Compare and contrast Jewish women

In the middle ages, between the 12th and the 17th centuries, Jewish women were respected as important members of the family and the community at large - Compare and contrast Jewish women introduction. They were involved in financial as well as family matters as well as community matters pertaining to religion and education.

It was typical for Jewish women to be married off very early, even in their teens – whatever strata of society they belonged to. Their primary responsibility after marriage revolved around bearing children and raising them to be worthy citizens of the community. It was therefore not uncommon to find large families with close to a dozen children. The book, ‘Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln”, provides deep insight into the lives of the women of those times. The author, an ordinary woman of the times, was both mother and businesswoman; she portrays through her personal writing to her children that women like herself were pre-occupied with taking care of their children – providing for them and making their lives as comfortable as possible, wanting desperately to bestow the best life possible on them.

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Glukel shows through her writing that women were deeply religious as well. They taught their children to follow ethical practices in their everyday lives and even in matters of business. The author was a successful business woman herself – having been forced to take control of her husband’s business matters following his death.

It is interesting to note that during troubling times, the family members came together to protect each other and often even helped each other out in times of economic problems. In her memoirs, Glukel talks about her son’s financial troubles and how she bailed him out of those. Glukel writes, “In addition, my son Loeb loaned some thousands to Polish Jews, and alas, the money was never seen again…And my unlucky son writes to me to send him a thousand thalers … and I did so.”1

Family unity was deeply regarded. Consequently families were extremely close knit and deeply bonded. They felt duty bound to protect each other – parents taking care of children when they were young and the children doing the reverse for their parents when they became old and incapable of managing their affairs. There was tremendous pride attached to this. Glukel tells the story of a bird and its three fledglings to cite this. ‘A bird once set out to cross a windy sea with its three fledglings…When he was half way across with the first fledgling, the wind turned to a gale and he said, “My child,  look how I am struggling and risking my life in your behalf. When you are grown up, will you do as much for me and provide for my old age?”’2

This does not necessarily mean that joint family living was the norm. Girls generally stayed with their parents until they got married; boys sometimes moved out sooner. Once married, it was acceptable for the young couple to set up their own nuclear family.

1 Gluckel, ‘Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln’, 1987

2 Gluckel, ‘Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln’, 1987

Honesty was considered a great virtue and children were taught to be straightforward in all money matters. The education system of the time was a fine balance of secular and religious education. Parents, particularly mothers, believed in being role models for their children and led lives that were worthy of emulation.

Women were fatalistic and accepted both the good and the bad in their stride. They believed that all events in their lives were the work of God – and wholeheartedly accepted that God knew best. They never questioned why ‘me?’, and attributed all good and bad to God’s will, rarely looking for explanations. This unquestioning faith in God and religion made them accept anything untoward as a penalty for their sins.

Jewish life of those times centered on the Torah and Jewish holidays. Life during these times was governed by the Talmud which provided them a uniform code for daily living, community life, business matters and religion. Death of a family member was a deeply disturbing affair. Mourning lasted seven days and women found it hard to come to terms with the loss of a loved one.  Glukel mourns her husband’s death thus, “What shall I write, dear children, of all our bitter grief? I had always stood so high in his eyes, and now I was abandoned…May God have mercy on us and be the Father of my children”3

Jewish women even in the 12th century were very extremely enterprising and often took charge of the family’s finances. In the article called `The Jewish Family in the Rhineland in the High Middle Ages: Form and Function`, Kenneth R. Stow personifies Dulcia as the ideal woman – one who could on the one hand sew parchment books and brides’ wedding gowns, but on the other could take complete responsibility for all the household chores, including tending for the family. Dulcia was well educated and even taught law and rituals to the women of the community. Stowe writes, “Dulcia was also responsible for such traditionally female activities as tending the house and rearing the children, and her ‘motherly’ pursuits extended to caring for the needs of the students in the yeshiva headed by her husband.”4 Women, as already mentioned, were extremely religious and often attended synagogue services.

Marriages were arranged by parents, a practice in existence since very early times. This was commonly referred to as a ‘match’ in which marriage brokers were involved for making suggestions and routinely made relevant proposals. This practice of arranged marriages (where ‘matches’ were suggested and alliances sealed), continued for several centuries. Specific mention to it appears in Glukel’s memoirs. Monogamy was the general norm and husbands were obligated to take good care of their wives.

3 Gluckel, ‘Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln’, 1987

4 Stow, Kenneth R ‘The Jewish Family in the Rhineland’, 1987

It was common practice for a boy and girl to be engaged many months and for dowry to exchange hands.  A point to note is that dowry or marriage deposits varied depending on whether the woman was a virgin or not, whether divorced and whether widowed. It is interesting to note that women could resort to divorce if differences in the marriage could not be resolved. It must be mentioned here that the rate of marriage amongst Jews was very high in those times and even widows, widowers and divorcees were comfortable about re-marrying. Women kept up their ties with their natal families so that in the eventuality of a marital problem or divorce, there was someone to look after their rights. Girls received a percentage of their father’s estate at the time of marriage (dowry) and a marriage gift from the in-laws. All this served as security for the girl in case some misfortune befell her. Marriage contracts were liberally written to support the interests of women, that if they felt their husband was unreasonable towards them they could ask to be divorced.

Marriage was considered a legal way of fulfilling one’s sexual desires. There were no strict laws of consanguinity, often inviting comments that Jews were incestuous.

Marriage was the first public ceremonial appearance and celebration of status for a woman. Since procreation was highly valued in rabbinic culture, a woman was judged largely on her skills as wife, mother, and housekeeper. Modesty in a woman was highly sought after, particularly externally and especially at the time of her marriage.

The Jewish family as an institution was closely knit.. Joint family living comprising more than two generations was not uncommon and if children moved out to set up their own nuclear families, they were still joined at the hip to their parents’ home and connected closely with all events and happenings there. There was deep emotional attachment with the extended family members.

Women were given authority over the family’s finances and often engaged in money lending. Consequently, their economic dependence on their husbands slowly started to decline. In many cases, they were even considered the family head. Given the responsibilities they shouldered, it is clear that women in these times were educated – they could read, write, and keep accounts.

 A lot of similarities can be seen in the life and times of the women as portrayed by Glukel and Stow. Women were well respected, educated and had the prowess to run their own businesses. Although both authors cite the fact that their primary responsibility was to raise families, the women were independent, had a staunch belief in God and religion, molded their children in family values, and strongly believed in leading by example.

Sources

Gluckel. Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln. Schocken. 1987

Stow, Kenneth R. The Jewish Family in the Rhineland: Form and Function. American Historical Review. Vol 92. 1987.

<http://jewish-history.haifa.ac.il/staff/kstow.htm>

 

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