REVIEW: Yiddish Letters

Rivkah Blau Tradition Online

Arthur Arnheim and Chava Turniansky, Yiddish Letters from the Seventeenth-Century World of Glikl Hamel (Magnes Press, 2020), 188 pages.

Arthur Arnheim found five Yiddish letters stored in the Norwegian State Archives, and eighteen more in the Danish State Archives. He enlisted Chava Turniansky, noted for her work on Glikl: Memoirs 1691-1719 (Brandeis, 2019), to edit and annotate the two sets of letters.

The happy result is Yiddish Letters from the Seventeenth-Century World of Glikl Hamel, a recent translation published by the Hebrew University’s Magnes Press. These letters survived because they never reached their addressees; they were intercepted by censors who read them and left them in government files. They prove to be a historic treasure, confirming what Glikl revealed in her vivid account of Jewish life in that era in northern Europe. She was a widow who wanted to leave for her children a history of their family in Altona, Hamburg, Metz, and Hamel.

People and events she mentioned appear here; the correspondents are immersed in financial and commercial dealings like those of Glikl and her husband. While she left a record of the past,  the letter-writers in this new volume focused on current events: Meyer bar Isaac gave financial advice to his son; Brayne bas Samuel Furst confirmed to her husband, who was away on business, that the name of their new daughter is Sarah. Neither Glikl nor the correspondents had an inkling that centuries later we would glean so much from what they wrote. (Since a number of the texts begin with a reminder that Rabbeinu Gershom prohibited opening mail addressed to another person, I inquired and learned that after three and a half centuries, when there is no advantage, economic or otherwise, to be gained over the correspondents, we are permitted to read their mail.)

The five letters in Oslo were written in July and August 1666 to Jacob Sussman, a member of the Hamburg-Altona community, who had been arrested in Copenhagen. He and his partners were trying to set up a business enterprise, but did not have official permits to be in the city. After they were released, all was forgiven; Sussman was granted a concession and monopoly on the production of tobacco in a Danish town. Jews earned a living, but always with the anxiety of needing permission, which could be bestowed or revoked at any time.

The existence of the individual and the Jewish community was always precarious. Glikl recalled exile from one town when she was three years old, and fleeing another city when she was ten. Jews had to pay special taxes, and had to cultivate the good will of the ruler through expensive gifts. In Hamburg all the Jews who gained permission to live in the city had to reside on one street, and could not have a synagogue or a cemetery; they had to conduct services secretly. If a Jew died in Leipzig, everything he owned was confiscated. Laws against Jews were enacted as a matter of course; ingenuity was required to earn a living and to avoid impoverishment and imprisonment.

When Mrs. Sussman wrote to her husband in jail, she used Schonchen, her German name, in one letter, and Sheyndl, her Yiddish name, in the second letter, both meaning “beautiful.” Jews had one name inside the community and another name outside. Parents still put names in the local language on birth certificates and passports, while using Hebrew names in everyday life. We see that a wife was involved in commercial matters; Mrs. Sussman suggests buying provisions to sell to the army—there is a rumor that forty thousand soldiers are approaching Hamburg. Together with Glikl, who wrote about women who excelled in trade and manufacturing, Mrs. Sussman and other correspondents dispel the notion that women functioned only in the domestic sphere. We had an account of the era by Glikl; here we have seventeen witnesses attesting in their letters to what she described.

Sheyndl and another writer, Nathan Neumark, reveal that people were uncertain what to make of the purported Messiah Shabtai Tzvi. She wrote, “What news can I write about king Messiah? Nathan the prophet is coming with ten wise men to Constantinople. When he arrives there the redemption will be widely known.” She promises to write more about this. Neumark was not convinced by news of the king Messiah being freed from prison, although many letters were arriving. He was probably being ironic when he advised Jacob Sussman, “Don’t sleep through the ingathering of the exiles.” He was dubious about the messianic claims, but promised to write more. Glikl described the ceremony and excitement in the Sephardic synagogue when letters from Constantinople were read aloud to the congregation. Her father-in-law sent barrels of peas, beans, dried meat and other foods that would keep for the family to take on their trip to the Land of Israel when the anticipated moment would arrive. After a year of waiting he advised her to empty the barrels before the food would spoil. But he had barrels of linens that he kept in her house for another three years, still hoping for the Messiah. Glikl believed that sins prevented the redemption, which would come when the people merited it. When one considers how Jews in Europe had suffered—the Crusades, Chmielnicki and the massacres of 1648-49, murder by robbers at home and highwaymen and pirates when traveling—one can understand why people were desperate to believe that the Messiah had come. 

The eighteen letters in the Danish Archive date from January 1678, after the Shabtai Tzvi fiasco had ended. They are among the private documents of Gabriel Milan, a Jew who was probably asked to translate them into Danish when the censors could not read the Yiddish script. Turniansky posits that since Denmark was at war with Sweden, the government intercepted them to find out what people knew in Hamburg, Altona, and Copenhagen. Also, the Jews were always suspected of helping the other side. Probably when Milan reported that they contained nothing of military significance, the letters were left with him. 

Milan may have had the same difficulty that we have now in deciphering the letters: the script varies from one writer to another; many are penned in microscopically small handwriting; inkblots obscure several words; there are more than forty acronyms. Reading them is a challenge. But we have an additional difficulty: Old Yiddish differs from current Yiddish in phrasing and spelling. One appreciates the favor that was done at the beginning of the twentieth century when Yiddish spelling was standardized. For example, the Hebrew letter sin was used in the late 1600s for samekh and zayin. Even a word like das, “the” or “this,” is not immediately recognized when it is spelled with a sin.

The originals, which are published in facsimile in this edition, are virtually illegible for contemporary readers. Even the transcription, which is also provided, of the originals into Hebrew block-print is a challenge: the editors had to supply endings for abbreviated words; add missing letters or words; post question marks or brackets where they were not sure how to read a word or understand it. Shuv, which is used repeatedly, indicates going on to another topic; the editors explain that it is akin to the use of weiter in German or “further” in English. Without the footnotes it would be difficult for a Yiddish scholar today to read these letters.

An introduction that opens the era to the reader, and an English translation of each missive with explanations of all the references, precede the letters in Yiddish. A list of abbreviations, of place names, and an index of people’s names and of places, make it easier for the reader to follow what is going on.

Each letter is one-half of a dialogue between spouses, or partners in business—buying and selling, packing merchandise with care, debts and the possibility of bankruptcy, forgeries and imprisonment, and a description of five rings with beautiful diamonds that the writer wants to sell. Parents send the universal and eternal complaint that a son worries them when he does not write, and the son replies with the perennial excuse of having been busy – until he reveals at last that he had been ill. Not much has changed between 1678 and 2021.

The letters contain information that could be turned into short stories. They provide powerful examples of the care one must take in writing, whether with a quill pen on paper, or typing on a computer keyboard. Did a mother in 1678 imagine that hundreds of years later strangers would read that she had to name a newborn herself while her husband was away on business? We are the beneficiaries of the chance survival of these letters. Arthur Arnheim and Chava Turniansky have made them understandable. They have turned a hidden treasure into an open book.

Dr. Rivkah Blau teaches English at Stern College.  She is the author of Learn Torah, Love Torah, Live Torah, a biography of her father, Rav Mordechai Pinchas Teitz zt”l.

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