This Day in Jewish History

1724: Grieving Widow Whose Book Sheds Rare Light on Jewish World Dies

Glueckl of Hameln wrote of her perfectly pious husband, helping Chmielnicki survivors – and her own 'ethical will.'

Black and white image of Gluckel of Hameln, with a script next to her.
Public Domain

September 19, 1724, is the date on which the German-Jewish memoirist and businesswoman Glueckl of Hameln died, at the age of 78. Educated, worldly and pious, Glueckl took up the composition of a journal after the death of her husband, in order to “stifle and banish the melancholic thoughts” that pursued her, as well as to leave a record for her children. For historians, her work, written in Old Yiddish, provides valuable insight into Jewish social life in Northern Europe in the pre-modern period, as well as into major historical events like the crisis caused by the false messiah Shabbetai Zevi.

Glueckl bas Judah Leib, as she was called in Yiddish, was born in 1646 in Hamburg, then part of the Holy Roman Empire. Her parents were Loeb, or Leib, Pinkerle, a well-connected merchant, and his wife Beila.

Expelled from Hamburg

In 1649, the Ashkenazi Jews were expelled from the city, and Glueckl’s family, like the others, moved to nearly Altona, which was then under Danish rule. In the late 1650s, the Ashkenazim were slowly permitted to return, and Loeb Pinkerle was the first to do so.

Glueckl is scanty on details of her childhood, but she does record that her father wanted all his children to have both a Jewish and a general education, and that she attended heder as a child, where she studied the ethical works considered appropriate for girls, for the most part.

One thing she does recall is how her family, in the early 1650s, took in survivors from the Chmielnicki massacres in Ukraine, who appeared in a ragtag manner in Hamburg, often suffering from disease and malnutrition.

In 1658, Glueckl was betrothed to Haim, son of Joseph Goldschmidt of Hameln – “the perfect pattern of the pious Jew,” in her judgment. They married two years later, and were together until his death, in 1689.

For the first year of their marriage, the couple lived with his parents, in Hameln (a “dull and shabby hole,” in Glueckl’s words), before moving back to Hamburg, where Haim was able to set up a business that traded in jewelry and precious stones, in addition to offering financial services.

The first of their 14 children (two of whom died very young) was born about a year after the wedding. (The same week, Glueckl’s mother also gave birth.)

'My wife, she knows everything'

In 1689, Haim suffered a bad fall while traveling. Although he made it home, he did not recover, and Glueckl was with him when he died. She recounts how she wanted to embrace him, but because she was menstruating at the time, was forbidden from doing so.

Haim died later that same day. When asked what orders he had for carrying out his affairs, he responded, “I have no instructions. My wife, she knows everything. Let her do as she has done until now.”

Indeed, Glueckl had apparently been a full partner to Haim in his business, and she stepped into his shoes after his death, keeping the business thriving.

Two years later is when she began writing, as noted, to get through “the sleepless nights,” and she continued for eight years, until shortly before her second marriage, to Cerf (or Herz) Levy, a banker from Metz, in Lorraine.

In short time, Cerf went bankrupt, losing not only all of his capital, but also that of his new wife, including a dowry she had set aside for her daughter.

Levy died in 1712, and the now penniless Glueckl was forced to move in with the family of her daughter Esther, in Metz, a situation she had always hoped to avoid. She resumed writing during the years 1715 to 1719, and as the historian Natalie Zemon Davis has noted, she seemed to have in mind leaving her descendants with not only a record of their family history, but also with what today is called an ethical will.  

Ultimately, her book comprised seven chapters. Her original manuscript was lost, but not before being transcribed by her son Moshe, and again by his son, and deposited in the Bavarian State Library. Its first publication in book form took place in 1892.