The first female rabbi? Maiden of Ludmir


Welcome to Ludmir, Ukraine. The year is 1806, and the revolutionary Hannah Rachel Vermermacher, also known as the Maiden of Ludmir, is shaking up the traditional Jewish world. Born into affluence, Hannah Rachel’s life took a transformative turn, leading her to embrace the role of a Hasidic rabbi, or rebbe. Despite facing objections and rumors, she chose an independent path, attracting followers seeking her guidance and breaking a few societal norms along the way.

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Schwab: Welcome to Jewish History Nerds, where we do exactly what it sounds like, nerd out on awesome stories in Jewish history.

Yael: I’m Yael Steiner and my childhood dream was to stay in school forever.

Schwab: I’m Jonathan Schwab, and I am in school forever.

Yael: Schwab, I got a sneak peek as to what the topic is today and I have to say I’m really excited.

Schwab: I’m so excited to talk about this. It’s really a remarkable story, the person we’re talking about is a woman named Hannah Rachel Vermermacher, also known as the Maiden of Ludmir, or in Yiddish, De Ludmir Moid, I think.

City of Ludmir, Ukraine, c. 1914 (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Yael: That’s a great name.

Schwab: Excellent name, yeah. Yeah. And the one sentence that you probably did see is that this is a 19th century Hasidic Rebbe who was a woman.

Yael: Yes, and that sounds fascinating.

Schwab: Yeah. Which, yeah, which alone us enough to say, what is this story? What happened here? It would be accurate to say that she is the first and only woman Hasidic rabbi who certainly at least was openly a woman and a rabbi and that’s an important part of it. It’s not a Mulan story. She didn’t dress up as a man.

Yael: She wasn’t Yentl.

Schwab:  or Yentl. Yeah I guess it’s much better.

Yael: But I like the multiculturalism that you’re bringing in. But yeah.

Schwab: Mm hmm. But she certainly was openly a woman, acted like a woman and also was a Hasidic rabbi in practice, even if no one specifically use that title like she wasn’t I mean. As we’ll talk about, a lot of the sources are complicated, but she’s not known as Rabbi Hannah Rachel Vermermacher. She’s known by this title, the Maiden of Ludmir.

Yael: I’m also fascinated by that title. Does that mean that if she had been the Mrs. of Ludmir, she would not have been accepted?

Schwab: Ooh, all right. So let’s do a brief biographical sketch of the facts, sort of. Because a lot of this really is shrouded in legend and myth and mystery, um, and there are parts that we, we don’t necessarily know and accounts that aren’t trying to be historical in nature, but are really trying to tell a hagiographic story, tell a story about an amazing person.

But let’s start with a sketch of here’s what we’re pretty sure happened and then we’ll get into some of the far more interesting aspects of this. So Hannah Rachel Vermermacher, she’s born most probably in 1806. We don’t know the year for sure but a historian named Nathaniel Deutsch who wrote the best book in my opinion on this, he feels pretty confident it’s 1806. It’s that give or take a couple of years. She is born in a small town called Ludmere. Which is in modern-day Ukraine. She is born to a man named Monash and his wife. We have lost the mother’s name. We don’t seem to know it.

Yael: So she was the Mrs. of Ludmir, the mother.

Schwab: Mrs. Vermermacher. So it seems like her parents prayed for, wanted more than one child, and most probably wanted a boy, but they only had this one child who was a girl. They were fairly wealthy in a local sense. They weren’t unbelievably wealthy, but they were well-to-do within the context of this town of Ludmir.

Her mother dies when she’s very young, probably before the age of 10. And she develops an early reputation for being somewhat headstrong, somewhat stubborn, confident, sure of herself, and also strongly religious and pious in a lot of ways. But at what we would consider a very young age, she’s 12 years old when she is betrothed.

Yael: Yeah, I would consider that young.

Schwab: It’s young yeah, that’s young to get married. So she is but engaged right engaged. Yes.

Yael: To get engaged, no, married, yes, obviously.

