Julie Rezmovic-Tonti, with Jessica Kirzane

Julie Rezmovic-Tonti teaches middle school Jewish history and serves as Outreach Coordinator at Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, Virginia. She has a BA in Women's Studies from the University of Maryland and an MA in Jewish Studies from Siegal College. She also studied at Yeshivat Simchat Shlomo and the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.  She lives in Fairfax, Virginia, with her husband, three children, typewriter, pottery wheel, and garden.

Jessica Kirzane is the Lecturer in Yiddish at the University of Chicago and the Editor-in-Chief of In geveb: A Journal of Jewish Studies. She is also a literary translator from Yiddish and has taught Jewish Studies at multiple grade levels. As a contributing author and editor for the Teach Great Jewish Books website of the Yiddish Book Center, she has created several resources to bring literary and historical documents into the high school classroom.

The Life and Legacy of Glückel of Hameln

By engaging with the diaries of Glückel of Hameln, a 17th century Jewish woman from Hamberg, students will make connections between past and present, and, through these first-hand accounts, learn about the Jewish culture and history of this specific time and place.

This lesson is adapted from a resource kit published in 2016 by the Yiddish Book Center, co-authored by Julie Rezmovic-Tonti and Jessica Kirzane. The kit provides background reading and additional materials and exercises to provide historical context. JWA gratefully acknowledges Great Jewish Books for allowing us to reprint this material.

Overview

Enduring Understandings

  • We can connect to people in the past through the writings they leave behind.
  • We can relate to Glückel, a Jewish woman from over 300 years ago through her perspective, relationships, and issues that she deals with in her day-to-day life.
  • Through the study of Glückel’s life one can also learn a great deal about the culture, history, and environment of the Jews of Ashkenaz.

Essential Questions

  • Are women in the past any different from women today?
  • Are Jews living several hundreds of years ago different from Jews living today?
  • How does learning about a different time/place influence your thoughts about your own place within society?
  • How can the study of history and Jewish history specifically increase the collective wisdom of the Jewish people and the world?

Materials Required

Paper
Pencil/Pen
Access to computer for “Further Discussion” sections

Notes to Teacher

  • To understand Glückel in her historical context one must learn a little about the world from which she came. See the “Teacher Resources” section below for some materials that can help you deepen your own knowledge about this historical context.
  • Each part in the “Document Studies” section below features an excerpt from Glückel’s diary that speaks to a particular theme, along with questions for students to ponder in their diaries, as well as ideas for further discussion and related projects.
  • Depending on how much time you have and what your goals are, you can lead your students through all of the Document Studies, or pick and choose which ones you want to complete.
    Some of the Document Studies have a “For Further Discussion” section; depending on how much time you have, treat these as ideas for extension activities.
Introductory essay(s)

Background information on Glückel of Hameln

by

Julie Rezmovic-Tonti

Glückel of Hameln was a Jewish woman who was born in Hamberg in the year 1645. She is most notable for leaving behind her diaries to her many children, which she started to compose after the death of her first husband. Her writings contain everything from mundane matters to financial obligations, work dilemmas, public health issues, Anti-Semitism, local politics, travel, childbearing, Jewish spirituality and superstition. She died in the year 1724.

Lesson plan

Instructions

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  • Have the Students set up a diary/journal to mirror the journal that Glückel wrote. Make sure there are enough pages in it to reflect on the number of passages that you are studying with them. Have the students react to questions you pose or to their own questions in their journal.
  • Talk about the importance of journaling/record keeping for one's personal life in order to “let off steam” in addition to the historical importance of understanding lives of others living in the past.
  • Complete the Document Studies
    • There are 5 excerpts from Glückel’s Diary in the Document Studies section that deal with different themes from her life.
    • Each teacher should decide if they are going to read Glückel’s writings to the class out loud or if they are going to distribute the sections of Glückel’s Diary below for the students to read on their own. With younger students and students who are new to the study of this historical time period it is quite helpful to read aloud and help the students navigate through the text.
    • Each teacher should decide which questions to use under “Questions to Ponder.” These questions are suggestions in order to bring about discussions of history, women’s roles in society, and Jewish roles and values.
Document studies

Theme #1: Expulsion and Taking care of Others

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Theme #1: Expulsion and Taking care of Others

In this excerpt from Glückel’s memoir, her family takes in Jewish refugees from Poland. The passage shows the dedication and self-sacrifice displayed by Glückel’s family when they met co-religionists in need.

