Spirit and Spunk of a Merchant’s Wife

This book review is part of Blessing the Sea 4 newsletter.

Gluckel of Hameln’s memoir has many layers. Written in simple, vivid language for her children over 300 years ago, it makes a surprisingly fast and lively read.

There are anecdotes galore – funny, heartwarming, or bizarre, like when she and her mother give birth to their babies in the same room and then can’t figure out which one is which. Or traveling under the protection of a family friend, who turns out to be an alcoholic, drinking himself to the point of “falling under the hedge near a pool of water.” Yet, as “he was, after all, a human being and a Jew,” it is now up to Gluckel to oversee his safe delivery home through all the taverns and inns of Holland and Hanover.

There is awareness of political news familiar to us today – European wars, the rise of court Jews, Shabtai Zvi’s affair – but still a lot more than simply the recollections of a merchant’s wife from the era of Louis XIV and Isaac Newton.

For one, the reality that Gluckel (1646-1724) portrays is quite different from today.

One of Gluckel’s earliest memories is among the most telling. When she is 2, her family, along with the rest of the Jewish community of about forty families, are expelled from Hamburg by the city council order.

They flee to a nearby town of Altona, owned by the Danish crown. Despite expulsion, Jews are still allowed to do business in Hamburg, so they commute daily to Hamburg from Altona, but doing so meant that “our poor folks took their life in their hands because of the hatred for the Jews rife among the dockhands, soldiers, and others of the meaner classes. The good wife, sitting home, often thanked G-d when her husband turned up safe and sound.”

Adapting to this ever-changing realities of living in an archipelago of micro-states that comprised Germany was an essential skill. If you’ve mastered it, you will, with G-d’s help, do well. If not, you may pay for it dearly.

How do you make it in a land where tolerance for Jews is on a scale of lukewarm to zero?

Relying, as Gluckel shows, first and foremost, on your family networks. Marriage, like Gluckel’s at 12, becomes an important step to secure a foothold in a particular town, or a connection with a particular family.

Family networks provide the wealth needed to start a business, secure patronage of a local ruler, find a rabbi, obtain education (in Gluckel’s case for both boys and girls), or a place to flee to. Gluckel’s husband Chayim, mostly a dealer in precious stones, was not among the richest, but his and Gluckel’s networks expanded into France, Netherlands, Poland, East Germany, and south to Switzerland.

Gluckel, a merchant’s wife in what we now call the Early Modern period, is inspiring in her leadership. While Chayim travels to trade fairs throughout northern and central Europe, Gluckel is running the household and raising their 14, yes, 14 kids, and yet is ever-present in Chayim’s business dealings. “Not that I mean to boast,” she writes with somewhat false modesty, “but my husband took advice from no one else, and did nothing without our talking it over together.” In another scene, she drafts a contract for her husband’s business partnership with an unreliable partner. When Chayim dies, Gluckel takes over and expands the family business, and with eight of her children still living at home, travels to fairs herself.

Faith was also essential to survival. Judaism provided Gluckel a framework complete with language, literature, observancies, calendar, and social networks.

Religious texts offer the comfort and explanation of the volatile world Jews are set to inhabit. The educated and pious, though not meek, Gluckel often speaks to G-d and quotes from the Tanakh, Pirkei Avot, the siddur, and even from the Talmud trying to make sense of it all.

Say your prayers with awe and devotion,” she instructs her children. “During the time for prayers, do not stand about and talk of other things. While offering your prayers to the Creator of the world, [do not] engage in talk about an entirely different matter. Shall G-d Almighty be kept waiting until you have finished your business?”

The most crucial event of her life, the one that she keeps returning to is Chayim’s death. And here too, she contemplates it as a woman who keenly feels G-d’s presence in her life.

When his soul took wing, there flew with at all my glory, wealth, and honor. My dear mother and her children sought to comfort me, but it was as oil poured upon fire, and my grief grew only worse for it. . . The days that the dear friend of my heart lay dead before me were not as bad as those that followed. Then it was my grief deepened hourly. But in His mercy, G-d at length brought me patience, so I have taken care of my fatherless children as far as a weak woman can, bowed with affliction and woe.”

Quoting Talmud’s teaching that “man is bound to give thanks for the evil as for the good” (Berakot Mishna IX), Gluckel is trying to come to terms with her loss:

I know that this complaining and mourning is a weakness of mine and a grievous fault. Far better it would be if every day I fell upon my knees and thank the Lord for the tender mercies He has bestowed on my unworthy self. I sit to this day at my own table, eat what I relish, stretch myself at night in my own bed, and even have a shilling to waste, so long as the good G-d pleases. I have my beloved children, and while things do not always go well, now with one, or the other, as they should, still we are alive. . . How many people there are in this world, finer, better, juster than I, . . . who have no bread to put into their mouths! How then can I thank and praise my Creator enough for all the goodness He has lavished upon us?

Simple wisdom? What could be deeper?

More on Gluckel. And read the book!

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