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Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues 7 (2004) 11-27

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"She Sees That Her Merchandise is Good, and Her Lamp is Not Extinguished at Nighttime":

Glikl's Memoir as Historical Source

Since David Kaufmann first published Glikl bas Leib's memoir somewhat more than a century ago, that work has become a classic of Jewish literature: a classic of the memoir genre, a classic of women's self-expression, and one of the most widely cited primary sources for the writing of early modern Jewish social history.1 This paper seeks primarily to analyze that last category. To what extent can historians rely on Glikl's account as a primary historical source for understanding the economic, social, and religious dimensions of Jewish daily life in German lands in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries?

First, a few comments to give perspective to the importance of Glikl's narrative. There are about a dozen published autobiographical texts by Jews from German lands that were written during the same approximate time period as Glikl's. Some of these memoirs are short, but most are book-length. Several of these works are well known at least to scholars, such as Rabbi Jacob Emden's Megilat sefer and Solomon Maimon's recollection of his life in Poland and Germany.2 These works and those by lesser known or even an unknown author have proven to be gold mines of information for students of social history. Indeed, the short, anonymous memoir published by Alexander Marx provides us with a rich and challenging source that I will discuss further below.3

But despite the existence of several thousand pages of published autobiographical text written by Jews in early modern Germany, or more precisely in German lands, Glikl's account has popularly won recognition as the primary autobiographical statement of the time. During the course of this discussion, I will refer to several factors that have contributed to the popularity of the work, but the most obvious explanation is that the author earned her place in history by the sheer power of her writing skills—indeed, it is relevant to say, [End Page 11] her creative writing skills. Although Glikl related that she set out to write this book in order to pass the long hours of insomnia that she suffered after her first husband's death, she entertains her readers throughout the book with her lively style and her ability to spin a tale. Jacob Emden, an established author of books on rabbinic law and literature, informed his readers that he was well tuned to their needs and promised to make his work interesting, but his lackluster and often tedious style contrasts blatantly with Glikl's natural skills.4

Of course, the sheer vitality of Glikl's book means that historians must be all the more cautious in its use. No single source, and I daresay no single genre of sources, should be expected to provide encompassing answers to comprehensive questions. If so much previous historical writing on this period has been limited by a heavy reliance on prescriptive, halachic sources that do not necessarily describe the dynamics of everyday Jewish life, we will not solve the problem of obtaining a more balanced and nuanced picture by switching our confidence to personal autobiographies, which have their own set of methodological difficulties.

Andrew Hudgins, an American poet and author of an autobiography set in verse, wrote a revealing article called "An Autobiographer's Lies," in which he enumerated seven transgressions he committed in the writing of his memoir, arranged in ascending order "from misdemeanor to felony."5 Oversimplification of a complicated narrative so as to enhance its coherency for the reader represents the lightest of the crimes in Hudgins's scale. More serious is the tendency to comply with the audience's conventional expectations. The self, of course, is enhanced in the writer's own depiction; and, most serious on the list...