Schwab: Yeah, as we will see. She is betrothed and there’s definitely some heightened emotion involved here. Maybe there was a different match that she rejected. Maybe this was someone that she had fallen in love with in some way, which is unusual for the time. And she sort of forced her father to make this match for her. Some accounts say she’s distraught during the engagement period. Once they get engaged, they, she and her intended separate until they are to be married. And that is a difficult time, in some way. She goes on the eve of her wedding, maybe it’s right before, maybe it’s a couple of days or weeks before the wedding. She goes to the cemetery, to her mother’s grave, to invite the spirit of her mother to her wedding, which is a custom at the time.

Yael: Oh, my family still has that custom. My extended family, when people get engaged, they go to the cemetery and invite deceased relatives to join them. We’re not weird.

Schwab: You’re not, and it wasn’t weird, I wanna emphasize, that part of what she does, that’s not weird, that’s a fairly typical thing that people do, but something happens there in the cemetery to her, and there are a bunch of different accounts of what it is exactly, but she either is overcome, possibly she falls and hits her head, but she loses consciousness in the graveyard at her mother’s grave. And she is unconscious for some period of time, depending on the sources, it’s anywhere from a couple of hours to maybe as long as a few weeks. And when she comes back from this, when she re-emerges into consciousness, she is changed very much.

Yael: This is Days of Our Lives level stuff.

Schwab: Yeah, right. And she calls off the wedding, forswears any future matches, says she’s not going to get married, and devotes herself day and night to study and prayer.

Yael: I mean, I could see two possible reasons for that. On the one hand, she could have actually been physically injured and had a neurological change. And maybe before she got hurt, she was happy with the path of her life, but this neurological change killed that. Or she really wasn’t happy, and then she has this near death experience and she wakes up and says, I’m not gonna live my life in a way that’s not gonna make me happy. Life’s too short.

Schwab: Both of those are really great, very 21st century rational explanations. As we’ll get to once I finish the story, we’ll come back to it. The myths and legends surrounding it are much more mystical and compelling and interesting.

Yael: Fascinating.

Schwab: Yeah, and a brief aside on Hasidism, I think, because it’s important for the background here. For people who are unfamiliar, emerges in the previous century, the 1700s. Hasidism becomes a popular movement. There were leaders of it, but it’s not restricted to the elite. Becomes very popular for a lot of Jews. A lot to talk about there of how and why it proliferated, what was it possibly in response to, but definitely elements of it, prayer is supposed to be devotional and ecstatic, really much more about the feeling of connection that one has when involved in prayer, which should be a transformative experience. Very different from a more traditional rational and legal approach to prayer, which is much more about this is the exact time in which to say it, this is exactly the formula of what to say. Hasidim become much more focused on, let’s not worry as much about the exact right time, and let’s focus much more on evoking the emotions that prayer is meant to evoke as a way of connecting to God, to the spiritual realm, to transforming oneself through the experience.

Yael: Right. Function over form.

Schwab: Yes. Yeah. And as Hasidism emerges, the first couple of leaders of it are rabbis or tzadikim, righteous men. Until Hannah Rachel, it’s always men. And they are very open and public about their ability to connect to the spiritual realm. There’s a lot of Kabbalistic elements here. But a difference from earlier Kabbalistic practices is that it’s not secretive and private, it’s much more public and open. And Hasidism becomes very focused on the following of these great leaders. And the first generation, the first couple of generations of them, are incredibly charismatic and sort of gain these large followings. And especially have as sites of these important connections, the shteibel, which is a small local synagogue, and the Shabbos tish or table, which is like sharing a meal with this rabbi and hearing their thoughts and also sharing some of their food.

Yael: Food is important.

Schwab: Food is important, but there is an element there of actually having some of the piece of food from the rabbi’s table, like some of the leftovers from his portion is a way of connecting and being part of the following there.

Yael: It’s a spiritual nourishment in the form of a physical nourishment.

Schwab: Yes. The spiritual and the physical are connected. It’s about elevating the physical form. It’s much less about withdrawing yourself from the physical world, but using it to have these transformative spiritual experiences.

Yael: And that’s what Hannah Rachel wants after she wakes up.

