A Woman for Our Time

She prayed in tallit and tefillin, taught her followers Torah and didn't want to marry. On Sunday, a group of women will visit the grave of the Maiden of Ludmir, which was discovered a year ago.

At dusk tomorrow, a few dozen women will gather in the garden of Ruth Gan Kagan, in Jerusalem's Baka neighborhood, in order to mark a special event: the 116th anniversary of the death of Hannah Rochel Verbermacher, the Maiden of Ludmir, a solitary women from the town of Ludmir, in Ukraine (during her lifetime the town was part of the Russian Empire), who gained fame as an admor (Hasidic teacher and master). She prayed in a tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries), and like her male counterparts she held a "third meal" for her followers (the meal eaten on Shabbat afternoon, which is pervaded by a melancholy feeling because of the imminent conclusion of the Sabbath) at which she expounded on the Torah. She also received Hasidim who had questions on religious matters and granted them blessings.

It is in this spirit that Kagan, a rabbi in her own right (she does not belong to any of the streams in Judaism), and her group will mark the anniversary by expounding on the Torah and by examining the meaning of women's Torah study.

The 116th anniversary is not a round year, but it is nonetheless a special date. On Sunday, which is the exact memorial day, Verbermacher's admirers will visit her grave, on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The grave was discovered only a year ago by Nathaniel Deutsch, a Jewish researcher from Pennsylvania (where he is an associate professor of religion at Swarthmore College). On October 2003, after several years of research, Deutsch published "The Maiden of Ludmir: A Jewish Holy Woman and Her World" (University of California Press).

In the past few months, Kagan organized the establishment of a fine headstone on Verbermacher's grave (the original stone was apparently shattered during the period of Jordanian rule in the city and there is no record of what it said), which will be unveiled on Sunday. The new headstone deliberately makes no mention of her function as an admor; the formulation on the headstone, "a just rabbanit" - a word usually used for a rabbi's wife - is the term by which she is referred to in contemporaneous archives. Kagan: "We didn't want to stand out too much in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) section where she is buried. In any event, she herself, despite her special way of life, was a pious woman who saw herself as part of the Hasidic world."

Verbermacher settled in the Land of Israel when she was in her fifties, following a wave of harassment on the part of the Hasidic community in which she lived. As far as is known, she continued to act as an admor in Jerusalem, too. Because "maiden" is a pejorative epithet that was foisted on her by her opponents in the religious world, Kagan and her group do not use it and prefer to refer to her simply as Hannah Rochel.

Several studies of Verbermacher have already been written, the first dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century, by the scholar of Hasidism Shmuel Horodetsky. A few years ago, the Khan Theater in Jerusalem staged a play about her entitled "The Maiden from Ludmir," by Yosefa Even-Shushan.

Studies of Hasidism also mention other women who gave Torah lessons and blessed the Hasidim, though they were all wives or daughters of well-known rebbes (the best-known of them is Udel, the daughter of the Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism) whose family lineage made possible their anomalous behavior. Verbermacher, in contrast, is the only woman who functioned as a genuine admor, and without enjoying the protection of a prominent lineage. (She did have another form of "protection." The large inheritance she received from her father, who was a merchant, meant that she was not dependent on the economic favors of her surroundings.)

Truth or legend

In cases of this kind, as Deutsch emphasizes, it is difficult to know what is truth and what legend. It's clear, he says, that there is a grain of truth in the stories and also that there are plenty of exaggerations, to the point where it is difficult to know which is which.

Deutsch found a map of Ludmir in 1840 in the Russian Archives in St. Petersburg that cites the house of "the Jewish rabbanit Haya Rochel" (apparently a mistake for Hannah Rochel). She was an only child, and both her parents died when she was still young, her mother when she was nine and her father 10 years later. She then lived alone, sustained by her father's wealth. The legends relate that she began to engage in Torah studies after a visit to her mother's grave, where she was injured and lost consciousness. According to the legend, which is apparently based on her own testimony, after losing consciousness she "ascended to heaven," where she was given the mission to teach Torah and function as an admor.

