Memoirs of a Grandmother: Scenes from the Cultural History of the Jews of Russia in the Nineteenth Century

Memoirs of a Grandmother: Scenes from the Cultural History of the Jews of Russia in the Nineteenth Century

Memoirs of a Grandmother: Scenes from the Cultural History of the Jews of Russia in the Nineteenth Century

Memoirs of a Grandmother: Scenes from the Cultural History of the Jews of Russia in the Nineteenth Century

Synopsis

Pauline Wengeroff, the only nineteenth-century Russian Jewish woman to publish a memoir, sets out to illuminate the "cultural history of the Jews of Russia" in the period of Jewish "enlightenment," when traditional culture began to disintegrate and Jews became modern. Wengeroff, a gifted writer and astute social observer, paints a rich portrait of both traditional and modernizing Jewish societies in an extraordinary way, focusing on women and the family and offering a gendered account (and indictment) of assimilation.

In Volume 1 of Memoirs of a Grandmother, Wengeroff depicts traditional Jewish society, including the religious culture of women, during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I, who wished "his" Jews to be acculturated to modern Russian life.

Excerpt

I loved books.

How real the past was to them (speaking of her parents and family).

—Pauline Wengeroff, Menwirs of a Grandmother (2:29; 1:87)

Why Does a Jewish Woman Write Her Memoirs?

On July 20, 1898, as she records in her memoirs, an elderly Russian Jewish woman sat down “on a small bench under an oak in the woods” outside Minsk and gathered her memories of youth. “As chance would have it,” she writes, just that day, she had “bumped up against the strong box” containing the letters that she and her fiancé had exchanged during their engagement, in 1849. She “leafed pensively through the yellowed pages” and felt the “crusts of ice” that a difficult life had built up around her heart “gradually melt away.” One picture after another rose up, she said, “like sculptures” in her memory and would not let her be, stirring the wish “to record for my children all that I lived through, as a remembrance of their mother.”

With these words, Pauline Wengeroff (1833–1916), author of an extraordinary set of memoirs about Jewish society in nineteenth-century Russia, gives us entrée to her methods, putative motive for writing, and the seductiveness and complexity of her narration. She sets a dramatic scene: a bench in the woods of summer (Minsk was known for its surrounding forests), to which she retreated after a chance encounter with some of the most emotionally charged mementos of her life—letters, she tells us elsewhere, that were her most cherished possession, every one of which she had saved. Yet this passage also tells us that, while Wengeroff originally may have preserved personal documents for sentimental reasons, she was now, as a memoirist, using them professionally, to ground and give immediacy to her narrative. Indeed, the story of her engagement is not the only place that Wengeroff uses contemporaneous . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.