- A Woman’s Life: Pauline Wengeroff and Memoirs of a Grandmother by Shulamit S. Magnus
A Woman’s Life: Pauline Wengeroff and Memoirs of a Grandmother
Oxford–Portland, OR: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2016.
xvi + 324 pp.
Scholars and general readers interested in the intersections of gender and modern Jewish history owe Professor Shulamit Magnus an enormous debt of gratitude for increasing the visibility of Pauline Wengeroff (1833–1916). Since 2010, Magnus has published three books devoted to this important writer, whose two-volume Memoiren einer Grossmutter: Bilder aus der Kulturgeschichte der Juden Russlands im 19 Jahrhundert (Memoirs of a grandmother: Scenes from the cultural history of the Jews of Russia in the nineteenth century, 1908–1910; henceforth Memoirs) provides an unparalleled first-hand account of Russian Jewry’s transition from tradition to modernity. Magnus’s first two books on Wengeroff were English translations of Memoirs (Stanford University Press, 2010 and 2014), for which she also provided admirably comprehensive introductions, notes and commentary. The first volume was awarded a 2010 National Jewish Book Award in the category of Women’s Studies.
Magnus describes A Woman’s Life: Pauline Wengeroff and Memoirs of a Grandmother, the volume review herein, as a biography “of both a person and a book,” and, through nuanced and informed analysis, she succeeds brilliantly in placing the redoubtable Wengeroff and the Memoirs in their larger historical, economic, cultural and familial contexts. Based on extensive archival research, A Woman’s Life is an essential and accessible companion to Magnus’s annotated translations of Memoirs, especially the second volume, which deals with Wengeroff’s adult life.
Magnus writes that Memoirs is unique: There is “nothing even vaguely comparable in claim or scope from a woman in the history of Jewish literature.” She demonstrates how Wengeroff’s book transcends personal reminiscences by linking her family’s story to Russian Jewry’s transition from traditional patterns of life to modernity. Magnus also delineates the gendered stance of Wengeroff’s narrative, contending that women and men experienced modernity very differently. Finally, she makes it [End Page 127] clear that Memoirs is a carefully fashioned literary work. She explains its author’s narrative strategies by focusing on what Wengeroff chose to include and exclude in her book, including telling omissions of personal and family information, as well as larger cultural realities.
Each of Magnus’s six chapters addresses significant aspects of Wengeroff’s life and of Memoirs. In the first, she provides the political and economic contexts. Both Wengeroff, née Epstein, and her husband came from families that made their wealth from contract work with the Russian government. They were members of a distinct economic elite representing a tiny minority of Russian Jewry, with privileges that could include the right to live outside the Pale of Settlement.
The course of Wengeroff’s adult life and of Memoirs, as explored in Chapters Two and Three of A Woman’s Life, was set by her marriage to Chonon Wengeroff in 1850 and the family’s eventual move away from traditional Jewish practice. According to Wengeroff, the central crisis in her marriage came about when her husband forced her to abandon traditional Jewish customs, including her kosher household. She presents this event as emblematic, not only of changes being forced on many women by assimilationist spouses, but also of Russian Jewry’s move toward modernity. Magnus suggests an element of revenge in Wengeroff’s account, which was written after her husband’s death in 1892. It seems likely that her anger towards “those who had so thoughtlessly discarded ‘the precious legacy’” was also fueled by her disappointment in a marriage that was not the companionate and complementary union she had imagined. Yet, Magnus questions the validity of Wengeroff’s claim that she was the helpless victim of a male-imposed modernity, noting that Wengeroff herself provides much evidence to the contrary. Moreover, she shows that broader evidence about nineteenth-century Jewish middle-class families in both Russia and Germany does not conform to Wengeroff’s portrayal of oppressive husbands cleansing their homes of traditional Jewish practices. Magnus concludes that the dynamics of the Wengeroff marriage...