Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to Jewish Women, 600 BCE-1900 CE (The Jewish Publication Society).
As long as the Jewish community was the all-embracing framework for Jewish life, the home was less vital. Children attended Jewish schools, marital problems and divorces were handled in Jewish courts, and male officials representing the community judged women’s behavior. Once individual emancipation was a real option, however, communal authority gradually eroded, even in the smaller Jewish shtetls [towns] of Poland and Russia. Community officials, no longer possessing real power, could only watch as growing numbers of Jews defected and chose to turn their backs on the Jewish community.
With communal authority on the decline, the home now became the center of Jewish identity, and the woman in that home gained a more significant role. While men went into the secular world to earn a living, women presided over homes that were sometimes a last bastion of Jewish tradition.
Despite Enlightenment ideas, traditional betrothals and marriages remained common in most of the Jewish communities of Europe throughout the 18th century. Although assimilation and intermarriage threatened the old customs, and enlightened, secular Jews were more likely to abandon the tradition, change was slow. It began in the West and moved eastward.
In England, courtship and the agreement of both partners gradually replaced arranged marriages. Germany maintained the old traditions awhile longer but could not prevent change indefinitely. Both Dorothea Mendelssohn (Schlegel, a German-Jewish salon hostess and the eldest daughter of scholar Moses Mendelssohn,) and [German salon hostess] Henriette Lemos (Herz) married much older men, chosen by their fathers, but Rahel Levin (Varnhagen, also a German salon-hostess), more of a rebel, refused a proposed match arranged by her family while she was still in her teens. She remained unmarried for many years. When she did marry, her husband was a man of her own choosing, a Christian literary critic and diplomat, much younger than she. As did all the women who married Christian men, Rahel converted. There was no civil marriage in Germany at that time.