Jew of the Week: Gluckel of Hameln

The Woman Who Transformed Yiddish Literature and History

Gluckel (or Glikl) bat Yehuda Leib (c. 1646-1724) was born in Hamburg to a wealthy, influential, and deeply religious Ashkenazi family. Although all Jews were expelled from Hamburg in 1649, her father was given permission to return because he was so highly respected by the German authorities. Gluckel was given a strong education, and got married at age 14 to Chaim of Hameln. The young family soon started a successful diamond and pearl business. When her beloved husband passed away, Gluckel took over the business. She became famous as one of the few women in Europe that ran her own sprawling enterprise, and that travelled alone to trade fairs and through European markets. She still took care of all 13 of her children! Gluckel eventually remarried, reluctantly, to a banker named Cerf Levy. Two years later, Levy lost his fortune, and wasted Gluckel’s too. After 12 years of marriage, Levy died and left Gluckel a widow for the second time. She slowly recovered from her losses, and lived out the rest of her life in relative solitude. Most significant for historians, Gluckel kept a detailed diary for many years, providing us with an inside look into both European and Ashkenazi Jewish life of the 17th and 18th centuries. The seven journals she wrote touch on important themes and describe key historical events, and are considered among the greatest Yiddish literary works of all time. One of Gluckel’s great-granddaughters was (former Jew of the Week) Bertha Pappenheim, who produced a German translation of Gluckel’s diaries (and is also the woman in the portrait at right, where she dressed up as Gluckel). The translation was hugely popular, and an English version was produced in 1932, as well as a fictional adaptation in 1941, and a newer translation in 2019. Another one of Gluckel’s grandchildren was renowned rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. In 2016, a street in Hamburg where she lived as a child was named after her (Glückel von Hameln Straße). Her yahrzeit is on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

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Words of the Week

These are days of judgment as to whether we deserve anything. We only have a chance of encountering God when we allow Him into everything and educate ourselves to recognize Him in all we receive. Everything is a miracle, pure gifts we did nothing to merit: to live, to breathe, to eat and drink, to think, to laugh, to enjoy our friends and families… Rosh Hashanah is a day that protests the claim that we deserve anything. We stand naked before God and try to make ourselves at least slightly deserving of all these gifts by admitting that everything is a miracle.
– Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Yosef Karo

Code of Jewish Law

19th Century Illustration of Rabbi Yosef Karo

Yosef ben Ephraim Karo (1488-1575) was born in Toledo, then in the Spanish kingdom of Castile. The infamous 1492 Spanish Expulsion of the Jews took place when he was just four years old. The family first fled to Portugal, and were then expelled from there as well in 1497. They eventually settled in Nikopolis, in the Ottoman Empire, which had opened its doors to Sephardic Jewish refugees. (The Ottoman Sultan at the time, Bayezid II, reportedly said: “They tell me that Ferdinand of Spain is a wise man, but he is a fool, for he takes his treasure and sends it all to me.”) Karo was tutored by his rabbi father and soon became a rabbi himself. He also studied under the great Rabbi Yosef Taitazak in Salonica. For a couple of years, he served as a rabbi in Adrianople, and eventually resettled in Tzfat. At the time, Tzfat was experiencing a resurgence of Jewish life and a renaissance in Jewish scholarship, thanks mainly to an influx of Sephardic Jewish refugees. It soon became the “capital” of Jewish mysticism, and Rabbi Karo was one of its most famous mystics and scholars. It was in Tzfat that he composed the Shulchan Arukh, to this day the standard code of Jewish law worldwide. (Tzfat boasted one of the first printing presses in the Middle East, helping to spread the Shulchan Arukh far and wide and making it extremely popular and accessible.) The Shulchan Arukh was itself only a summary of the far broader and more complex Beit Yosef, which was Rabbi Karo’s true magnum opus that he worked on for over twenty years. Rabbi Karo opened his own yeshiva, with 200 students including the renowned “Ramak”, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero. Karo also served as the chief rabbi on the Tzfat beit din. In fact, he was one of the main leaders in a rabbinic attempt to re-establish the ancient Sanhedrin. Rabbi Karo was recognized as the preeminent authority for all Sephardic Jewry worldwide, and was deeply respected by Ashkenazi Jews as well who, on several occasions, asked him to intervene in local European disputes. Among his other noted publications are Kesef Mishneh, a commentary on the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, along with a textbook for Talmudic study. One of his most intriguing works is Maggid Meisharim, a personal journal which records his prophetic experiences and the teachings he received from an angel over a period of fifty years. Rabbi Karo is often referred to simply as Maran, “Our Master”.

Words of the Week

Today, what is demanded of the Jewish people is mesirut nefesh, self-sacrifice, and this is particularly true with regard to chinuch, education. The resources for which we have labored must be dedicated to the education of children – both our own, and the children of others.
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe

Jew of the Week: Simon Kremser

Inventor of Buses 

A modern-day Kremser carriage in Germany

Simon Kremser (1775-1851) was born in the German city of Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland). He followed in the footsteps of his father, a wealthy merchant. During the Napoleonic Wars, Kremser helped to provide funds for the Silesian Army against Napoleon, and managed the Prussian royal family’s war chest. He was awarded the Iron Cross, and was eventually granted citizenship, becoming one of the first Jews to be a German citizen. In 1825, Kremser had an idea for a public carriage line that would quickly and cheaply transport people across Berlin. He got permission from King Friedrich William III, and designed a large horse-drawn carriage that could seat up to 20 people. Such carriages are still known as “kremsers” in Germany today. By 1835, Kremser ran three different “bus” lines in Berlin. The idea of public buses soon spread across Europe. As the king’s official hauler, Kremser was also the one commissioned to return the famous Brandenburg Gate Quadriga to Berlin in 1814 after it had been snatched by Napoleon. Little else is known of Kremser, and no picture of him has survived. It is believed that he lived out his last years in Russia, where he served the royal family and was given the honorary military rank of major.

Words of the Week

The only wealth that I truly own is that which I have given away to good causes. Everything else – all my holdings – are simply under my control for the moment, but they can be lost in the next moment due to a bad decision, war, an accident or other cause which I cannot control. However, the good institutions that my money has built are forever; they can never be taken or lost.
Sir Moses Montefiore