In the millennia-long struggle against assimilation, Jewish women exhibited remarkable spiritual strength.
We all know of the great contributions to Jewish continuity made by Torah scholars over the ages. The vast reservoir of commentaries and halachic works added to the canon of Jewish literature over the past 2,000 years is astonishing in its scope and breadth, particularly against the backdrop of Jewish suffering and persecution.
But while men tended to study in the great yeshivah centers, women were often weaving Torah values and ideals into the fabric of their homes. And most amazingly, the Jewish woman, referred to in the historical literature as “stubborn and zealous,” exhibited remarkable spiritual strength in the millennia-long struggle against assimilation.
“Stubborn and Zealous”
The Jewish woman holds a unique place in the history of Jewish martyrdom, a phenomenon as old as the exile itself. Note, for example, the following incident related by the Talmud (Gittin 57b):
Four hundred Judean youths were enslaved by the Romans for immoral uses and transported by ship to their destination. The young men onboard deliberated whether those who drown themselves will attain the World to Come and merit resurrection. They concluded in the affirmative, based on Proverbs: “And I shall restore from the depths of the sea” (68:23). The girls, upon hearing this, did not linger. They threw themselves into the waters below. Upon witnessing this, the young men said: “If for these [women] for whom [self-sacrifice] is a natural act, shall not we, for whom it is unnatural?” And so they too threw themselves into the sea.
The annals of Jewish history are laden with tales of Jewish women who sacrificed their lives for Torah while influencing others to do the same. When faced with choosing death or a life that entailed abandoning the Torah, women have led the way down the path of self-sacrifice.
Christianity’s ongoing conflict with Judaism resulted in all manner of persecution, most noteworthy of which are perhaps the Crusades. The various historical records of the period, such as Mainz Anonymous, Sefer Zechirah and The Chronicles of Shlomo Bar Shimshon document the suffering of medieval Jewry during this era, noting how the women often set the tone for how to respond to these atrocities. Chronicles from the Crusade-era document various incidents of women overcoming their maternal instinct and slaughtering their own children to save them from Christian monasteries. Some medieval prayer books printed the benediction for when one sacrifices oneself and one’s child to sanctify God’s Name.
Mainz Anonymous, written in Hebrew, describes how when the rampaging soldiers ripped up the Torah scrolls in the German community of Mainz, the women cried out in devastation, and only then, “when the men heard the words of these pious women, they were moved with zeal for the Lord, our God, and for His holy and precious Torah,”1 causing them to tear keriah. Crusade chronicles also detail women throwing rocks at the enemy to delay their approach, so the other women could complete the killing of the children.
Christian sources from the period verify such incidents, and note how women were the great obstacle to conversion to Christianity.2 Similar frustration is echoed by the malicious executors of the Spanish Inquisition, who found women to be stubborn and intractable, preventing widespread conversion. Much of the documentation from the period focuses on the issue of women conversos who actively taught and practiced the Jewish religion and could not be swayed to abandon their faith. Shabbos and kashrut were observed by women living in the shadow of the feared Inquisition, and historical records describe the countless machinations of these brave women who attempted to maintain dietary laws despite the presence of keen-eyed servants and neighbors. Documents tell of women who claimed “the cat” ran off with the gid hanasheh (sciatic nerve) while they were dissecting the animal, and of other subterfuge, like swapping a piece of pork purchased by a servant with cow meat. Trial transcripts include the testimony of servants who describe how a fatty piece of meat would disappear and reappear looking unfamiliar and lean.3
Victor von Karben, a former German rabbi who converted to Christianity in 1477, similarly decries the female “infantile behavior” that prevented Jews from converting en masse. His own wife and daughters refused to convert with him, clearly influencing his writing, but he speaks broadly about Jewish women as the “pesky, zealous gender,” taking the lead in jumping into the flames or hanging themselves when forced to convert.4 Women who refused to convert alongside their husbands suffered a double tragedy, as now they had the status of an agunah. Such incidents are recorded in the rabbinic responsa of the era.5
Clinging to Tradition
As the world evolved, replacing Christian fervor with Enlightenment ideals, a new threat accosted the Jewish community. The spirit of reform and the scent of Haskalah encroached upon the Jewish ghetto walls. Often, the Jewish woman’s deep faith and conviction played a role in arresting assimilation’s advancement in her home and community.
