The diary of Glikl: Discovering the exceptional within the everyday


Forget philosophers and historians, welcome to the world of Glikl, an ordinary yet extraordinary Jewish woman from 18th-century Germany. Join Yael and Schwab as they explore Glikl’s diary, where she candidly shared her personal struggles and triumphs, offering a profound glimpse into the human experience with an authenticity and vulnerability that still resonates today.

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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. Yeah.

Yael: What do we have going on this week?

Schwab: We have a really good one this week. I always say that, but it’s always a good one.

Yael: I want to know what you would do if you thought it was a really bad one.

Schwab: I think we would cancel recording.

Yael: Fine. I’m all for quality control. So what do we have?

Image from the Old Town of the city Hameln, Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony), Germany, 2014 (Photo: Bjoertvedt/Wikipedia Commons)

Schwab: Yeah, starting with a big question, I think both of us are very, obviously, big Jewish history nerds, not just in terms of all of Jewish history, but in terms of our families, which have come up many times in the podcast. And the question that I have is sort of, why? Why do we care so much about the past and the past of our people specifically?

Yael: I think people tell us we learn about history so that we don’t repeat it. But we still do repeat it all the time. We don’t seem to take that to heart. I don’t know. I like to talk about it, and I like to learn about it, truly because I’m a nerd. And I find it fascinating and interesting and fun.

Schwab: Mm-hmm. I also, when I was young, heard that idea that we learn about history, so not to repeat it, but clearly that has not worked out great for society at large.

Yael: Well, I was going to say, to a certain extent, especially with Jewish history, and I’m sure other cultural groups feel this way, we learn about history in order to repeat it. We learn about history and tradition in order to perpetuate it. And we talk about that a lot.

Schwab: Yes, great. Okay, so perpetuate is one of the key words for today, so I’m glad you brought it up.

Yael: Amazing.

Schwab: So to think about this question, this week we’re gonna talk about this upper middle class, fairly ordinary Jewish woman from the 18th century and these big questions of the value of history and the story of our ancestors. She’s not a philosopher. She’s not a rabbi. She’s not a historian. But what she wrote about, I think, tells us so much about those questions.

Yael: I just want to say it seems to me like you’re growing an expertise in fairly ordinary Jewish women. That is totally your niche.

Schwab: Yes. And I really, really do enjoy covering topics like this. And then always saying, you know, how actually she’s really quite remarkable for a fairly ordinary Jewish woman. Spoilers at the top. This seems to always come up, but this is more times than I can count in this podcast, the story of a Jewish woman who was surprisingly good at business, and whose business was frequently failed by the men around her. And despite the deck being stacked against her in so many ways, she seems like she is able to do something that we largely don’t ascribe to women doing at that time in history. 

Yael: Fascinating. So who is this barely unremarkable, remarkable woman?

Schwab: Her name is Glikl. She doesn’t have a last name because it’s before commonly accepted last names. She’s most frequently referred to as Glikl of Hameln, which is the town in which she lived a lot of her life. But that’s not how she would have ever identified herself. That’s sort of a later name that’s given to her.

Yael: I think that when I have heard of her, and I definitely know the name, I’ve heard of her as Glukl with a U, is that…

Schwab: So it’s written with a U. I want to say maybe it’s a umlaut. It’s the symbol with two dots that go over the U. So that’s how it’s written. I believe that means it’s supposed to be pronounced Glikl. And it is then sometimes written with an I instead of the U. Yeah, but the pronunciation is, I think, Glikl. I don’t think that it has any connection to the English phrase good luck, but it is connected to the concept of luck and mazal.

Yael: I was going to say good fortune. Is yeah.

Schwab: Good fortune. And the ul is a common Yiddish diminutive. It’s just like, oh yeah little Glikl. So like little good fortune, little lucky thing.

Yael: That’s a pretty nice name to be given.

Schwab: It is. As we’ll talk about, I don’t know that she felt like she was very fortunate in life. So she is married, happily, has 14 children. She gets married quite young. She’s engaged at the age of 12, I think, and married by 14, and has many, many children, most of whom survived to adulthood.

And then her husband, I think they had been married about 30 years at that point, with whom she was very close and deeply loved, suddenly and tragically dies, and she is really distraught. At the advice of her children, she begins to write. It’s a diary, but it’s addressed to her kids.