Schwab: So she starts to become a Hasidic rabbi. She not only is doing this prayer and study, but people begin to sort of come to her as a leader, as was, you know, a widespread practice at the time, somebody who seemed holy and righteous, you would want to be near them and follow them and hear some of their teachings and, you know, follow them.

Yael: So she wasn’t doing this behind closed doors, it wasn’t frowned upon or looked down upon enough that she was hiding away.

Schwab: Yes and no. A very important element of what allows her to operate somewhat independently is that her parents were wealthy, as I said, and her father also dies when she’s still pretty young. She’s probably still in her teens and she’s the only child he leaves her. His money. And she uses that money to build her own shteibel and sort of finance her own career.

Yael: And she’s forsworn marriage, so she doesn’t have to worry about being a suitable match for anyone, which probably would have put the kibosh on this whole thing to begin with.

Schwab: Right. Because she’s independently wealthy, because she’s forsworn marriage, she does what she wants to do. And again, there are people who are not huge fans of what she’s doing, but she also is very religious and pious in what she’s doing. In this shteibel that she builds, there is, as was traditional at the time, a men’s section and a women’s section. And she prayed in the women’s section. She did not take on ritual roles that were reserved for men, mostly. It does seem like this almost for sure happened, that when she prayed, she would pray wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl, and tefillin, phylacteries, which, usually, certainly at that time, were really only worn by men. But I think that most of the people who saw it like this was coming from a place where she was not trying to push the envelope for all women. This was something that was clearly for her, a fulfillment of her religious desires.

Yael: So she wasn’t going around telling other women that they had to do what she was doing. It was for her own spiritual connection and fulfillment.

Schwab: Yeah. And when she would talk to crowds, sometimes mixed crowds, sometimes just women, it doesn’t seem like she was telling them, you should take on the life that I have. She was just teaching her Torah, what she had studied and her ideas.

Yael: So she sounds amazing.

Schwab:  She’s amazing.I cannot emphasize this enough. She is amazing. She’s so cool.

Yael: She’s not pushing anything on anybody. She’s doing what feels right to her in the spiritual realm. And if people want to follow her, great. And if they don’t, don’t. And she’s living her best life, it sounds like.

Schwab: So, and then that’s no longer the case as we’ll get to, but she is living her best life.

Yael: Until someone comes around to ruin it.

Schwab:  Exactly. And it’s a man, obviously.

Yael: No comment.

Schwab: When she would speak in her shtiebel, she would speak from the women’s section or, it seems like, if she would speak from the, what is traditionally the men’s section, the men would relocate. There was definitely still this strict separation. So it’s funny you said before behind closed doors because one of the accounts says she would speak from behind a door because she was very invested in a notion of modesty and how she appeared in front of other people. People would come to visit her because she also was a miracle worker, they would come to her for healing prayers, things like that. She would not accept male visitors on their own because of the restrictions of an unmarried man and woman being together in private. She would only meet with men if they came with other people, and she would meet with women in private, obviously. But again, just a very strict observance of traditional Jewish law.

Yael: This is probably a reflection on me more than it’s a reflection on anything else, but were there rumors about her, about anything lascivious happening between her and anyone in the community, male or female?

Schwab: There were so many rumors. I didn’t see anywhere any rumors of any sort of romantic connections. I think the rumors were more just, we’ll get to this later, but she’s crazy, she’s possessed.

Yael: Right.

Schwab: She maintains her commitment not to marry. Like we said, that’s why she’s known as, the maiden of Ludmir, um, or more crassly, the Virgin of Ludmir. I have to say here, Dr. Henry Abramson, who we talk about all the time, he had a great joke that she is the second most famous Jewish virgin in all of Jewish history.

Yael: That’s pretty good, Henry.

Schwab: Yeah, it is. It is very good. But eventually the sort of regional Hasidic leader, who is the Rabbi of Chernobyl, which was before it got famous for other things, was famous for its Hasidic dynasty.

Yael: Nothing bad ever happened there.

