While Medieval Jewry centered around Torah centers in France and Germany, by the late Middle Ages, Ashkenazic communities was under assault. Through a series of expulsions, forced conversions and general violence, European Jewry looked eastward, particularly towards Poland and Lithuania for respite. (Jewish communities also formed in central Europe.)
Although the majority of Jews settled into modest professions, acting as merchants or agents for local nobles, a small contingent made themselves highly useful to the various lords and rulers of these decentralized regions. Assuming the title of Court Jews, these individuals would extend lines of credit, provision the army, outfit the royal palace and create new economic opportunities for the rulers. In return, the Court Jew could expect all sorts of privileges, like permission to live outside the ghetto, a fancy title of “state official,” and direct access to the ruler which enabled all sorts of favor-asking. And, of course, Jewish men were not the only ones to wrestle for this role; Jewish women did so as well, and sometimes quite successfully.
Esther Liebmann (17th century) was perhaps the most noteworthy and formidable of the Court Jewesses. Descended from a learned and distinguished Prague family, her first husband acquired the right of residence in East Prussia (the first Jew to achieve this), along with permission to conduct business in Berlin, both striking accomplishments. However, upon his untimely death, he left his wife with heavy debt, children from his first marriage, children from their marriage, elderly parents and a few relatives to support. With that little village of dependents, Esther was in a dire predicament. Although she tried to make her inheritance stretch, debtors soon ripped the furniture out from under her. She remarried as the best recourse for her troubles, a solution to which many widowed women resorted. Although her second husband rescued her from debt, she proved the more valuable asset, bringing along her family’s right to live and do business in Berlin, along with access to Frederick I’s court.
Upon her second husband’s death, Esther gained notoriety or admiration, it’s hard to say which, as something of a political tyrant. She became Frederick I’s jewel supplier and, after discovering that he basically owed her a mini-kingdom’s worth of cash, he gave her the right to mint and distribute the currency as payment. As you can imagine, this increased her political clout. With her connections, she snatched up positions for her family members, hustled her way through a bunch of fabulous business deals, and dodged all manner of interference from government officials.
However, like many of our previous tales, Esther’s does not end particularly well. Upon his death, Frederick I still owed her quite a fortune, which his court quickly reneged upon, claiming Esther had defrauded the king and that she actually owed heavy penalties for her deceit. Although she remained a wealthy woman after settling these accounts, Esther was bitter and resentful about the misuse. She continued to supply jewels to the new king until her death a year later.
Rashka of Krakow (16th century) was another widow who became active in her husband’s commercial affairs, quickly making a name for herself as a formidable businesswoman. She was granted an honorary position in the king’s court and became the only Jew to secure the right to own a house in Krakow after the Jewish expulsion from that city in 1495.
Because of her secular influence, she became quite a force within the Jewish community where her voice was rarely ignored. Intent on advancing the rabbinic careers of her two sons-in-law, R’ Yaakov Polak and R’ Asher Lemel, Rashka used her community clout to collar positions for them in nearby Jewish communities.
There were a number of other court Jewess like Blumele Homburg (18th century) from Mainz, Germany whose dominant role was supplying the king’s army. Madame Kaulla (18th century) of Wurttemberg was another to fill this role, and she used her connections to benefit the Jewish community.
With the rise of chassidic thought in the 18th century, Polish Jewry underwent a revitalization which deemphasized intellectualism and emphasized spirituality and mysticism. Many women were drawn to the ethos of this movement, and flocked to the rebbe’s court to unburden their woes, beg for a blessing, or simply participate in the transcendent experience. And interestingly, a number of these pious women became leaders in their own right, “rebbes,” of a sort, if you will.
The Baal Shem Tov’s daughter, Edel, whose name would take on weighty significance for her followers, was one such figure. Charismatic and dynamic like her father, she was learned in mystical methods of healing in her early life. She would often visit the sick and perform these acts to help them.
Her life is encircled in fable and folktale, making it difficult to paint an accurate portrait of her. The Baal Shem Tov’s followers believed she was a holy woman, therefore they honored her and sought out her blessings. Her father held her on equal footing with his other disciples, and he stated that her soul originated in the holiest of sources. She often accompanied him on his journeys and interacted with followers.
It is reported that on one occasion Edel debated with her father’s talmidim regarding which of the heavenly gates is most important. Edel claimed the one of Divine help is the greatest of all, because it encompasses all of the others. Dissatisfied with this, the talmidim brought it to the Baal Shem who upheld his daughter’s response. “She is right, because when a person attains any one of these spiritual gates, such as the gates of Torah, wisdom or repentance… he must understand that everything is accessed through Divine help.”
Another fascinating woman to take on a leadership role was Yente the prophetess (17th century). From humble descent, Yente’s first aspiration to greatness occurred after meeting the Baal Shem Tov. After this encounter, she fasted and immersed herself in a mikvah daily before her prayers and learning sessions. The Baal Shem Tov would eventually label her a prophetess, claiming she had eyes and ears that were capable of “true hearing and seeing.” Word of her ability spread, and she received countless petitioners. Refusing to accept money for her gathering, she did accept food, much of which she distributed to the poor.
There were a number of women like Edel and Yente who held court and entertained followers whom they guided in spiritual matters. One of them was Tzizah, the granddaughter of R’ Zusha of Anipoli. Upon her husband’s death, she continued to sustain his many chassidim with inspiring discourse. There was another “rebbe” whose following was all female; she was referred to as the Premishlaner Rebbetzin of Jerusalem. She always had a gathering of attendants and visitors around her.
Yet one of the most intriguing of these personalities was Chana Rachel Werbermacher (19th century) of Ukraine, often referred to as the Maiden of Ludmir. As the only child of a wealthy businessman, Chana Rachel ascended to the role of “rebbe” in her own right, without chassidic leaders within her family to bolster her rise.
Studious, talented, pious and well-read, she made a name for herself as a healer and miracle worker. During one lofty experience at the graveside of her mother, she fell into a faint, after which she began to keep all the commandments assigned to men. She used her inheritance to build a shul where she ensconced herself in Torah study. On Shabbos, she would open the doors of her private room and offer a sermon to her many followers. Noteworthy rabbinic figures acknowledged the holiness of this woman, and some even visited her for guidance. She spoke with all her followers through a window built for this purpose.
Ultimately, her single status was considered antithetical to Torah values, and R’ Mordechai of Chernobyl convinced her to marry. The couple, however, separated within a week. Chana Rachel resettled in Eretz Yisrael where she continued to draw a large entourage. She would visit kever Rachel every Rosh Chodesh and place kvitlach in the cracks of the grave from her many petitioners.
During this Early Modern period, wealthy Jews and Jewesses still made their appearance, using their cash and connections to sway the secular courts. However, as Jewry marched into the Modern era, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian Jews would suffer all the privations and poverty we commonly associate with Eastern European Jewry. The Jewish lender was replaced with the Jewish borrower, and political influence would become greatly diminished.
Edt. Michael A. Meyer German-Jewish History in Modern Times: Vol. 1 Tradition and Enlightenment (Columbia University Press, New York 1996)
Bernard D. Weinryb The Jews of Poland: A Social and Economic History of the Jewish Community in Poland (Jewish Publication Society of America 1972)
Sarah Feldbrand From Sarah to Sarah: and other fascinating Jewish women both famous and forgotten 3rd edition (2013)
Taitz, Emily, and Cheryl Tallan. “Entrepreneurs.” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. March 2009. Jewish Women’s Archive.