JHOM - Personalities - Glückel of Hameln - Introduction
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
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."