JHOM - Personalities - Glückel of Hameln - Introduction

scale_993scale_1013scale 1020scale_1027scale_38_39scale_1039scale_scale_40_50scale_1055_56June 1806

In my great grief and for my heart's ease I begin this book the year of Creation 5451 [1690-91] — God soon rejoice us and send us His redeemer! I began writing it, dear children, upon the death of your good father, in the hope of distracting my soul from the burdens laid upon it, and the bitter thought that we have lost our faithful shepherd. In this way I have managed to live through many wakeful nights, and springing from my bed shortened the sleepless hours.[*]

Thus begins the beautifully-written Memoirs of the resourceful and shrewd businesswoman, wife and mother Glikl bas Judah Leib (1646-1724). When Glückel (German for Glikl)) sat down to write her memoirs in 1690 as a kind of therapy after her husband's death, she could not possibly have foreseen that they would comprise one of the most remarkable documents of the late seventeenth and early 18th century. Her memoirs, which describe her life as mother of fourteen children and as businesswoman and trader, has given scholars, students and laymen an invaluable document about Jewish life in Europe in the 17th century. Glückel grew up in Hamburg, a city frequently hostile to its Jews. The family was frequently forced to leave the city and take refuge in nearby Altona, where Jews enjoyed official "protected" status. Hamburg was a lively city of more than 60,000 people and a commercial center with trade connections to many countries. Glückel's father Judah Joseph Leib was a prominent trader, and her mother, Beila, a businesswoman.

As was the custom, Glückel's parents chose her husband, and at the age of fourteen she was married to Chaim Hameln. The couple would enjoy thirty years of happy marriage and fruitful partnership, build considerable wealth, raise twelve children, and arrange for them marriages of wealth and prestige. Glückel and Chaim worked together running his business trading gold, silver, pearls, jewels, and money. Chaim traveled to England and Russia and throughout Europe selling his goods, with Glückel advising him on his business dealings, drawing up partnership contracts, and helping keep accounts.

About Glückel's name

Glückel's early marriage

Glückel as businesswoman

Glückel's view of her suffering

The Memoirs (analysis and selections)

Then came the great tragedy of Glückel's life, the event that sparked the writing of her Memoirs. One evening in 1689 while traveling to a business appointment, Chaim fell on a sharp rock. He died several days later. As the devastated Glückel mourns Chaim she refers to him as her 'good friend' — an expression that testifies to the closeness and success of their companionship. Chaim left everything to Glückel, summing up his bequests on his deathbed: "my wife knows everything." After thirty days mourning, Glückel was compelled to face his debts. Demonstrating excellent business acumen, Glückel auctioned her husband's possessions, paying his creditors and keeping a significant amount for herself and the eight children still living at home. Her resourcefulness saved her and her family as she established an ample livelihood: she resumed Chaim's trade of pearls, expanding to open a shop; she manufactured and sold stockings; sold imports and local wares; and lent money.

Despite her evident business talents, her continued prosperity and her good credit, Glückel eventually succumbed to anxiety. She began to fear she might fail in business, and that she would bring shame on her children by becoming dependent on them. It was 1699, and she had now arranged marriages for all but one. While asserting a wish to spend her last years in the Land of Israel, she opted instead for security, reluctantly remarrying. Glückel was to account this marriage to the widower Hirsch Levy as one of the great mistakes of her life. For Glückel's requirements, Levy was an attractive enough prospect: a wealthy businessman and community leader in Metz, France. Little could she have known that her new husband would go bankrupt soon after their marriage and would lose both her fortune and his. His wealth was never recovered, and the couple was forced to rely instead on help from their children. Levy died a broken man in 1712, when Glückel was 66 years old.

Glückel's story ends happily. Although she was loathe to give up her independence and to rely on her children, she moved in with her daughter Esther in Metz. As she watched a her children and grandchildren continue to marry well, have children, and prosper, Glückel lived out her remaining years in the shelter of her daughter and son-in-law's evident warm love and respect. As Glückel put it, she was "paid all of the honors in the world."

footnotes [*] Lowenthal, Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln, p. 1. [back]
sources Barnes & Noble linkRobert Rosen, Introduction: The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln. Marvin Lowenthal, tr., ed. Copyright © 1977 by Schocken Books (New York), pp. vii-ix (see Random House online catalog).

Barnes & Noble linkNatalie Zemon Davis. Women on the Margins. Copyright © 1995 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

  • In this feature article we have used the name Glückel which is the German version of the Yiddish name Glikl (meaning "luck"). Where we include excerpts from Natalie Zemon Davis' book, we do not alter her use of the Yiddish name Glikl.

  • We have received email from the president and lay leader of the first post-war Jewish congregation in Hameln. The congregation has bought the land back from the city and is now trying to raise the money to rebuild the synagogue which was destroyed in 1938. For more information please contact Rachel Dohme, President of Juedische Germeinde Hameln.




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