Yael: She’s journaling.

Schwab: She’s journaling, but it’s obviously meant to help her in some way. But the intended audience is her children. There is this really interesting question of what genre is this exactly? Is this a memoir? Is this an ethical will? Is it instructive to her kids? What is it exactly that she wrote? And she never titles it. So it’s frequently in translated versions called something like the memoirs of Glikl of Hameln, but she didn’t put a title on it at all. When she writes about what she’s writing, she just refers to it as this, or the books that I’m writing, she doesn’t say ever, this is exactly what this is.

Yael: What year is this?

Schwab: She’s born in 1646 and she starts it in 1691 and she completes it in 1719. So over many years.

Yael: And where is she?

Schwab: And this is in Germany. 

Yael: Okay, just trying to paint a mental picture.

Schwab: Turn of the century, Germany.

Yael: Is she observant?

Schwab: She is deeply observant. There’s a very good recent translation in English. It’s very enjoyable to read because it’s extensively footnoted. And so many of these footnotes are things like what she’s referring to here, she’s actually quoting verbatim a verse from the Torah. So she’s clearly quite educated and quite religious in her education. And she talks a lot about God, just so much. Yeah.

Yael: I just want to say, when you said it’s highly enjoyable to read because it’s extensively footnoted, that’s how you know that we are the nerdiest.

Schwab: Yes, I appreciate the call out.

Yael: I totally get it. I agree with you wholeheartedly. So she’s very observant and she talks about God a lot.

Schwab: She talks about a couple of other things too, a lot, but it’s very clear that she’s deeply faithful. The first book, which is sort of just setting the stage and giving her general thoughts on things, she’s very clear in that suffering in this world is directly from God. Everything that I have is due to God. We have to think about worshiping God at all times. That’s the purpose of our existence here in the world. The Torah exists as like a, as a guide towards our values, towards what we’re supposed to be doing with our lives. Quite, quite religious.

Yael: Did she feel that her husband’s death was a punishment for something that she had done?

Schwab: I don’t remember if she specifically talks about that but she’s deeply troubled by her husband’s death and says in plenty of places like the suffering that we have in this world is because of something we have done so I even if she doesn’t say that I would venture to say that’s probably what she thought.

Yael: Why do we know who she is? How did her journals get out there into the world?

Schwab: This one manuscript of her journals are copied by her children. She had, like I said, 14 children, 12 of them survived to adulthood, and she marries them all off successfully, which is another major theme of the work, which we’ll talk about.

Yael: Okay, good. I’m so glad my parents will be listening to this episode.

Schwab: (laughs) But they survived to adulthood and there are at least two copies that her children make, copy by hand, of this manuscript. And then at some point her children and later descendants get this published. And it seems like it’s in some circulation, but definitely an important object within the family. A lot of her 12 children, they had a lot of children. So she’s a lot of grandchildren and then later, you know, many generations. And that’s something that is somewhat circulated within the family. And then at some point, just becomes a book that’s slightly more wider circulation, people, you know, are aware of. So this isn’t a recently rediscovered text. This is something that, you know, historians, people interested have always known, there’s this published work. That’s a really interesting diary, memoir, whatever it is, from this woman. And then, like I said, very recently, a full and authoritative translation into English came out in 2019. But this is something that people have been looking at and studying for some time.

Yael: Was this written in modern German?

Schwab: Ah, so it’s written in I think it’s called Western Yiddish. Until there actually was a formalizing of the language, Yiddish was a local dialect that was different in a lot of different places. And the Yiddish that she uses would appear very different. She would she be able to converse with someone else from Ukraine someplace much farther east. So the Yiddish that she writes in is a little bit different than the Yiddish of other things, but it’s still a Yiddish.

Yael: Do we know how she became literate? Because it seems like the ability to write several volumes was not common among women at that time.

Schwab: Right, so she definitely grew up comfortably in the middle class, probably the upper middle class, and then continues in that her husband was a successful business person. So she was fairly wealthy and probably had access to education as a result of that. We don’t have the original manuscript. I believe that this is the case that we’re pretty sure she wrote it herself, and it wasn’t dictated and written by someone else, but she probably had access to someone who could help her write it if there was some issue or someone could teach her how to write. And that’s not so atypical I guess for a woman of her means.

Yael: Interesting. Cool. So what was her business that she was so prolific at?

