Gluckel of Hameln was an intrepid businesswoman, a mother of twelve children, a passionate wife, and a memoirist. She died in 1724, at the age of seventy-eight. Her memoirs are a rare window into the life of European Jewish women of the period. What struck me most vividly by her account of her days was her ability to bridge a business career (otherwise known as financial survival) and family concerns, living a unified, if exhausting, life.
“My father had me betrothed when I was a girl of barely twelve, and less than two years later I married.” So ends Gluckel’s childhood. As often happened, Gluckel’s marital deal included her being exported to another town. In this case, she was crammed into a peasant cart along with the rest of the wedding party (her mother was much put out, having expected carriages) and bustled off to the “dull and shabby hole” of Hameln, a small village. “There I was, a carefree child whisked in the flush of youth from my parents, friends, and everyone I knew, from a city like Hamburg into a back-country town where lived only two Jews.” After the wedding festivities were over, however, Gluckel adapted fast. She adored her father-in-law. After a year, however, her young husband’s ambitions were too big for Hameln and the married children moved to Hamburg, living with Gluckel’s family, where her father’s “pack of servants” helped them with daily life. There, as it was the fashion among gentiles to “wear solid gold chains, and gifts were all in gold,” her teenaged husband traded in gold, “plying his trade from house to house, to buy up the precious metal. Then he turned it over to goldsmiths, or resold it to merchants about to be married; and he earned thereby a tidy profit.” In addition to these efforts, Gluckel calls her husband “the perfect pattern of the pious Jew”; he set aside fixed times to study Torah each day, and fasted Mondays and Thursdays, to such an extent that he compromised his health. He was a tower of patience. In its maturity, their relationship was both harmonious and, in its way, egalitarian. Referring to the fact that her husband asked her advice about a business decision, Gluckel effuses, “my husband did nothing without my knowledge.”