Primary Sources from Glückel’s Memoirs

Excerpt Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln based on Translation by Marvin Lowenthal:

Glückel. The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln. Translated by, Marvin Lowenthal. Schocken Books, 1977.

(abridged by Julie Rezmovic-Tonti)

The Vilna Jews were forced to leave Poland. Many of them, stricken with contagious diseases, found their way to Hamburg. They [Polish Jews] did not have hospitals to go or places where to stay, so we needed to bring them into our homes. About 10 of them, who my father took in, lay on the upstairs level of our house. Some recovered; others died. My sister Elkele and I both took sick as well. My beloved grandmother tended the sick and saw that they lacked for nothing. My father and mother disapproved of her taking care of us at her old age, nothing could stop her from climbing the stairs three or four times a day, in order to nurse them. After a short while, she fell ill too. After ten days in bed, she died at a beautiful old age, and left behind her a good name. For all her 74 years she was still as brisk and fresh as if she were 40 years old.

Students may wish to consider the following questions to reflect in their Glückel Journal:

Questions to Ponder:

  1. How does Glückel’s family relate to the values of hachnasat orchim (honoring the stranger) and bikkur cholim (visiting, and caring for, the sick)?
  2. What relationship does this text suggest between Jews of different regions and backgrounds?
  3. How does Glückel honor her grandmother’s memory in this text?
  4. What does this text relate about the importance of female leadership in managing family affairs?

For Further Discussion:

Invite your students to interview matriarchs from their own families. They can ask their matriarchs how they experienced issues of marriage, anti-Semitism, business, communal structure, wealth (and other issues addressed by Glückel) in their lifetimes. What has changed over time? What has not changed? In class, students can reflect on what they see as the biggest changes for women since Glückel’s time.

Theme #2: Marriage

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Theme #2: Marriage

This excerpt from Glückel’s memoir describes Glückel’s wedding. Glückel’s marriage was arranged, and this passage demonstrates the importance of displays of wealth to the marriage, which was largely an economic arrangement between families and individuals who were not on intimate terms. The passage contrasts life in a large city and a small town as well as shedding light on the marital customs of Glückel’s day.

Trigger:  Show the students a picture of the following:

Ask them, what are these?  What kinds of differences do you see? What would the ride feel like in each of them?  Who or what kind of person would ride in one of these vs. the other?

Excerpt Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln based on Translation by Marvin Lowenthal:

My father had me betrothed when I was a girl of barely twelve, and less than two years later I married. The marriage took place in Hameln, and my parents together with 20 wedding guests brought me there. Fancy coaches did not exist in those days, and we had to hire the peasants to take us as far as Hanover. From Hanover, we waited for my father-in-law to send carriages to pick us up and bring us to the wedding. My mother must have thought that carriages were as plentiful in Hameln as at home in Hamburg. Anyway, she figured that my father-in-law would only send us carriages in which to deliver the bride and her family.

But three days later there appeared 3 or 4 peasant carts! My mother was furious about it, but what could she do? So we plumped ourselves into the little carts and came to Hameln. When we arrived my father-in-law, Joseph Hameln, of blessed memory, a very special man, raised a glass of wine to my mother, but she was still ruffled about having to ride in the peasant carts. My father in law sensed her resentment and said something like, “Now, please don’t be angry; Hameln isn’t Hamburg, we have no coaches, for we are just plain country folk”...Hameln, everyone knows what it is compared with Hamburg: taken by itself, it is a dull shabby hole. And there I was---a carefree child whisked in the flush of youth from my parents, friends, and everyone I knew, from a city like Hamburg to a back country town where there lived only two Jews.

Yet, I thought nothing of it, so much I delighted in the piety of my father-in-law. At three in the morning he rose and put on his Shabbat coat and seated himself close to my bedroom and sing songed his prayers; and then I forgot all about Hamburg.

Students may wish to consider the following questions to reflect in their Glückel Journal:

Questions to Ponder:

  1. What are some differences between Hameln and Hamburg?
  2. What does this text tell you about the importance of weddings and marriages in the social and economic life of Glückel’s community?
  3. In the passage, as Glückel looks back on her wedding she remembers the role her father-in-law played very fondly as well as her mother’s anger that the groom’s family sent peasant carts. Contrast the role of the extended family in today’s modern marriage with that of Glückel’s.
  4. While Glückel looks back upon her wedding she remembers it positively, do you think that as a 14 year old girl she felt the same way about it as she does when she writes about it in her older years?