Professor Marion Kaplan, a professor of Jewish history at New York University, surveyed Jewish women in nineteenth-century Germany, and found that they “remained the guardians of tradition in a period in which German Jews were undergoing a variety of processes of adaptation.”6 As men eagerly shed their Judaism for greater social acceptance, many of their wives clung to ancient customs. Kaplan notes, through the lens of countless diaries and memoirs, that women ensured their homes were cleaned for Pesach, Shabbat foods were cooked, and holidays observed, while their male counterparts continued to strip down each of these experiences to their bare bones. Even assimilated Jews record their mothers or wives maintaining kashrut standards in their homes, or at least a taste of tradition, despite the overall lack of observance. Psychologist Sigmund Freud’s son wrote about his grandmother:
On Saturdays we used to hear her singing Jewish prayers in a small but firm and melodious voice. All of this, strangely enough in a Jewish family, seemed alien to us children who had been brought up without any instruction in Jewish ritual.7
One woman’s memoir notes how her mother fasted on Yom Kippur and spent the whole day in the synagogue while her father would eat a large meal, after which he would joke, “after a hearty breakfast, it is easier to fast.”8 Kaplan notes how conversion and intermarriage stats highly favor Jewish men over women, and when women did intermarry, economic necessity was a primary factor.
Similar frustration is echoed by the malicious executors of the Spanish Inquisition, who found Jewish women to be stubborn and intractable, preventing widespread conversion.
The variety of women’s charity groups and associations helped create an insular and supportive network for Jewish women, as well as the social reality that women had little to no economic or political clout; however, the resistance to acculturation can also be attributed to spiritual strength and fortitude.
The erosion of religious life among nineteenth-century German Jews is a tragic tale, one that was echoed by Jewish American immigrants in the twentieth century. Despite efforts to stem the tide of assimilation, historic Jewish communities floundered and drowned under the crashing waves of freedom and opportunity. Very often, the women’s efforts to maintain religious standards had little impact.
At the same time, there were Jewish women who succumbed to assimilation. In Eastern Europe, young women were rapidly joining secular ideological groups and abandoning tradition in droves. Many were drawn to assimilation because of its looser gender roles and promises of equality.
First-generation female immigrants to America managed to sustain tradition because their husbands were often economically mobile, ensuring that the wives could remain at home and serve the family as a balabusta (which entailed frugal spending and meticulous housekeeping). But daughters were often sent to work in factories, and this provided a newfound autonomy for these second-generation women. Although they often handed over their earnings to their families, a small amount was kept for their own use, which went towards the entertainments of the day—dance halls, amusement parks and theaters. Young girls often shrugged off parental ideas of courtship, confident that they were capable of making their own match. And thus the story of Jewish women and religion in America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is no better than that of the men.9
One of the dominant themes in Jewish female writings during the Haskalah period is regret. The following letter written by Rebecca Samuels in 1791 perhaps sums up the sentiments of many women during the evolving period of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At first she describes the thrill of newfound freedoms in Virginia:
You cannot imagine what kind of Jews they have here! . . . One can make a good living and all live in peace. Anyone can do what he wants. There is no rabbi in all of America to excommunicate anyone. This is a blessing here; Jew and Gentile are as one. There is no galus here.10
Yet this subsequent letter expresses an entirely different sentiment:
I hope my letter will ease your mind. . . The whole reason why we are leaving this place is because of lack of Yiddishkeit . . . I know quite well you will not want me to bring up my children like Gentiles. And here they cannot become anything else. Here the shochet goes to the market, buys treif meat and then brings it home. On Rosh Hashanah the people here worshipped without even one sefer Torah . . . You can believe me that I crave to see a synagogue to which I can go. The way we live now is no life at all. We do not know what Shabbos and yom tov are. On Shabbos all the Jewish shops are open.11
Pauline Wengeroff’s memoirs echo a similar disillusionment with what began as an enthusiasm for modernity. A Russian woman living through the turbulence of nineteenth-century Haskalah, Pauline tells a tragic tale of a family infected with the deadly virus that ensured its demise, in the book Rememberings. And like many of her sisters, Pauline became a silent bystander. Pauline, formerly “Pessele” (Epstein) Wengeroff, describes her childhood home and the religious fervor of her parents:
At our house, the time of day was referred to by the names of the three daily services: the morning was called “before or after davenen”; the afternoon was called “before or after mincheh”; dusk was “between mincheh and ma’ariv”12. . . . Of what importance was the life of the individual except as fruitful ground for Talmud study? Like his ancestors, my father dedicated himself faithfully to study and to the service of God . . .13
My pious mother was very exacting in the fulfillment of every regulation . . . [when checking food for bugs] she gave a prize for every worm the women found. She lived in fear that their search would not be meticulous enough.14
Pessele may have been raised in a pious, insular home, but by the end of her life, a number of her children converted to Christianity.