Schwab: Yeah. So Rav Motele of Chernobyl comes to visit her and again, with another person there, and they have this very long time, and he is able to impress upon her that she must be married. It is not allowed for her to continue her maiden ways. And she does acquiesce to this and does agree to get married and The marriage is incredibly short-lived, possibly as short as one day. She divorces or separates from her husband. But then it seems like after that, once she has gotten married, she sort of totally disappears from this public life and becomes just a much more private person.

Yael: Who was the lucky guy?

Schwab: Who is the lucky guy? It’s a great question. We really don’t know. A lot of accounts point to that it’s someone that she had had some sort of connection with, probably the Gabbai in her shul, she married the shul president I guess is the easiest way to do it. Somebody who is a follower of hers. We don’t really have any indication that there was a strong romantic connection. So she sort of then disappears for decades, maybe, and is just living her own life as a divorcee and not giving public sermons anymore and not doing any of these things. And then in her 50s, probably, she emigrates from Ukraine to the Holy Land, to Jerusalem and its area. And then once again starts this up and has a following there of Jews and non-Jews, Arabs living in the Ottoman Empire at the time, who see her as a miracle worker and a holy woman.

And she has a following again at some point in modern day Israel. And that goes on for some time. We don’t know exactly when she died. It varies from probably likely in her 80s to possibly well past that, maybe even close to a hundred years old. And she is buried on the Mount of Olives, Har Hazetim, which is a very famous Jewish cemetery.

Her original tombstone there was destroyed during the Jordanian rule over East Jerusalem and the West Bank between 1948 and 1967, I believe, but a new one was erected in its place, we think, in 2004, very recently. And it’s sort of reemerged as a pilgrimage site to go to…The Tombstone of Hannah Rachel.

Yael: Do we know if there was anyone who either as a relative or close follower took the mantle upon him or herself to carry out her legacy, to be the one who undertook, maybe even generations, later to repair the tombstone? Is there a Maiden of Ludmir society?

Schwab: Ooh, no, I don’t know who it was who repaired the tombstone, but basically, no, she did not have a successor. She did not have children according to all, but I think one extremely obscure account that most people dismiss. And in fact, there’s very little written about her until later, she’s sort of one of these characters, we’ve had a bunch of times, one of these characters who’s rediscovered by historians, to the point where we can wonder if she was, you know, maybe even actively erased a little bit, you know, once she went away, everybody’s like, okay, yeah, let’s not have anything to do with this blip, and just move on from this story.

Yael: Was she considered scholarly? Like, did she write?

Schwab: Ah, so great question. Scholarly, there are four teachings of hers, literally four lines that we have from a historian and biographer by the name of Ephraim Taubenhaus. Although he never explicitly says how it is that he has these, I think. These four lines, and I’ll read through them is the extent of her surviving work. There’s no book, there’s no scholarly publication. And it’s, this is translated into English. “A person whose holy thoughts accompany them on their life’s journey is not alone and wretched for the noble thoughts shelter them from loneliness.”

Yael: Okay, I have thoughts, but I want to hear the rest of it.

Schwab: “Yeah. Every pure thought that flows from the desires of the heart, the intellect is unable to grasp at all.”

Yael: Huh? Yeah.

Schwab: “Every moment of existence is for itself. All that is in the present is no longer in the past. And if it was, it is renewed.”

Yael: Fascinating.

Schwab: And finally, “a person who does not see the Holy One blessed by He, God, in every place, does not see God at all.”

Yael: I like that.

Schwab: Yeah, I like that one. I like the second to last one, what is every moment is for itself.

Yael: It’s metaphysics.

Schwab: Yeah, it sounds cool, but I can’t claim to really understand it. The last one I think is very clear and understandable. And I think a good mantra to live by. But this is the extent.

Yael: Right, to see the miracles in the small things, which is a nice way to look at life. The first one, and maybe even the second one, I think there are multiple lenses through which you can assess them, one being taking it at face value, that your thoughts can protect you. But the other, and I think this goes back to something that you said earlier, is, is she hearing voices?

Because aside from the fact that what she did was so out of the norm, which doesn’t make it crazy, but could lead people to say that it’s crazy. You’re saying she had a period of prolific work, and then she went dark. Is she manic?