Schwab: Yeah. So her husband’s business was in precious stones and jewels, which is the exact same business that my grandfather was in when he came to America. He worked in jewelry. And there actually is a really good explanation for why that is a popular business for Jews to be involved in, which is that it’s very portable. And her family had faced a number, historically had faced a number of expulsions, persecutions, and dealing in precious jewels is something that it’s a business that you can pick up and move somewhere else and just relocate your business.

Yael: Right. You can sew the stones into the hem of your pants or skirt and carry them across state lines.

Schwab: You know what’s so funny? That, it came up recently in a conversation, and apparently that’s not a reference that many people get possibly outside of the Jewish, like that’s a very Jewish thing to know about. And I’m like, oh right, because not everybody has grandparents who are Holocaust survivors or had to flee their country.

Yael: And not everybody gets their newborn children passports immediately after they’re born in case they need to flee the country.

Schwab: Yeah. I have a one-year-old daughter and we got her a passport and apparently that’s not a thing that everybody in the world does. Yeah.

Yael: But certainly jewels were very critical to a lot of people surviving the Holocaust.

Schwab: Exactly, and I sort of always thought about that as a Holocaust thing, oh, and definitely, I said, my grandfather, who’s a Holocaust survivor and worked in the jewelry business and wrote actually like a sort of his own memoirs about his own life. And Glikl talks a bunch about business. I sort of always thought of that as a Holocaust thing. To him, he was always like, where’s your secret stash of money that you could use to bribe someone if you had to bribe someone? But turns out it didn’t start in the 1930s and 40s because that was something that Glikl was doing back in the early 1700s.

Yael: I think about that all the time and about how I definitely am not prepared. I don’t have enough liquid assets to take with me if I need to go on the run. Grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, man.

Schwab: I was going to say this is such a third generation Holocaust survivor discussion.

Yael: No damage there.

Schwab: Yeah. But this is something that Glikl writes openly about. We had this much money for our business, and we had to bribe this local authority. And the Jews were going to be expelled, but we were able to pay off this person. And so this has been going on for several hundred years. And that.

Yael: And this was her family business or his?

Schwab: This was his family business that she takes over upon his death and runs successfully. And then we don’t have to spend a lot of time on this part, but she remarries quite unhappily. And that second husband runs the business into the ground, that she was able to successfully run.

Yael: Oh God.

Schwab: And then comes the chapters in her life where she had to live on far more meager means and had to rely sometimes on her children for support. But during the years of plenty, she does write often about the business and about her successful organizing of it and how she is able to take what her husband did and continue it in a successful way and provide for herself and for her 12 children.

Yael Very impressive.

Schwab: Yeah. So that’s, I would say the other, of the three major things that she talks about a lot, there’s God, there’s business and money, and then there’s her children.

Yael: She doesn’t sound Jewish at all.

Schwab: And, that’s exactly, the point I want to make that is Jewish history. There’s the faith element, there’s the how do we remain secure in an insecure world for Jews? What are the things that are stable, that we can rely on? And family. Where do we come from and what are we perpetuating and what are the things from our parents that we want to pass on to our children?

Yael: I think it’s really interesting that you say that and again, not to play into stereotypes, but I agree with what you said that they come from reality. I never really thought about this before, but I could understand why someone who is worried about discrimination and worried about possibly having to leave their home isn’t content with working a specific type of job where they might have a pension and they don’t want to do that because that requires a level of faith that says this community is still going to exist for me in 40 years. And I will not have been chased out of here in the middle of the night.

Schwab: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Yael: Scary stuff.

Schwab: Speaking of scary stuff, there’s a story that takes place towards the beginning of the book that is clearly meant to teach a lesson. But it’s for all of our young listeners out there, it’s a little horrifying. And it’s this parable that she tells. So I’ll tell it to you and then we’ll unpack what it is that is going on for her. There is this bird who needs to cross a windy sea and carry its three children across this dangerous crossing of some sort. And because it’s so dangerous, the father bird can only carry one child bird at a time. So the father bird is carrying the first child bird. And then, you know, as you do, when you’re a bird in one of these stories, as they’re about halfway across this dangerous sea, the father bird asks the child, look how hard I have to work to carry you and take care of you and do all of these things. Will you do the same for me when I am old and cannot take care of myself? And the child bird responds, yes, of course, because you are my father and you have cared for me. And then the father bird says, you are a liar, and throws the child into the sea. 

