Jewish Women After the Haskalah

The Jewish home takes center stage.

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By 1800, the median age of marriage for girls in western and central Europe was 20 or more, considerably higher than it had been in the Middle Ages, although some were married younger. Henriette Lemos Herz was 15 when she became a wife.

Once married, the young bride and her husband might still maintain the tradition of boarding with parents or other family members for a few years. This custom, called kest, gave the husband a chance to complete his studies if necessary, and the wife gained more training in household management, usuallyin her mother‑in‑law's home.

While many young women now lived in an environment that allowed them more choice of education and more opportunity to participate in activities outside the home, their roles remained similar to that of their grandmothers and great‑grand‑mothers. Pauline Wengeroff was expected to obey her husband. In her case, she did obey, even though it meant abandoning Jewish tradition. Puah Rakowski was more assertive and coerced her husband into agreeing to let her study midwifery. She never practiced, but used it as a means to financial independence. The couple later divorced. But Rakowski was a maverick. The 10 rules for a Jewish wife, written in Yiddish in 1620 by Isaac ben Eliakim of Posen, remained a familiar standard even among the more educated and were repeated in more modem versions.


By the late 1700s, caring for children and educating them had become a higher priority for both the Christian and Jewish population of Europe. This was reflected in the increasing number of state‑run schools that all children, including Jews, were expected to attend. Jewish girls and boys were routinely sent to both secular schools and heders (although lessons were different for girls and boys). The kindergarten movement became popular in the nineteenth century and was supported by many Jewish women.

More and more, mothers were expected to be at home, to care for their children and give them a moral education. Frumet Wolfacknowled­ged the importance of her own role as mother in her ethical will, pointing out that her children would need to be close after her death when "the center disappeared from the circle." Jeanette Schwerin was "housebound" because her children were sickly and she did not enter the larger world until they were grown. By contrast, when Dorothea Mendelssohn Veit Schlegel ran off with another man and left her husband and children, her behavior was considered disgraceful and even her friends turned their backs on her.


Divorce was accepted as an unfortu­nate event but was allowed by the Jewish community and always remained an option for men. A woman could not sue for divorce, but she could appeal to the Jewish court to force her husband to grant a divorce if the court felt she had legitimate grounds. Jewish Law had not changed in this regard since the early Middle Ages. By the 19th century, what had changed was the Jewish community.

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Cheryl Tallan has an MA in Interdisciplinary Studies from York University, Toronto. She is the author of Medieval Jewish Women in History, Literature, Law and Art: A Bibliography.