>A Woman's Life
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A Woman's Life

Pauline Wengeroff and Memoirs of a Grandmother


In 1908, Pauline Wengeroff published the first piece of writing by a woman in the history of Jewish literature to tell the story of a life and a family with historical consciousness and purpose. It is also the first account in this literature to make women, and men, the focus of a gendered inquiry. Shulamit Magnus’s biography of this extraordinary woman lets readers share Wengeroff’s life, her aspirations, and her disappointments, making a significant contribution to women’s history and to our understanding of the emergence and shape of Jewish modernity.

Pauline Wengeroff was born in 1833 into a pious Jewish family in Bobruisk in the Pale of Settlement (now Belarus); she died in 1916 in Minsk. Her life, as recounted in this biography, based in part on Shulamit Magnus’s award-winning critical edition of Wengeroff’s Memoirs of a Grandmother, was one of upheaval and transformation during Russian Jewry’s passage from tradition to modernity. Remarkably, Wengeroff's narrative refracts communal experience and larger cultural, economic, and political developments through her own family life, interweaving the personal and the historical to present readers with an extraordinary account of the cultural transformation of Russian Jewry in the nineteenth century. Wengeroff's is the first piece of writing by a Jewish woman to display such authorial audacity and historical awareness, and the first contemporaneous account of Jewish society in any era to make the sensibilities and behaviour of Jewish women—and men—a central focus, providing a gendered account of the emergence of Jewish modernity. In this, her memoirs are a full counterpart to the male-centred autobiographies of her contemporaries, and the basis for much new thinking about gender and modernity. Shulamit Magnus probes Wengeroff’s consciousness and social positioning as a woman of her era and argues that, though Wengeroff was well aware of the women’s movement in Russia, she wrote not from a feminist perspective but because of her socialization in traditional Jewish society.

A brilliant woman who loved books, Wengeroff produced a carefully crafted, beautifully written, and compelling account of tradition and its demise; of intergenerational and marital strife over Jewishness; and of betrayal, loss, and hope. Despite a dramatic and readily accessible narrative—what Magnus calls ‘Wengeroff’s myth of her life story'—Wengeroff embeds much counter-evidence in her memoirs that subverts this same myth. Why she constructs—and also, if unconsciously, subverts—the particular myth she does is a major focus of this study.

Using archival and secondary sources, Magnus goes beyond constructing a portrait of Pauline Wengeroff, her family, and her social circles to consider how Memoirs of a Grandmother came to be in the form in which we have it: this is a biography of a literary work as well as of a woman. She documents its astonishing success: published for the first time (largely in German, in Berlin) in 1908, it was republished in 1910, 1913, 1919, and 1922 to rave reviews, in the Jewish but also the non-Jewish press, in Germany, Austria, Russia, and even the Netherlands.

Organized topically rather than chronologically, Magnus introduces the reader to Wengeroff’s life, aspirations, and her disappointments—above all, with her husband, who ridiculed her attachment to traditional observance and forced her to relinquish it, and with her seven children. It raises the question of Wengeroff's actual intended audience for her work and argues that, her title notwithstanding, it was not her biological offspring but other ‘grandchildren’ from among the Jewish youth of the fin de siècle who shared her Jewish cultural nationalism and her affinity with Herzlian Zionism. Finally, Magnus probes the reception of Memoirs on two continents, Europe and North America, to reveal a surprising story of the same work being read as an apologia for tradition (Orthodoxy) and for assimilation and even conversion—both, she argues, fundamental, if revealing, misreadings.

When Pauline Wengeroff died in 1916, the world was very different from the one in which she had grown up. Her story makes a significant contribution to Jewish women’s history; to east European Jewish history; to the history of gender, acculturation, and assimilation in Jewish modernity; and to the history of Jewish writing and Jewish women’s writing. 

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