For Further Discussion:  Show students a clip of a film with a Jewish wedding (for instance, this clip from Fiddler on the Roof or this lego animated film of a modern Hasidic wedding).  How does this wedding compare to the one Glückel describes? What do your students think of as a Jewish wedding, and how does Glückel’s description expand their conception?

Theme #3: Economics/Relationship between Husband and Wife

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Theme #3: Economics/Relationship between Husband and Wife

In this excerpt, Glückel describes the importance of travel and fairs to her husband’s business and the toll that travel takes on his health. She also demonstrates her own importance as a partner in her husband’s business affairs.

While my husband was attending the Leipzig Fair he fell grievously ill.  In those days Jews ran a terrible danger in Leipzig; if one among them, G-d forbid! Died there, all his possessions were forfeit.

Judah Berlin, who was also at the fair, tended to my husband and nursed him with great care; and when he saw that my husband has recovered somewhat, he spoke to him as one good friend to another, and urged my husband, who was far from strong bodied, to give up the hard journeys.  He proposed they should enter into business partnership; he was young and willing to travel, and confident that he could make enough for both of them to live comfortably.

My husband said to him, “I cannot decide in Leipzig.  I am not yet myself, and I fear to remain here any longer lest, G-d forbid, I grow even worse.  Since this is settlement week at the fair and at best little business can be done, I will hire a coach and return home, and you can ride along with me.  Once home, G-d willing, we can talk further, and my Glückelchen (sweet way to refer to his wife, Glückel) will be there to give us her sound advice.”  For my husband did nothing without my knowledge. (p. 66)

Questions to Ponder:

What does this excerpt imply about the dangers of anti-Semitic legislation?

How would you describe the relationship between Glückel and her husband based on this excerpt?

Why was traveling for work so common for Jews in the early modern period?

Theme #4: Wealth

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Theme #4: Wealth

In this excerpt from her memoir, Glückel describes her daughter’s marriage and the exchange and display of wealth that it occasioned. She describes the dowry, travel for the wedding, the noble guests who attended the wedding, and the lavish food and entertainment.

My husband concluded the match of our daughter to the rich Elias Cleve, and settled on a dowry of 2200 Reichsthalers in Dutch money.  They set the wedding for a year and a half later in the town of Cleves.  My husband agreed to also pay 100 Reichsthalers towards the wedding expenses.

When time for the wedding drew near, I with my infant baby, my husband, and daughter Zipporah the bride, our Rabbi Meir, who is now the rabbi of Friedberg, a maidservant and our servant Elegant Sam (we call him that because we used to have another servant named Sam who was clumsy).

We sailed from Altona...I cannot begin to tell what a merry voyage it was.  After a happy and delightful trip we arrived safely in Amsterdam several weeks before the wedding.

Fourteen days before the marriage we set forth from Amsterdam “with timbrels and dances” with a party of 20 people to Cleves, where we were welcomed with honors.  We found ourselves in a house that was truly a king’s palace, magnificently furnished in every way.  The livelong day we had no rest from the elegant lords and ladies who came to take a peek at the my beautiful and exquisite Bride. 

Then came the great preparation for the wedding.  At that time, Prince Frederick was in Cleves, and was just a young boy of 13 (later in life through the death of his older brother Prince Elector Karl, he will eventually become the first King of Prussia 1701).  Prince Maurice of Nassau and other titled personages and great lords were likewise in Cleves, and they all signified their desire to witness the wedding.

Naturally, Elias Cleve, the father of the groom, made fitting preparations for such notable guests.  On the marriage day, immediately after the wedding, there was a spread of lavish sweetmeats and fine imported wines and fruits.  You can picture the bustle and excitement, and how Elias Cleve and his people set themselves to wait upon and cater to their distinguished company.  There was not even time to deliver and count over the dowries, as is customary….

After the ceremony, all the distinguished guests were ushered into Elias Cleve’s enormous salon with its walls of leather tooled in gold.  There stood the mighty table laden with dainties fit for a king.  The company was served according to their rank.  My son Mordechai was five years old, and there was not a more handsome boy in the world.  We dressed him in the neatest and best.  All the nobility wanted to eat him up on the spot, and the Prince in particular, never let go of his hand!

