Category Archives: Writers & Thinkers

Jews in the Wonderful World of Literature, Thought, and Scholarship

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.

Shana Tova u’Metuka! Happy 5783!

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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: Ben Shapiro

America’s Top Political Pundit

Ben Shapiro (Credit: Gage Skidmore)

Benjamin Aaron Shapiro (b. 1984) was born in Los Angeles to a Jewish family of Russian and Lithuanian heritage. His family became Orthodox when he was 9 years old, and Shapiro has been a Torah-observant Jew ever since. He skipped two grades and graduated from high school at 16, and from UCLA at 20 with a degree in political science. That same year, he published his first book, Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth. By this point, his political column was nationally syndicated, and Shapiro still has the distinction of being the youngest person in American history to have a nationally syndicated column. Shapiro then went to law school at Harvard, after which he worked as a lawyer for several years. In 2012, he became the editor of Breitbart News, though he resigned in 2016 over disagreements over Breitbart’s direction. He subsequently became the number one target of anti-Semitism in America, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Since then, he has been the editor of The Daily Wire, which is currently the top news page on Facebook (and has more engagement than The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC News and CNN combined!) He is also the host of The Ben Shapiro Show, now the second most popular podcast in the US (ninth-most in the whole world!) and carried by over 200 radio stations across the country. Shapiro is famous for his many stimulating speaking engagements on campuses, and for his quick wit and debate skills. Altogether, Shapiro has written 11 books thus far and is among today’s leading conservative commentators. He has sometimes been confused with the alt-right, who he actually strongly opposes, and has been a frequent target of. Shapiro is an avid violinist (see a 12-year-old Shapiro play “Schindler’s List” here). Last week, he was in Israel for a CPAC conference and several thousand people crammed into an auditorium to hear him speak. He also made sure to visit the Temple Mount and pray there.

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Words of the Week

Before the thinkers of Athens came along, the Torah arrived at the notion of equality before the law. All public institutions in the Torah – the judiciary, the priesthood, the monarchy, the institution of prophecy – are subordinated to the law. Moreover, the law is a public text whose dictates are meant to be widely known, thus making abuse of power more obvious and safeguarding the common citizenry… the most important body of authority in the polity envisioned by the Torah is none other than the people themselves.
Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman (Ani Maamin, pg. 174)