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Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues 7 (2004) 28-64

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Kol Ishah:

Women and Pauline Wengeroff's Writing of an Age

This is for Liba, daughter of Laya Yuda and Shulem Grossman, whose memory is a blessing, with love and gratitude

Memoirs of a Peculiar Grandmother

Sitting on a bench in a wood outside Minsk in 1898, an elderly Jewish woman gathered her memories of a long life lived, to paraphrase the Chinese, in interesting times. Widowed six years by this time, she was lonely, and the good memories cheered her; in the memoirs she would write, she says that they filled her with a sense of "beloved company." She wished, she says, to tell her children something about her life. Yet she also mentions another possible audience: "others," who might also

not find it a wasted effort that I painstakingly gathered yellowed sheets of paper about the more important events and the cultural transformation of Jewish society in Lithuania of the 1840s and 50s, a transformation which affected me too. Perhaps it will interest the youth of today to learn how it once was.1

In these words, we get a glimpse of Pauline Wengeroff's (1833-1916) complex motivations for writing Memoirs of a Grandmother, and for subtitling them Scenes from the Cultural History of the Jews of Russia in the Nineteenth Century. The two volumes she would produce couple personal and cultural history in extraordinary ways. Wengeroff's life straddled the boundaries of a largely undisturbed traditionalism in the first half of the nineteenth century and [End Page 28] precipitous modernization in the second. She testifies to both realities and to the road leading from the one to the other, by first painting a rich portrait of the traditional Jewish culture she knew from her childhood and then rendering an anguished tale of radical assimilation in the small but conspicuous class of upwardly mobile Russian Jews of which she had become a member as a married woman. Her memoirs poignantly evoke the devastating impact that the dissolution of traditional society had on families, and especially on women. Far more than personal or family chronicle, Wengeroff's memoirs attest to a culture in the process of dissolution, a society in transition, and the psychic impact of societal and family disruption in a tumultuous age.

The promise of Wengeroff's subtitle is, in fact, borne out far more than that of the main title in these memoirs. Wengeroff omits much of the most basic personal and family information her readers would expect: her mother's name and background, though she is a prominent, even a dominating presence in the memoirs; a clear statement of the names, number, and birth order of her own siblings; even her own birth year. But these are minor details compared with the failure of this self-proclaimed grandmother to mention even one grandchild (and she had quite a few) or, even more strangely, three of her seven children who survived infancy.

Omission, as well as the treatment of the family information she does provide, are crucial in the construction of Wengeroff's narrative.2 Wengeroff came from a wealthy, prominent family, of distinguished rabbinic lineage, in the northwestern part of the Pale of Settlement. Her father was a successful businessman, like his own father, but also a student of the Volozhin yeshiva and a Talmud scholar whose diligent study, even while he pursued his business, resulted in several published works.3 Her husband became a banker and member of the City Council of Minsk, extraordinary attainments for a nineteenth-century Russian Jew, which Wengeroff notes with pride. Yet Wengeroff does not write as a member of a household that included prominent men (and, if we include her daughters, women), of interest because of what she can say about them, and giving her stature by association. The details she gives us about her father and husband position Wengeroff's narrative between the poles of tradition and modernity—but they are...


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