Yael: Okay, fascinating twist.

Schwab: Yeah, like I said, it’s a scary story. The same thing happens with the second bird, asks the same question, the second bird gives the same sort of response I promise when you are older, I will take care of you. And the father bird says, you too are a liar and throws his second child into the sea. Then the father bird is carrying the third young bird and repeats the same question. And the third bird says, I see that everything you are doing for me and you’re working so hard and risking your own health and safety. And I should owe you that. And I should repay you in your old age, but I can’t promise that. What I can promise you is that I will do the same for my own children. And one day I will carry my children the way you have carried me. And the father says, okay, you’re not a liar, and therefore I will not throw you in and carries the child safely to the other side.

Yael: None of you can see me rolling my eyes right now.

Schwab: Yeah, I can see the eye roll and it’s a it’s a lot but

Yael: Jewish guilt at its best. It’s like, did you ever hear the joke, a Jewish guy calls his mother, she picks up the phone and he says, how are you, ma? And she says, terrible, I haven’t eaten in 38 days. The son says, why haven’t you eaten in 38 days? And she says, I didn’t want my mouth to be full in case you should call.

Schwab: Oof, that’s a good one, I like that. And I don’t, part of me thinks this is her own thing, of she’s writing it at the beginning after the death of her husband. And I think she’s thinking what is the purpose? She’s openly saying that she feels quite depressed after the death of her husband and her children tell her maybe writing will help. And you know, and I think she’s like, what are we living for? What are we doing? And this, I think, is the thing that she settles on, we can think about the past and perpetuate things forward into the future and hold onto that hope that things will continue to exist in the future. Like you were saying before, when so many things are in doubt, I don’t know that I can live in the same place in 40 years from now. I don’t know that my children or grandchildren will be treated the same way or better than I am in the present moment, but are there values that I can pass on to them?

Yael: That to me evokes this idea of maybe we do need to cut ourselves off from certain things in the past in order to make our lives better in the future. And are we clinging too dearly to things that were important to our ancestors because we think that that’s what they would want, when in reality maybe all they want is for our lives to be easier, even if that means letting go of certain treasures of the past.

Schwab: Yeah, I think that’s partially the lesson of this story, right? Carry your own kids across the sea. Like move forward into the future. And if you promise that you’re gonna be there for me, you are a liar, I don’t believe you.

Yael: I don’t know if you had time to look into this, but I would be curious in the future to maybe look into whether or not this parable appears elsewhere.

Schwab: Oh, I actually did look at this, this is the first historical record we have of this folktale. It is then referred to in other places, but we do not see it appear anywhere prior to Glikl.

Yael: So what you’re saying is that Glikl is the mother of Jewish mothers. OK, so now that she’s bestowed upon us this fairly deep, complicated, and in my case, heart-piercing parable, where does she go from there?

Schwab: Then she proceeds to spend the next six books talking about a lot of her life. Um, and, and I said, in her life, it’s very clear that she thinks about God, thinks about business and money and thinks about her family. And those are the details that she puts down just throughout. It’s just constant talking about this kid and their problems, this kid and their problems, and this kid is married off to this guy and she doesn’t like them very much, which oof. It ended up getting published. So I don’t know, stinks to be the in-laws that she doesn’t like. She has one set of, they’re not really in-laws. There’s no good word for this outside of, machatanim, your kids in-laws. The other parents, you know, your kids in-laws, whatever. And there’s one in particular that she really does not like and she has.

Yael: Right.

Schwab: This sort of nickname for them. I don’t remember what it is, but it’s something they’re wealthier and they’re very aware of it. And so, she refers to them as the Duke and Duchess, you know? Just imagine if you wrote that and it gets published.

Yael: And I mean, how terrible that your child married someone wealthier. What a curse.

Schwab: Mm-hmm. Right. No, but they’re very, you know, they’re sort of aloof and she doesn’t like, I think it’s the son-in-law, it’s her daughter who’s married to the son, you know? But that ends up being the one that she moves in with in her old age, the ones who actually take care of her are the ones that she’s, I don’t know, like written some negative stuff about earlier. I’m curious how all of our kids felt about this and the way they were written about.

Yael: Were they reading this while she was alive, or did they only get this when she passed away?

