Translation of 17th century memoir shows how Jews dealt with plague
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Translation of 17th century memoir shows how Jews dealt with plague

Writings of successful Jewish merchant Glikl Hamel give insight into how an infection took hold in Germany with young children forced to quarantine from parents

Bertha Pappenheim, a desdendant of Gilki Hamel, poses as her
Bertha Pappenheim, a desdendant of Gilki Hamel, poses as her

A new translation of a 350-year old memoir is showing an English-speaking audience how Europe’s Jews dealt with a deadly 17th century plague, including by social distancing.

The memoirs of Glikl Hamel, a successful Jewish merchant, record how the plague took hold in Hamburg and Hanover shortly before the High Holy Days, with young children forced to quarantine from their parents.

In her journal from 1691 to 1719, Hamel recalled how she and her husband Hayyim were ordered to banish their four-year-old daughter, Tsipor, to another town despite her not being ill, after locals reported that they thought she was infected.

Allowed to visit from a distance, Hamel later wrote: “I will let any good father or mother judge for themselves how we felt. My husband, of blessed memory, stood in a corner, weeping and pleading, while I stood in
a corner.”

Publisher Sylvia Fuks Fried paid tribute to Glikl’s “remarkable skills as a writer”, adding: “It’s why it has such staying power and why we are reading it today.”

The original was written in Old Yiddish, the vernacular language among German-speaking Ashkenazi Jews in the early modern era. 

In 2006, Israel Prize winning Yiddish scholar Chava Turniansky translated it into a more modern Hebrew-Yiddish version, and the new book is based on that.

Historian Rachel Greenblatt said: “Glikl provides us with an unparalleled historical source, opening a window on the daily life, anxieties, petty rivalries and stories of folk wisdom occupying the mental world of a woman who bore 14 children.”

Glikl began writing her memoirs of living a Jewish life about two years after the death of her husband in 1689, when she was 44. It was initially a way to console herself through sleepless nights and is embellished by stories and proverbs.

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