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.
In Trieste, [poet] Rachel Luzzatto (Morpurgo) also stood up to her parents, refusing to marry a mean they had chosen for her. She had already decided on Jacob Morpurgo, a middle-class Austrian‑Jewish merchant. Her parents preferred a wealthy and scholarly husband for their only daughter, one of Italian rather than Austrian descent. When Rachel was29 years old, the Luzzattos finally and reluctantly consented to her marriage with Jacob.
In Eastern Europe, arranged marriages were adhered to well into the mid‑19th century. Both Puah Rakowski [a Hebrew teacher and pioneer educator] and Pauline Wengeroff [an author] accepted mates chosen by their parents, although Wengeroff was permitted to see her future husband before the wedding took place–a sign of modernity. At the age of 16, [activist] Ernestine Rose of Poland defied her father’s authority to arrange her marriage, even taking her plea to the secular courts. She won her case, left Poland and her father for the West, and married a Christian.
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.
The weakening of the Jewish community worked both in favor of women and against them. Women, rarely financially independent, were often forced by circumstances to remain in an unhappy marriage. For those who could leave, it became easier than ever to go outside the community for a divorce with or without a husband’s consent. But women who still wanted to adhere to tradition and receive a legal Jewish divorce (get) sometimes faced even more obstacles than before. If the husband no longer concerned himself with Jewish tradition, the Jewish court had no real power to coerce him into granting the divorce. If he chose, he could continually refuse to free his wife, keeping her in the state of an agunah, an abandoned wife who could never remarry. Puah Rakowski managed to force her husband to divorce her by threatening to convert, but such tactics were certainly not common. If a husband stubbornly refused to grant his wife a divorce, the Jewish community, deprived of its authority in this new age of emancipation, was helpless.