Wuhsha the Broker
The documents of the Cairo Genizah rarely contain enough material on specific individuals for the scholar to build up a detailed portrait. One exception is Karima bat ‘Ammar (Amram) the banker, son of Ezra, from Alexandria. She is better known as “al-Wuhsha the Broker” (a name which could be translated as “Desirée” or “Untamed”), and she lived at the end of the eleventh century and into the twelfth.
In a world where women were expected to be gainfully employed, Wuhsha is a prototype of the successful independent businesswoman, moving easily from the world of women into that of men. Women worked at spinning and weaving in their homes in keeping with the segregated society and the practicality of such an arrangement; women brokers collected the finished products and sold them in the marketplace.
The documents, which list her modest trousseau, include a detailed description of her jewelry. This may have served as the initial source of her investments, since in the Middle East a woman’s jewelry was totally her own property. Court records reflect her growing wealth and her investments in merchandise from India as well as in caravan goods. As was typical among professional women, she also loaned money, again typical of professional women, retaining the collateral for the duration of the loan.
Wuhsha was briefly married to Arye ben Judah, by whom she had a daughter, Sitt-Ghazal. After their divorce she had a love affair with Hassun of Ashkelon and gave birth to a son, Abu Sa’d. This is documented because Wuhsha went to court to prove that while her son was the issue of an irregular relationship, it was not an adulterous or incestuous one, since otherwise he would not have been able to marry a Jew. Her friend, the hazzan/court clerk, Hillel ben Eli, advised her to obtain five kosher witnesses attesting to the fact that she was alone in her apartment with Hassun, who may have tried to deny having a love affair. There is no evidence as to why they did not marry, but it may be that she did not want to share her estate with him or that he already had a wife in Ashkelon. Hillel ben Eli, who wrote this document, also wrote her will, which is one of the most informative documents about her. It lists her personal gifts, her communal gifts and what she expected to leave to synagogues and charitable institutions. The main share was to go to her son Abu Sa’d, in part to pay for his religious education. The planned funeral is detailed and expensive, describing the coffin, her attire, the pallbearers, and the cantors.
It is interesting to note that although she was ostracized for her outrageous behavior by the Iraqi synagogue, she forgave them and also left money to them in her will, to be used for oil so that men could study there at night.
In a patrilineal society such as that of Cairo, Wuhsha was important enough to have both her daughter and granddaughter cite their connection to her in their own legal documents long after she died.
Goitein, S.D. “A Jewish Business Woman in the Eleventh Century.” The Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Volume of the Jewish Quarterly Review, Philadelphia: 1967, 225–247; Ibid. A Mediterranean Society, Volume III. The Family. Berkeley and Los Angeles: 1978.