Schwab: It’s interesting that you say that because it sounds, you know, in season one, we talked about Shabetai Zvi and manic. And I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. Her behavior does seem pretty, pretty consistent. But this period of unconsciousness and emerging as different. And we have to talk about this and we have to talk about the dybbuk of it all.

Yael: Oh, is she into the dybbuk?

Schwab: So can I blow your mind a little bit here? This is a concept you’ve heard of, right? A dybbuk, right?

Yael: Yes.

Schwab: Which is like a malignant spirit possessing a person, right?

Yael: It’s the opposite of a golem, right? It’s a soul without a body instead of a body without a soul.

Schwab: Interesting. Right, but the soul can take over a person’s body. Ooh, I like that.

Yael: It’s like that scene in Ghostbusters when the ghost goes into Sigourney Weaver.

Schwab: It is like Ghostbusters, yeah. Okay, so, dybbuk, right? So dybbuks are written about in Jewish sources from as early as the 16th century, possibly earlier, but they really are not widely considered or talked about until a play called The Dybbuk by this very fascinating guy by the name of Shloyme Ansky, who generally just went by Ansky. So when I came across him, I obviously fall hard for any character who goes just by their last name.

Yael: You would.

Schwab: Yeah, he writes this play, The Dybbuk, and that sort of becomes the blueprint for a lot of dybbuk stories that proliferate after that.

Yael: It’s a whole genre. In Yiddish literature, there are so many plays. There’s movies, short stories. The dybbuk is everywhere.

Schwab: Yeah, so that starts with Ansky. Before that, there really isn’t this tradition of dybbuk stories. In addition to being a playwright, he was also an ethnographer and folklorist. He was part of this like new school of thought that said studying folk tales should be done in a rigorous and systematic and scientific way. So he goes all around Russia and Ukraine and Poland and records local stories of Jews, and analyzes them and puts them into this system of categorization and everything. He visits Ludmir and he hears about the story of Hannah Rachel Vermermacher. And then he writes his play, The Dybbuk.

Yael: Wow, interesting.

Schwab: And there are some really common elements. We cannot say this for certain, Nathaniel Deutsch, who I mentioned before, who wrote this book, feels very confident that Ansky’s dybbuk story is very much inspired by and is a fictionalized version of elements of the Maiden of Ludmire story because of the very close proximity in time between when we know that Ansky was in Ludmire, heard about this story, then writes the dybbuk. And because of some just elements that are so common, they cannot be coincidental. The play involves a young girl from this area of the world who is engaged to be married, who visits a graveyard, who is then possessed by, inhabited by this spirit of a dybbuk and the wedding cannot proceed because of this possession. And then the play goes on to really dramatize, who is the dybbuk and why, and it was, oh, it’s this old guy that she had jilted and whatever, previous thing. But the structure of that story is so shockingly similar to the Maiden of Ludmir story.

Yael: That’s wholesale her story.

Schwab: Right, and in fact, according to a lot of the accounts, this concept of a possession was not something that she even resisted. According to some stories, she was in this coma and she emerges back into consciousness and says what happened was, she was supposed to die. She went up to heaven and in the court of heaven, they gave her the soul of a tzaddik, a righteous person, a man, who had unfinished business in the world. And they put his soul into her body and sent her back.

Yael: So she doesn’t shy away from this.

Schwab: Again, according to some accounts, she would openly say this, like she was changed during her coma, it was a religious experience, some of the legends say she emerged from it, with knowledge that she could never have had, she did not study the Talmud prior to this, but she was able to quote portions of the Talmud after this episode, so. It must be that she was possessed, inhabited by this other soul.

Yael: She was imbued with knowledge that she should not have had before. And so if you are the rational, logical thinker or historian, you say, this is clearly part of her personality and she has been secretly studying Talmud her entire life up until the point she was betrothed. And after she, you know, hits her head and has her It’s a Wonderful Life experience, she is able to trot out that knowledge. But on the other hand, if you are buying into the mysticism, and I don’t say, I’m not trying to say that in a negative or judgmental way, you can say she emerged from this changed. And with knowledge that she had no way of accessing before. And that’s kind of crazy.