Her home soon became a house of worship and a place of teaching, where she gave lessons and blessed the supplicants. "Those who are accompanied by holy thoughts on the road of life are not lonely and are not wretched, because these noble thoughts protect them from loneliness," she said. Deutsch notes that her followers were mainly women and craftsmen from the simple classes. At that time another "righteous man," Reb Moshe from Ludmir, the grandson of one of the famous holy men, was also active in the town and was supported by its wealthy residents. The poor people apparently did not feel comfortable with him and preferred to go to Hannah Rochel.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before Verbermacher's activity generated a furor. People were critical of the very fact that she dared to act as an admor and of her adamant refusal to marry. A regional holy man, the admor Mordechai from Chernobyl (the city of the nuclear disaster) was brought to Ludmir and he ordered Hannah Rochel to stop behaving like an admor and to marry. She refused to abandon her activity as an admor. As for marrying, Deutsch cites several versions. According to one story, she was compelled to marry her gabbai (beadle), though the marriage lasted only one night, before she expelled him. According to another version, she wanted to marry but her husband refused to have sexual intercourse with her because of his fear of her holiness or her special religious status, and as a result the marriage lasted only a short time - contributing to the epithet of "maiden."

Moreover, the gossip-mongers claimed that she not only behaved like a man but that her voice was also masculine, giving rise to the allegation that she was possessed by a dybbuk, or evil spirit. Deutsch thinks the story served as a model for the playwright S. Ansky, author of the famous Yiddish play "The Dybbuk." Its plot does not follow the story of Hannah Rochel in all details, but there are many similarities (a woman with a masculine voice, a forced marriage, a holy man who seeks to exorcise the dybbuk, and so forth). There is no clear-cut proof of this, but Deutsch found at least circumstantial evidence. Ansky, he discovered, visited Ludmir twice in the years before he wrote his play and interviewed residents there about the story of the "maiden."

Verbermacher later immigrated to Ottoman Palestine. In the popular account her move was caused by persecution, though Deutsch conjectures that one reason may have been the fact that many Hasidim moved to the Land of Israel around this time - it was a period of messianic hopes among Eastern European Jewry. The exact year of her immigration is unknown, but it was probably in 1860.

In the Montefiore Archive in London, Deutsch found two mentions of Verbermacher's residence in Jerusalem, in two different censuses conducted by Sir Moses Montefiore in 1866 and in 1875. The same source turned up the year of her birth: 1805. In each census, by the way, she appears under the category of widows (the overall name then assigned to single women) and is said to belong to the "Old Wohlin kolel" (kolel now means a yeshiva for married men but at the time referred to a community). The first census lists her as "rabbanit Rochel Hannah," from Ludmir, the second as "the just rabbanit Hannah Rochel from Ludmir."

Grave discovered

It was in the archive of the "Old Wohlin" burial society that Deutsch found the location of her grave on the Mount of Olives. The intifada kept him from finding the actual grave site; it was located by Kagan half a year ago.

Kagan came across the story of the "maiden" while she was a student of Rabbi Zalman Schechter (who ordained her as a rabbi), founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement in the United States, which is considered the center of New Age Judaism. Schechter, who has for years been interested in the stories of religious learned women throughout Jewish history, is particularly taken by the story of the "maiden" because he himself belongs to the Hasidic tradition and she was a rare case of a female admor. For years he asked his students to locate her grave. Last December friends of Kagan from the United States who had heard that Deutsch had located the grave, visited Kagan in Jerusalem and asked to see the site on the Mount of Olives. With the help of the Hevra Kadisha Burial Society, the physical location of the grave was located.

Kagan's ordination as a rabbi took place this January in Colorado, where Schechter lives. Kagan decided to take advantage of the occasion to raise funds for a headstone. She collected $3,000 that evening. The headstone was designed by the architect Avigayil Zohar, a friend of Kagan's, who was also long familiar with the story of the "maiden" and was thrilled at the privilege that befell her. The design, Zohar says, "was determined by a number of criteria, especially by the request of the burial society that the headstone not stand out from the rest of the headstones in the area. They were also opposed to the building of a `tent' (a structure in which visitors can congregate, as is common with graves of important rabbis and admors). In light of the possibility that the grave will become a site of pilgrimage, we also saw to it that a place for candles was hewed in the stone, and after the headstone is in place we will also hew a place for kvitlech (notes containing requests and wishes, such as are placed at the Western Wall and at graves of admors)."

Schechter hopes that in the wake of the book's publication and the unveiling of the headstone, lost writings of Verbermacher will also turn up. According to an article published in 1952, only four sentences from her sermons have been preserved. "Every pure thought that stems from the heart cannot be grasped by the mind," she said.

Kagan, for her part, makes no secret of her hope that the grave will become a site of pilgrimage for women from various sectors - Haredi women as well as modern feminists: "I know that when all is said and done she was a Haredi woman, and it's possible that if she were alive today she would not bless me on my journey. I would be happy if Haredi women made pilgrimage to her grave, to pray in their way for their Jewish way of life, and I will make pilgrimage there to get a blessing for my way as a rabbi."