If, as historian Jacob Shatzky once observed, catastrophe of one sort or another has been the usual impetus for the bulk of Jewish autobiographical writing, the celebrated chronicles left to us by Gluckel of Hamelyn (1646-1724) under the title The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hamelyn are no exception.
The pious Gluckel took up her quill in 1689 after the accidental death of her beloved husband, Chaim Segal of Hamelyn, who succumbed to internal injuries after falling on a slippery pavement. Beginning with the aim of “distracting my soul from the burdens laid upon it,” she wrote seven small books of memoirs over many years, strictly for the benefit of her dozen children.
Hailed as the first autobiography in Jewish letters by a woman, Gluckel’s memoirs provide a warm, intimate and unique glimpse of her family and commercial affairs over an extended period. She writes with great candour whether the subject is finding desirable matches and doweries for her children, or suitable partners and equity for new business ventures. She possessed a shrewd business sense and was deeply involved in most of Chaim’s mercantile activities despite the demands of motherhood.
“In its graphic account of intimate experiences, its lively sketches of character, its warm humour and frank self-revelation, [Gluckel’s Life] not only throws a flood of light on the period but also introduces a plucky, intelligent, independent woman whom it would have been a joy to know,” observed critic Leo W. Schwarz.
Like Anne Frank’s legendary diary, Gluckel’s highly readable memoir falls into a category of literature that the Encyclopedia Judaica defines as”unconscious autobiography” — that is, writing not meant for publication. Reflecting her unconscious and unliterary approach, she frequently dips her pen into the meditative ink of devotional parables, Talmudic lore and sayings from the popular Yiddish ethical books of the day, as if wanting to instruct her children as well as leave them a better sense of their family’s dealings in the world.
Surprisingly, the book was kept within the relatively narrow circle of her own family for two centuries. What is less surprising is the level of discussion and scholarship it aroused after its first publication in 1896; it has been reprinted numerous times since.
Living in Hamburg, Gluckel and Chaim were connected by blood or marriage to many leading German-Jewish families of the day, and her narrative contains enough genealogical information to allow roots-minded readers to sketch out an extensive family tree. The book has proven invaluable to numerous contemporary researchers seeking information about their lineages.
Most likely, Gluckel couldn’t have imagined that the seven little books she penned for her children’s edification would ever have merited publication, the attention of thousands of readers, and a hallowed place on the shelf of Jewish autobiographical literature. She stands as a fine model today for anyone with the notion that their knowledge of family history is worth recording. ♦