Schwab: Yeah. Can I add one more element to the first part? We have very little, real primary sources of her story, but if you’re a historian who’s looking at her story and you see these elements, in addition to, you know, you suggested, you know, maybe she was studying Talmud in secret and that’s how she came by this knowledge. The idea that she was only able to have knowledge of the Talmud after being inhabited by a male soul reinforces in many ways the notion of the separation between men and women and what men are supposed to do or capable of doing and what women are supposed to do and capable of doing. And it’s easy either to dismiss this character, oh yeah, she is an expert in Talmud as a woman, but it’s because she was inhabited by the soul of this male rabbi. It’s not like that’s what women should regularly be doing.

Yael: Yeah, I think that it’s not unlikely that this story would be revisited now in a time where academia is rife with gender studies.

Schwab: Mm hmm. Yes, definitely. A couple of other elements of the story that I just want to come back to because they’re so interesting and they have to be mentioned. First, I mentioned before that she wears a tallit and tefillin when she prays. There is a Hasidic custom to actually wear two pairs of tefillin. To wear one and then sort of towards the end of the prayer, take that off, wear the second one so that you’re making sure to fulfill it according to all opinions. She did that, she wore two pairs of tefillin. And I just love that because I think, I really wonder, and if any of our listeners know, I really wonder because it’s a Hasidic minhag, if there are any other women who wear two pairs of tefillin. I know there are women who wear tefillin, but I’ve never heard of a woman wearing the two pairs custom.

The other part I want to come back to is this wedding because there’s one understanding of it that also just blows my mind and comes back to this question I think of gender and of roles. So like I said, she’s married very briefly. So she did what she was told, she got married. She, you know, she doesn’t say this, but no one said I had to stay married, you just said I had to get married type of thing. She marries, like I said, probably her gabbai, one of her followers, and there’s different versions of why it is that the marriage was so short-lived and most probably not consummated. One of them is that the man she marries was so intimidated by her that he was unable to really be with her. But another thing that I saw, which was so fascinating, is that they get married and then they separate, but she in fact does not get a get, a traditional Jewish bill of divorce, which is required. And this is something that people might be familiar, unfortunately, today is still a huge problem in our society, where if a man does not give this get to a woman, she is not able to get remarried. And withholding that can be a very manipulative and terrible thing to do. But in this case, it’s possible that was like a move, that she said, let me get married.

Yael: She didn’t need to be with this guy. She got married, she’s halachically married. She fulfilled whatever expectation was put onto her. And so what you’re saying is if she doesn’t have a get, then she stays married for the rest of her life.

Schwab: And she can’t be married to anybody else. 

Yeal: Oh, I didn’t even think about that.

Schwab: Meaning nobody can then say, you have to do this thing. She’ll be like, hey, that’s super not allowed. I am not allowed to get married. I am in this situation, which in every other case is a very unfortunate and horrible situation for a woman to be in. But it is possible that she deliberately manipulated the situation to get what she wanted, which is, not be married because this is forbidden for her to get married to someone else. Yeah. So no one can tell her anymore. Hey, you really need to get married.

Yael: Fascinating. Ah, the things women will do to stay out of a bad marriage.

Schwab: Yeah. In her case, any marriage, she was really devoted to her maiden life.

Yael: I mean, obviously we didn’t know her personally and so we can’t know, but it is fascinating to me to think whether or not she could have been who she was if she was married. What if there was a man who supported her and was willing to be married to her, would her followers still have gone along?

Schwab: I think not. I think it’s hard to be the character that she was, because part of what was so remarkable about her is that she did stand on her own. And many other women who are prominent in Hasidic stories, in Hasidic history, are prominent because of their relationship. She would always be defined by who her husband was in some way.

And this is, in fact, this is another aside that’s so fascinating, one of the arguments against her, because there were a lot of objectors. It was a competitive field, Hasidic rabbis. And there were other Hasidic rabbis who were not happy with her. And one of the arguments against her was that she did not have the proper heritage. It is often dynastic, right? After the first couple of generations, you become a Hasidic rabbi because your father is the Hasidic Rabbi or you marry the daughter.