Interestingly, Pauline depicts her mother as the more religiously zealous parent, despite her father’s deep-seated religious convictions. The pivotal moment in her story is when the enigmatic Dr. Max Lilienthal visited Eastern Europe with his notions of secular education and German literature. While the men in Pauline’s family, even her father, hurried to welcome this novel figure who would help to uplift poverty-stricken Jewish communities, only her mother foresaw the danger, tragically foreshadowing the demise of their simple lifestyle:
But my mother’s eyes were sharper. She saw more deeply, as was confirmed in the end.15 The day after their visit with Dr. Lilienthal, my brothers-in-law are sitting thoughtfully together in their study.
“We’ll find the books,” says the elder eagerly. “We’ve just got to be very careful. Sneak the work into our Talmud time. But don’t let the parents catch on” . . . A careful observer might often spot a volume of Schiller or Zschokke inside the Talmud folio . . .
One morning in the memorable summer of 1842 my brothers-in-law fetched their new books from their hiding place, never dreaming that they could be overheard, and laid them on their open Talmud. Together with their friend Reb Herschel, a melamed from Orlo and a brilliant man with great knowledge of Talmud in his own right, they began a loud debate about a sentence in Schiller’s Don Carlos. As a precaution in case of interruption, they were reading and disputing in their accustomed Talmudic sing-song.
But my mother had been watching them with a sharp and troubled eye. Ghosts had been haunting her since Dr. Lilienthal’s visit. She was convinced that a foreign element had moved into her house and that it would make the study of God’s word secondary. To reassure herself, she decided to go to the young people’s study. At the bottom of the stairs she paused to listen and then went up joyfully, to the encouraging sounds of learning from above. How they were studying! But when she pressed her ear to the door and paid closer attention she was seized with horror. A terrible expression of anger and disappointment distorted her features. Instead of “amar Abbaye,” all she could hear was “Marquis de Posa,”“the Duke of Alba,” and other sinful trash.16
The rest of the tale is a tragic, predictable, prevalent one for nineteenth-century Jewry. Pessele/Pauline may have been raised in a pious, insular home, but by the end of her life, a number of her children converted to Christianity. Pauline personifies the terrible error of her generation; she represents the men and women who, in their haste to educate and improve their children’s lives, failed to maintain high Jewish standards:
We strove to see that our children would have what we had missed. But unfortunately, in our great enthusiasm we forgot the ultimate goal and the wisdom of restraint. It is our fault that a chasm opened between us and our children.17
While this article highlights the extreme reactions Jewish women have had to assimilation—self-sacrifice on the one hand and self-destruction on the other, prior to modern times most Jewish women exhibited tremendous mesirut nefesh for Torah. There was the medieval woman who sold all her jewelry to buy sefarim;18 the Early Modern woman who sent her boys ages eight and nine to a far-off city so they could study in the great Torah center of the era;19 and the shtetl wife who gave up on all material comforts to pay for her son’s melamed. Jewish women throughout history engaged in acts of self-sacrifice to ensure their children would carry on the mesorah. Through their quiet acts of devotion, they remained ever-vigilant against the great existential threats to Jewish survival.
1. “Narratives of the Old Persecution/Mainz Anonymous,” The Jews and the Crusaders: The Hebrew Chronicles of the First and Second Crusades, ed. and trans. Shlomo Eidelberg (Hoboken, New Jersey, 1977), 113.
2. Avraham Grossman, Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe (Waltham, Massachusetts, 2004), 202.
3. Renee Levine Melammed, “Conversas,” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, Jewish Women’s Archive, jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/conversas.
4. Grossman, 203.
5. Ibid., 205.
6. Marion Kaplan, “Tradition and Transition: Jewish Women in Imperial Germany,” Jewish Women in Historical Perspective (Detroit, 1991), 202.
7. David Aberbach, “Freud’s Jewish Problem,” Commentary, June 1, 1980.
8. Kaplan, 207.
9. Paula E. Hyman, “Eastern European Immigrants in the United States,” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, Jewish Women’s Archive, jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/eastern-european-immigrants-in-united-states.
10. Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology, ed. Jules Chametzky et al. (New York, 2001), 38-39.
11. Ibid., 38-39.
12. Pauline Wengeroff, Rememberings: The World of a Russian-Jewish Woman in the Nineteenth Century, trans. Henry Wenkart (Potomac, MD, 2000), 3.
13. Ibid., 4.
14. Ibid., 7.
15. Ibid., 74.
16. Ibid., 76.
17. Ibid., xiv.
18. Sefer Chassidim
19. Emily Taitz, et al., The JPS Guide to Jewish Women (Philadelphia, PA, 2003).
Faigy Grunfeld teaches English and history. She lives in Detroit, Michigan with her family.