Schwab: Yeah, that’s a great question. It’s unclear, because she was writing it over a long time and was she showing them parts of it? Was it a sealed book until she died and then gave them all of it? I don’t really know. If I had to guess, I feel like she was showing it to them throughout. She does not seem like she’s very good at stopping herself from speaking her mind.

Yael: She wasn’t shy.

Schwab: Right. Like we said, she’s a Jewish mother.

Yael: If she was alive today, she’d probably have a podcast, or she’d be a real housewife of early modern Germany.

Schwab: Yeah, she would have a lot to say. And like I said, there’s something so recognizable to us in the present about it. You could change technological and historical details of the story, but this feels like it could be written in the last 60 years and the cultural elements would still make some sense to us. But all of this is really contrast with some of the other ways that we’ve discussed history this season. We started off talking this season talking about Heinrich Gretz and sort of like the big idea, the big sweeping views of Jewish history. And this is one woman’s everyday life that is deeply rooted in Jewish values and is so important to Jewish. Today, we recognize so much of what she’s talking about as relevant to our lives and relevant to our moment.

Yael: Do we know how this became such a well-known story? As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t know the details of her life, but I certainly heard and read her name multiple times.

Schwab: Yeah, I know one of the translators of her works, Chava Turniansky, says, complete autobiography in Ashkenazi Jewish history. There’s fragments of stuff elsewhere, but we don’t have anything prior to this. That’s a total book that is one person about their life that isn’t some sort of other text that isn’t, you know, also religious instruction or something like this is the first example of a complete work like this. And it’s, it’s important and relevant because of that. And I think that’s, that’s definitely part of it.

And it becomes a really valuable historical work. And it’s also relevant, I think. We didn’t talk about this, so we’ll just mention this quickly. But I said a lot of stuff was happening in the world at this time. This is shortly after the entire Shabbetai Tzvi movement. And she’s talking in that context, and she’s aware of it. And it’s on the periphery of her community and identity. And she’s not a big Shabbetai Tzvi person, but it’s going on. And she’s writing in the aftermath of the Chmielnicki uprising and massacres. And she’s present at really important points in history, and it’s really interesting because she doesn’t focus on those a whole lot.

Yael: But it seems like a lot of her value is that we can glean information and details about other major events in Jewish history from the ways in which she references them in her writing, which is ostensibly about herself. 

Schwab: And daily life. This is a great source for learning about daily life rather than like the like big history things.

Yael: It almost strikes me as, when you watch like a Ken Burns documentary about the Civil War, and there’s, you know, letters written between husbands and wives about what’s going on the home front and what’s going on in the battle. And really it’s just a communication between these two people about what’s going on in their own particular lives, but we’re highlighting them because they help us understand the war in a much larger context. And it seems like her writing does that over the course of several decades for us with respect to Ashkenazi Jewish history at that time.

Schwab: Yeah, yeah. There’s that element of here’s what’s going on in the world and here’s the daily life of a person that we don’t usually think about. What was the life of a woman in the 1700s in Germany, what did it look like? What followers of Shabbetai Tzvi looked like, what the intellectual movement for or against it looked like.

Yael: And also, what’s the value of knowing the big picture if you don’t understand how it impacted regular people? I mean, it might be helpful for an exam in school, but I think that we take a lot more away when we understand how historical events impacted the real people on the ground.

Schwab: Yeah. But the other one story that I wanted to throw in there, cause it’s so fascinating, both in terms of how she lived her life, but also just what is going on with the way she looks at the world. She gets married at a very young age, she’s living in her mother’s house and she and her mother are both pregnant and both have children.

And the layout of the house, it’s something like both babies are placed in a nursery together, her daughter and her sibling. And one night, a baby is crying in the middle of the night and she goes and gets the baby and is nursing the baby. And then her mother wakes up and her mother goes to look for her baby and it’s not there. And it’s because Glikl took the wrong baby, took her sibling and was like comforting this baby. And then the way she closes the story everyone laughs and they’re like, oh, we should have had King Solomon come in here to arbitrate this dispute.

Yael: That’s just a perfect way to wrap up.

Schwab: Yeah, and there’s something so interesting of just the collapsing of generations, and that she’s literally taking the place of her mother, like seeing yourself as part of the past and she’s literally becoming that in some way. There’s so much there.

Yael: So much there. Paging Dr. Freud.

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