From the Archive: Register of a Jewish Midwife
What We Found
In 1794, the Dutch Jewish midwife, Roza began recording the babies she had delivered in a book, “so that it should be a remembrance from the day [she] began this occupation...” Much more than a memory aid, her impressive register showcases this exceptional woman’s thoughts on her professional work. Reading it, we can catch a glimpse into the unique, boundary-defying role that Jewish midwives played in early modern Europe.
In the first lines of the register, Roza boldly drew a direct line between herself and Jewish civilization’s most famous midwives: the biblical Shiphrah and Puah. In Exodus, when the Israelites are enslaved in Egypt, these two women defy Pharoah’s orders to kill newborn Hebrew boys. Roza cited this biblical passage in her register. She wrote, “This is the book of the generations / children of man, those that were born by my hands among the Hebrew women. I came to them, I the midwife, ‘for they are vital’ and give birth to a son or daughter” (Exodus 1:19).
With this quotation, Roza highlighted the storied significance of midwifery. She deftly demonstrated how this work requires tenacity, as well as a sense of communal service and medical expertise. She reminds us that it was biblical midwives who first bested Egypt’s cruel sovereign.
Roza lived in the Dutch city of Groningen, where she worked between 1794–1832. Roza’s unusual register was bilingual—she wrote her introduction in both Yiddish and Hebrew. Like many other Jewish midwives, Roza also worked with non-Jewish patients—and kept a separate register in Dutch for non-Jewish births. Registers like hers were common starting in the eighteenth century when European municipalities became increasingly interested in tracking population growth. Roza’s register for Jewish women is an exceptional example because of her opening, which is featured in The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization and showcases Roza’s professional, religious, and literary erudition.
Why It Matters
In the 1700s, midwives were primarily health professionals. To become a midwife required training. Because of their extensive knowledge of women's bodies and reproduction, midwives frequently interacted with male authorities as experts, in a manner uncommon for women in eighteenth-century Europe. As historian Jordan Katz has shown, these women’s medical expertise crossed between religious, Jewish communal contexts and broader civic contexts. They were called upon to advise rabbis on the complexities of women’s health and social position (including determining who the father of a newborn was) and would also help keep track of Jewish births for the municipalities where Jews lived.
Historians like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich have shown that midwives, Jewish and not, commonly had a unique view of community affairs. According to Katz, “Jewish midwives were privy to sensitive information and able to serve as communal functionaries in a manner not typically afforded to other women during this period.” As she observes, midwives “found themselves at the nexus between municipal and Jewish communal authorities, frequently navigating the competing aims of these systems. Within their communities, Jewish midwives were able to uniquely traverse boundaries; they moved between genders, religious communities, classes, and various ethnic communities within the Jewish world.”
Midwife registers are some of the earliest examples of Jewish women’s writing in Yiddish. An introduction to a midwife register like Roza’s is a record of how a woman thought about the work she did, her religious beliefs, and her place in the community. Roza wrote, “I prayed to the Lord above that he should strengthen me and give me courage and not let my hands falter while I am engaged in this profession, and may no obstruction be caused by my hands, heaven forbid, neither to the woman sitting on the birthing stool nor to the newborn about to be born: Only let it be expelled from the uterus like an egg from a hen.” Here, Roza exhibits a beautiful duality: On the one hand, humility and prayer for courage, on the other hand, literary flourish and an acknowledgement of her own work’s importance. She also treasured both mother and child, privileging neither one over the other.
Roza’s register offers rare insight into a Jewish woman’s professional and spiritual life at the turn of the nineteenth century, written in her own words. This compelling text also reflects some eternal questions about women’s history and women’s writing: When have women been able to write their own stories? And which women get to? No doubt, Roza’s is the story of an exceptional professional woman who wrote in multiple languages and had a decades-long career. All of the births recorded in her book mark the lives of other women, not all of whom are named, who did not get such a chance to record their experiences. Even as we appreciate Roza’s writing today, we are conscious of all of those women who remain without words.
Perhaps the midwife’s register can serve as a touchstone of sorts for us in 2021. Today, we continue to fight for reproductive justice—for access to abortion and birth control, and for equal outcomes in childbirth. Within the United States, we have also seen that the struggle over reproductive health is intimately tied to questions about women’s participation in the public sphere writ large. Roza’s register, and the history of Jewish midwives, show that women have long participated in communal and public life as experts in their own health, their own bodies, their own experiences.
This post is part of JWA’s From the Archive column. It was written in partnership with The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization.
How to cite this page
Moore, Debra Dash. "From the Archive: Register of a Jewish Midwife." 25 February 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 20, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/fromthearchive/archive-register-jewish-midwife>.