- The Maiden of Ludmir: A Jewish Holy Woman and Her World
Who was the Maiden of Ludmir and what can we know about her, the world in which she lived, and the ways in which her story has been told? In his thoroughgoing and fascinating investigation into the traditions about this enigmatic woman, Nathaniel Deutsch explores all avenues to answer these questions. [End Page 175] Working from historical sources, archival documents, literary works, biographies, religious apologetics, and interviews with former and present residents of Ludmir, Deutsch investigates the contested particulars of the Maiden's story and elucidates their cultural contexts. Simultaneously, he analyzes the spiritual, mystical, political, and gendered approaches utilized by previous authors in constructing their individual visions of this Hasidic holy woman who left no writings of her own. Deutsch believes that the significance of the Maiden of Ludmir resides not only in the actual details of her life but in how various writers—from traditional Hasidic hagiographers, to early twentieth century ethnographers, to modern historians and biographers, to dramatists and novelists, to contemporary Habad apologists and Jewish feminists—have transformed her story to reflect their own ideologies.
It is generally accepted that Hannah Rochel Verbermacher (ca. 1815–1888), the only child of a wealthy Ludmir merchant, was unusually well-educated and demonstrated exceptional piety, studying holy texts and adopting religious practices ordinarily reserved for men. Following a mystical vision at her mother's grave, the young Hannah broke off an engagement and devoted herself to learning and prayer. When her father died, she used her sizable inheritance to build a study house with an attached dwelling in Ludmir, where she lived modestly. Known as the Maiden of Ludmir, she soon acquired a reputation for saintliness and miracle-working, attracting both men and women, generally of humble means, to her study house, where she delivered learned lectures on the Sabbath from behind a door. Verbermacher's initial success was certainly facilitated by her personal wealth and the cultural influences of a larger Christian environment familiar with "holy maidens" and female saints, but it did not go unopposed. The Maiden's rejection of the conventional female roles of marriage and motherhood, as well as her lack of familial connection to any Hasidic dynasties, presented a direct affront to the Hasidic leaders of her region. It is unclear whether Verbermacher was perceived as a serious threat to male hegemony or simply an embarrassing anomaly, but she ultimately acceded to pressure from the Chernobyl Rebbe and entered into a brief and unsuccessful marriage. While apparently unconsummated, this marriage had the intended result of ending her religious leadership. After several additional decades in Ludmir, Verbermacher spent the latter part of her life in the Land of Israel where she was respected as a righteous and learned woman and again gathered followers, particularly from among the impoverished widows of Jerusalem.
Deutsch begins his quest for the Maiden of Ludmir by analyzing various accounts of her life, starting with six influential articles by S. A. Horodezky, written between 1909 and the 1950s. Deutsch turns next to Ansky's 1918 play, [End Page 176] "The Dybbuk," which incorporates some elements of the story of the Hannah Rochel Verbermacher, and to the first dramatic adaptation of the Maiden of Ludmir's life, written in Yiddish in 1924 by Leyb Malakh, an immigrant from Poland to Argentina. Deutsch suggests that Malakh's play, like "The Dybbuk," asks what happens when an individual questions the absolute authority of her family, her community, and her culture. That the central character is a woman intensifies the conflict, since the changing role of women was one of the most significant social issues affecting Jewish society during the first few decades of the twentieth century. Deutsch notes that during the next seventy-five years the story of the Maiden of Ludmir would be adapted into two novels, four plays, and one play within a novel in I. B. Singer's Shosha. He also ponders the meaning of the complete absence of references to...