Some aspects of Jewish life have been constant through the ages. Just as we are today preoccupied with making a living, raising a family and ensuring our children succeed, so too was Glückel of Hameln (in Hebrew, Glikl). Born in 1646 near Hamburg, Germany, she was not only a wife and mother of 14 children (two of whom died at young ages), but also a business partner to her husband Chaim and continued working after his death.
This is all the more remarkable in that Glückel lived in an era when most German Jews were discriminated against. They were subjected to a wide-range of restrictions that affected every aspect of their daily lives – where they could live, which streets they could walk on, even when they could marry. They faced heavy and humiliating taxes, including the leibzoll or body tax.
Every Jew – the exception were wealthy Jewish merchants, or “Court Jews,” who provided important financing to rulers– who passed through a city, town or village was required to pay this toll, a demeaning charge that was not eliminated in the German states until the end of the 18th century. At the gates of Mainz, for instance, custom officials greeted visitors with a sign for duties to be paid under the following headings: “Honey, Hops, Wood, Jews, Chalk, Cheese [and] Charcoal.” Jews were still victims of what years earlier was sarcastically called a “sponge policy”: they “were allowed to absorb the money required by the rulers, which was then squeezed from them by varying degrees of pressure.”
Glückel wrote of such problems in her memoirs. Soon after Chaim had died in 1689, she began writing her diary in Judisch-Deutsch, a German dialect written in Hebrew that eventually evolved into Yiddish. Her writing was initially a self-reflection, as she noted, to “stifle and banish the melancholic thoughts which came… during many sleepless nights.” Later transformed into a manuscript by one of her sons, it was eventually published in German in 1911 and then translated into English in a 1932 edition.
Glückel had been betrothed by her parents when she was only 12 years old to the son of Joseph Baruch, a prominent gems dealer from the town of Hameln in Hanover. They were married two years later. For the next three decades, Glückel worked side-by-side with Chaim, who was, like his father, a trader in gold, silver, pearls and money. Chaim traveled throughout Europe, while Glückel looked after their many children as well as kept tabs on his contracts and account books. As a trader at fairs in Leipzig and Frankfurt, Chaim moved in a circle that brought him into contact with the wealthiest Jews of the age.
Still for much of their lives together, Glückel and Chaim were always worried about the many bills they owed and worked diligently at arranging marriages for their children that included large dowries. One of Glueckel’s proudest moments was when her eldest daughter, Zipporah, married Kossman Gomperz, the son of a distinguished Jewish family in the duchy of Cleves. Attending the ceremony and celebrations were young Prince Frederick (the future King Frederick I of Prussia) and Prince Moritz von Nassau. “For a hundred years,” wrote Glückel, “no Jew had such a high honour.”
Chaim’s death naturally paralyzed her for a time. She believed that he had died because of her sins. But she still had eight children at home to take care of and took solace in the trust that her husband placed in her. Before Chaim died, he said, “I have no instructions. My wife, she knows everything. Let her do as she has done until now.”
Glückel did just that. She expanded the gem-trading business and opened her own shop. Worried, however, that she would fail and become a burden to her children, she remarried. Her second husband, a widower Cerf (Hirsch) Levy of Metz, France, was a banker and community stalwart. Yet soon after their marriage, his business failed. He lost his money as well as much of Glückel’s. She lived with her daughter, Esther, in Metz and spent the next 12 years surrounded by her children and grandchildren until her death in 1724 at 78.
Historian Allan Levine’s most recent book is Toronto: Biography of a City.