Friday, September 7, 2007

Glikl bas Judah Leib, mother of 14, businesswoman and trader


In my great grief and for my heart's ease I begin this book the year of Creation 5451 [1690-91] God soon rejoice us and send us His redeemer! I began writing it, dear children, upon the death of your good father, in the hope of distracting my soul from the burdens laid upon it, and the bitter thought that we have lost our faithful shepherd. In this way I have managed to live through many wakeful nights, and springing from my bed shortened the sleepless hours
Thus begins the beautifully-written Memoirs of the resourceful and shrewd businesswoman, wife and mother Glikl bas Judah Leib (1646-1724). When Glückel (German for Glikl)) sat down to write her memoirs in 1690 as a kind of therapy after her husband's death, she could not possibly have foreseen that they would comprise one of the most remarkable documents of the late seventeenth and early 18th century. Her memoirs, which describe her life as mother of fourteen children and as businesswoman and trader, has given scholars, students and laymen an invaluable document about Jewish life in Europe in the 17th century. Glückel grew up in Hamburg, a city frequently hostile to its Jews. The family was frequently forced to leave the city and take refuge in nearby Altona, where Jews enjoyed official "protected" status. Hamburg was a lively city of more than 60,000 people and a commercial center with trade connections to many countries. Glückel's father Judah Joseph Leib was a prominent trader, and her mother, Beila, a businesswoman.
As was the custom, Glückel's parents chose her husband, and at the age of fourteen she was married to Chaim Hameln. The couple would enjoy thirty years of happy marriage and fruitful partnership, build considerable wealth, raise twelve children, and arrange for them marriages of wealth and prestige. Glückel and Chaim worked together running his business trading gold, silver, pearls, jewels, and money. Chaim traveled to England and Russia and throughout Europe selling his goods, with Glückel advising him on his business dealings, drawing up partnership contracts, and helping keep accounts.
Then came the great tragedy of Glückel's life, the event that sparked the writing of her Memoirs. One evening in 1689 while traveling to a business appointment, Chaim fell on a sharp rock. He died several days later. As the devastated Glückel mourns Chaim she refers to him as her 'good friend' — an expression that testifies to the closeness and success of their companionship. Chaim left everything to Glückel, summing up his bequests on his deathbed: "my wife knows everything." After thirty days mourning, Glückel was compelled to face his debts. Demonstrating excellent business acumen, Glückel auctioned her husband's possessions, paying his creditors and keeping a significant amount for herself and the eight children still living at home. Her resourcefulness saved her and her family as she established an ample livelihood: she resumed Chaim's trade of pearls, expanding to open a shop; she manufactured and sold stockings; sold imports and local wares; and lent money.

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