When the guests of honor had finished eating and the table was cleared and removed, there appeared masked performers who bowed prettily and performed all manner of entertaining pranks….

A number of prominent Sephardim, likewise, attended the wedding, among them one Mocatta, a jeweller, who wore a beautiful small gold watch set with diamonds and worth no less than 500 Reichsthalers…..

As it was, the young Prince and Prince Maurice and all the noble-born guests departed in great content, and never a Jew received such high honor in a hundred years.  And the wedding was brought to a happy end. (p.96-99)

Questions to Ponder:

  1. What was unique about the wedding of Glückel’s daughter?  What indicates that it was a lavish wedding?
  2. Why do you think Glückel concludes her description of the wedding with the phrase, “Never a Jew received such a high honor in a hundred years”? What does that tell you about the status of Jews? About Glückel’s own pride or boastfulness?

Theme #5: Parenting

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Theme #5: Parenting

In this excerpts from her memoir, Glückel describes her feelings about raising children. Although there was a high infant mortality rate in the early modern period, and some scholars have argued that parents did not form close bonds with their children as a result, in the first excerpt we learn that Glückel cared deeply for her children, worried about them, and was grateful for them. Through her reference to suffering, however, we also learn that she took a pragmatic approach to parenting: she does not heap excessive praise on her children (who are the presumed audience of her memoirs) nor does she shield them from the difficulties of her experience of parenting. Rather, she at once explains to them the enormous burden of raising children and the tremendous reward. In the second excerpt, Glückel uses a fable about birds to demonstrate her belief that parenting is more about giving than receiving.

Excerpt Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln based on Translation by Marvin Lowenthal:

We put ourselves to great pains for our children, for on this the world is built, yet we must understand that if children did as much for their parents, the children would quickly tire of it.

A bird once set out to cross a windy sea with its three fledglings.  The sea was so wide and the wind so strong, the father bird was forced to carry his young, one by one, in his strong claws.  When he was halfway across with the first fledgling the wind turned to a gale, and he said, “My child look how I am struggling and risking my life on your behalf.  When you are grown up, will you do as much for me and provide for me in my old age?”  The fledgling replied, “Only bring me to safety, and when you are old I shall do everything you ask of me.”

Whereat the father bird dropped his child into the sea, and it drowned, and he said, “So shall it be done to such a liar as you.”  Then the father bird returned to shore, set forth with his second fledgling, asked the same question, and receiving the same answer, drowned the second child with the cry, “You too are a liar!”

Finally he set out with the third fledgling, and when he asked the same question, the third fledgling replied, “My dear father, it is true you are struggling mightily and risking your life on my behalf, and I shall be wrong not to repay you when you are old, but I cannot bind myself.  This though I can promise: when I am grown up and have children of my own, I shall do as much for them as you have done for me.”

Whereupon the father bird said, “Well spoken, my child, and wisely; your life I will spare and I will carry you to shore in safety”

Questions to Ponder:

  1. Provide an interpretation of the bird fable that explains what obligations parents have to their children, and what obligations children have to their parents. How do they see the bird fable as related to Glückel's excerpt about parenting young children?
  2. Does Glückel experience parenting as a sacrifice? What benefit does she seem to derive from motherhood?
  3. What does Glückel want from her children?  What do your parents want from you? Do you feel that children should be obligated to care for their parents? What can parents realistically expect from their children?

For Further Discussion:

Ask your students to use these texts to compare expectations for relationships between parents and children in Glückel’s time and in our own. What different ideas are there today about how to be a good parent? How is parenting represented in popular culture? How would Glückel's approach to parenting be judged today? What can we learn about our own lives and times by reading a memoir written three centuries ago?

Art Project idea:

Give the students a printed out copy of the above section about parenting. Using only the words from the section above, the students cut out words to make a poem about parenting. This is a fun activity and also makes one think about how they might take care of their own children one day.

Teacher resources

Additional resources

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Julie Rezmovic-Tonti and Jessica Kirzane, 2018 Twersky Award winners.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Julie Rezmovic-Tonti, with Jessica Kirzane." (Viewed on August 18, 2019) <https://jwa.org/twersky/rezmovic-tonti-julie>.

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