Yael: You can’t just wake up one day having hit your head on a rock and decide that you’re the leader of a Hasidic.

Schwab: Exactly. Yeah. And her father’s a businessman. He’s a nobody. That’s not where that’s not where, you know, Hasidic rabbis come from. You have to have the proper lineage and she doesn’t. And that’s why we shouldn’t follow her.

Yael: We didn’t talk about this too much, but do you have any sense that if people were followers of hers, that they were frowned upon in other Hasidic communities? If your parents are Ludmira Hasidim, are you a bad match for the child of someone who’s a different type of Chassid?

Schwab: So it’s hard to tell what was the extent of her followers. It seems like it was largely working class. So she did not attract a lot of the elites, a lot of the wealthier people, but it was really working class people to whom her ideas really spoke, who were really, felt connected to the things that she was saying, and she spoke to them.

Which is also so fascinating as a leader, she wasn’t trying to build up a large court and get influence. And that’s very appealing to, you know, a certain type of people who say oh, this is an anti-establishment, you know, person.

Yael: I don’t know if these people in Ukraine were paying too much attention to what was going on in the rest of the world, but it is interesting that this comes not too long after emancipation in many countries and particularly have the overthrow of the class system in France and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

And then you have these working-class people who see…

Schwab: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Well, she’s a self-made Rebbe, but she inherited her wealth.

Yael:  Right, right, fair enough. But you mean you have these working-class people who are saying we don’t have to go along with what everybody’s doing. We have rights of our own and we’re going to choose to follow this self-made woman. It’s really interesting.

Schwab: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And it’s a lot of her following was very local in the town of Ludmir, which was a lot of things at that time was just a very predominantly Jewish town. Something like 80% of the residents of Ludmir were Jews. But she was definitely a major figure in this town to the point where it seems, I’ve mentioned him a couple times, Nathaniel Deutsch, when he interviews people now, 200 years after the story, there is still this tradition among people who grew up in Ludmir when someone is sick or someone just coughs or something, is to just blur it the same way that we might say, God bless you, whatever, they’d be like, where’s the Maid? Where is the Maiden of Ludmir? Because she heals people. So, you know.

Yael: Wow.

Schwab: Next time you sneeze, where is the maid?

Yael: One thing that I’m curious about is if this all was happening today, would we be thinking of her as someone who did something unique and admirable, or would we think she’s a cult leader? And someone that people should stay away from because she has this high level of influence over people for reasons that we don’t necessarily understand.

Schwab: I think more the first, again, we did an episode in season one on Shabetai Zvi. She wasn’t telling her followers, renounce all your earthly possessions, give them to me, she didn’t ask her followers for any money in any way. She built her shtiebel herself. It doesn’t have the elements of a cult in terms of people separating themselves from any parts of their previous lives or society in some ways. So I think really the first we would.

But I’m sure there are people, if there was a character like this today in the Jewish world, I’m sure there would be people who thought she was admirable and a hero and incredible, and there would be objectors and detractors, and people would say…

Yael: Yeah, no, there would be panels upon panels upon panels and probably man-els.

Schwab: Yeah, yes. And I think that’s, it’s interesting that, this is not a more well-known character. I feel like this happens a lot. We’re always like, why, why do we never taught this story? Why don’t we talk about this person?

Yael: I mean, I have a pretty comprehensive formal Jewish education. And I’ve never heard of this person, which is bizarre.

Schwab: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And I think, yeah, because what’s interesting, I also think about the connection to Sarah Schenirer. If you are coming from an Orthodox feminist perspective, is this the person you would see as you’re a boundary pressure? Because she was very conservative and traditional in a lot of ways.

She didn’t speak English and the term didn’t exist, but I don’t think that Hannah Rachel Vermermacher would call herself a feminist. I don’t think she was trying to start a movement.

Yael: I think that makes her even more of an interesting figure to teach in Orthodox schools. She is pushing boundaries without pushing boundaries. She is not trying to overthrow the halakhic system. She is not trying to change that. But she is learned and she is a leader. 

Schwab: Mm-hmm.

Yael: But I’m glad she’s not completely lost to history.

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