One of the most insightful Jewish autobiographies was written by Glueckel of Hameln, a wise mother and businesswoman who described the life of the Jews in Germany in the late 17th to early 18th centuries.
Glueckel of Hameln, whose diary became so famous, was born in Hamburg, one of the three sister cities of Altona, Hamburg and Wandsbek that played an important role in Jewish life and were the seat of famous rabbis. Glueckel was born at a time when Europe was torn by the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648).Only three years after her birth in 1646, all Jews were driven from Hamburg, and they settled in nearby Altona. When Glueckel was only eleven years old, the Swedish army came down from the north and drove the Jews back to Hamburg. For three years Glueckel attended a cheder and became well acquainted with the Torah. She was well-read also in the literature written in a special dialect of German, which later developed into the Yiddish language, but in her days it was more German than the present-day Yiddish spoken by Jews the world over.
As was the custom in those days, Glueckel was married when she was barely fourteen years old. But she was then already a mature, serious and practical young girl who could carry on the customs and ways of a good Jewish home, which she had learnt in her parents’ house. Her husband, Chaim, was a pious young scholar and businessman from the small town of Hameln. Glueckel spent there the first year of her married life, happy and satisfied, and teaching the young Jews of that community what she had learned in cheder.
A year later, Glueckel and her husband moved to Hamburg, then a world center of trade, and one of the most important harbors. It offered many more opportunities for hardworking young people like Glueckel and her husband to earn a living. At first they had to overcome quite a few hardships, but then G‑d blessed them, and in a few short years they became quite well-to-do. Glueckel, in addition to taking care of the house and the small children, helped her husband in business. Soon they were among the wealthier Jews of Hamburg, who had good connections with the German courts and used these connections for the welfare of their Jewish brethren who then had to suffer a great deal of persecution and economic difficulties. As a matter of fact, Glueckel and her husband were so successful and became so respected that six of their children married into the very best Jewish families of Germany. At the wedding of their oldest daughter, members of the princely court of Brandenburg (later the German imperial dynasty) participated.
Having been married happily for twenty-nine years, Glueckel’s husband, Chaim, died in 1689 and left her with eight of her twelve children still unmarried, and a large business to be taken care of. Glueckel, a woman full of bitachon (trust in G‑d), did not despair. She managed to bring up her children and give them a good Jewish education, marrying them into equally good Jewish families, and at the same time successfully handle her husband’s business. As, she writes in her diary, her plan was to wait until her last child was married. Then she planned to sell her business and settle in the Holy Land to devote the rest of her days to helping her people and doing other good deeds. Unfortunately, her business suffered serious setbacks, and she was forced to change her plans. She married again, her second husband being a wealthy Jewish businessman of Metz, a city in Alsace-Lorraine, where many great Jewish scholars had lived and taught. She could have been happy, but Providence wanted it that Glueckel, who had always been blessed with success, should suffer in her later years. Only a year after her second marriage, her husband lost not only his own great wealth, but all that Glueckel had brought into their marriage. Yet, without despairing, Glueckel kept on living the life of a pious and faithful Jewess who dedicated her efforts to helping the Jewish community in which she lived, though she lacked the comforts and means which had made her life easy before.
During her last years Glueckel wrote her memoirs, which are a valuable record about the life of the Jews in Germany, and of the Jewish world in general, in those difficult days after the Thirty Years’ War. But her book is more than that. Glueckel discusses all the important events of that time. She gives mussar (moral exhortation) to her children, and many times she adorns her story with a midrash, a quotation from the Holy Scriptures, or even quotations from the Talmud. Thus her diary shows that she was quite an outstanding woman in her days, a woman of deep wisdom and faith, who could take things in her stride as they came, and be an inspiration to others.
Glueckel’s son Moshe, who was a well-known rabbi, found the manuscript of his mother’s diary and copied it on parchment, and thus preserved it for generations. It serves as a shining example of a pious, good and wise Jewish woman, a true mother in the midst of her people Israel.