to punish me for the sin of placing my reliance in my fellow men. For I ought not to have thought of taking another husband ... better had it been for me to remain by my children as God meant it.[14]   

At the time, Glckel had thought that she was helping to insure her financial well being, so that she need not fear becoming a burden to her children. After all, Lvy had a reputation for being wealthy and an outstanding businessperson. However, this proved to be her very undoing; within two years of marriage to her second husband, he went bankrupt – leaving Glckel and her yet unmarried youngest child in a state of destitution. The sad irony is that Glckel would ultimately be forced to live out her final years in a state of dependency on her daughter and son-in-law, in whose Metz home she resided until her death in 1724.

There is much more that can be said of the numerous sub-plots, vignettes, parables, superstitious,[15] and historical accounts related in The Memoirs of Glckel of Hameln. However, for the sake of brevity, this reader would like to conclude by pointing out that although this work was written several hundred years ago, still, it bears a number of timeless themes to which the contemporary reader should be able to relate. Indeed, this reader found herself very much drawn into Glckels world and empathizing with many of her rather contemporary tribulations: her consistent financial worries – especially after the death of her first husband; her challenges in raising twelve fatherless children (eight of whom who were still unmarried and living at home at the time of their fathers untimely death); her concern regarding finding suitable matches for her children; and her fear of becoming financially dependent on her own children. For the aforementioned reasons, this reader would strongly recommend The Memoirs of Glckel of Hameln to students and scholars of history, and to intellectually curious laypersons, alike.    







Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal Spring 2012 Volume 9 Number 1

ISSN 1209-9392

2012 Women in Judaism, Inc.

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[1] Included among these sites are Altona, Amsterdam, Berlin, Vienna, Hamburg, Hameln, and Metz. Glckel also makes reference to Jewish communities such as Vilna and Lissa, situated further to the east, in what was then Poland.     

[2] Chayim Hamelns surname, like many of the Ashkenazi surnames mentioned in The Memoirs of Glckel of Hameln, is a place name. There was a general lack of standardization of Ashkenazi Jewish surnames in the German lands until after the Edict of Tolerance had been issued by Holy Roman emperor, Joseph II, in 1782.  More specifically, in 1787 the Jews of this region were compelled to adopt German surnames. For further insight into the Edict of Tolerance, see: Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, eds., The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History, 2nd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 36-40.


[3] Glckel of Hameln, The Memoirs of Glckel of Hameln, trans. Marvin Lowenthal (New York: Schocken Books Inc., 1977), 151. 

[4] Ibid., 40.

[5] At the outset of her memoirs, Glckel reveals details about her own background, such as the fact that her father gave his sons and daughters alike, a secular as well as a religious education.  (For further information about this, see: Ibid., 6).  Although she does not elaborate on this education, it is noteworthy – especially, given the timeframe – that Glckels father deemed it worthwhile that his daughters, also be educated – and not only in religious-Jewish subject matter – but in worldly matters, as well. Glckels familiarity with Jewish Scriptures, in particular, is reflected in the numerous quotes she interweaves throughout the body of her text.

[6] Glckel was the mother of twelve children who survived to adulthood, although she had fourteen pregnancies in total during the course of thirty years of marriage. In light of the frequent references Glckel makes to illnesses, epidemics, and the primitive state of medicine, a mortality rate of twelve out of fourteen children is quite significant. 

[7] Ibid., 32.

[8] Ibid., 46.

[9] Ibid., note no. 21, 290-91.

[10] Ibid., 258.

[11] Ibid., 201.

[12] Brantshpigl by Moses Henokhs Altshul, was printed first in Krakow, in 1596, and later, in Basel, in 1602.  Lev Tov by Yitzchak ben Elyakim of Posen, was first printed in Prague in 1620 and was reprinted numerous times. Both of these works were written in a western (European) Yiddish style that was common to the early modern era.  For further information, see: Ibid., xiv; Rivkah (Bat Meir) Tiktiner, Meneket Rivkah: A Manual of Wisdom and Piety for Jewish Women by; ed. Frauke von Rohden (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2009), 14; Rubin, Noga, and Turniansky, Chava.  2010.  Lev Tov, Seyfer.  YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. (accessed February 5, 2012).         

[13] Glckel of Hameln, Memoirs, 222.

[14] Ibid., 227.

[15] In addition to her liberal use of Jewish Scriptures, Glckel amply employs parables that do not necessarily appear to stem from Jewish sources. Also included in Glckels memoirs are eerie accounts involving prophetic dreams of dead parties and other seemingly paranormal or unexplained events.   

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