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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2006
Number 65
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

A Rebbe in Skirts

The Maiden of Ludmir: A Jewish Holy Woman and Her World. By Nathaniel Deutsch. University of California Press
A Review Essay by Matthew B. Schwartz.

How might we like to have some of the great figures of the past relaxing before us on an analyst’s couch? It would be fascinating to probe the mind of Cain or Aristotle or how about the original Oedipus himself? However, no such opportunity affords itself, and we must satisfy our curiosity within the significant limits of what these people wrote or what others wrote about them. Indeed, even when it comes to people one knows for years, there is so much that one can not fathom.

Nathaniel Deutsch’s volume on the Maiden of Ludmir is not a traditional narrative biography but derives, he says, from the midrashic style of mingling many sources whether harmonious or conflicting. The Maiden became a sort of Hassidic holy woman, not exactly a rebbe, who functioned as a mentor or counselor in Ludmir and later in Jerusalem during a lifetime which spanned almost all of the 19th century. The Maiden, whose real name was Hannah Rachel Vebermacher, was deeply affected in early adolescence by the death of her mother. She devoted herself to prayer and often visited the cemetery where, according to stories, she experienced a vision which some regard as highly mystical and others as a sign of mental instability – perhaps a psychotic episode similar to the stories of dybbuk possession. While in Ludmir, Hannah Rachel put on tallit and tefillin like a man and spent her days in a small shtiebel synagogue which she had apparently bought with money that her father had left her.

Little more than this is remembered about her, and she left no writings of her own. Professor Deutsch covers most of the standard historical information in the four-page preface. Much of the rest of the book describes Professor Deutsch’s own quest for the Maiden in the scholarly literature and even his visit to Ludmir. His enthusiasm for his subject is evident, and his style can be engaging. Still, the reader who peruses this book only to learn the basic textbook facts about the Maiden need not really go past the preface.

There are many digressions, sometimes lengthy, as on S. Ansky’s fact-finding visit to Ludmir during World War I, on Shmuel Abba Horodetsky, an early 20th century historian of Hasidism, and on Menashe Unger who wrote on Hasidism for the Jewish papers. There is a digression on women and tefillin, a narrative history of the Jews of Ludmir beginning with their early settlement many centuries before the Maiden, and a discussion of the movements of Shabtai Tzvi and Jacob Frank.

The book devotes great effort to issues of personal sense of identity and gender roles. This is very much the expression of the interests of 21st century scholarship, which has been strongly concerned with these matters. Was the Maiden really a sort of “false male” or perhaps an androgynous figure, as the author suggests? She appears to have been a very intelligent person, perhaps no less astute than scholars who study her today, even if her milieu lacked our telephones, airplanes and computers. We have in fact far too little information on the Maiden even to guess at her attitude toward gender and sexual issues. Would she have felt out of place at a modern scholarly conference on these topics? A variety of stories offer conflicting accounts of her marital history. It is said that she broke off an early romance or that she married but was almost immediately divorced. Other stories tell that the famed rabbi of Chernobyl intervened to press her to marry. Professor Deutsch offers much evidence that she never had a full scale marriage or children. Yet, Janusz Bardach, who has written the book’s introduction, claimed that he was the great-grandson of the Maiden. Bardach grew up in Ludmir and his statement cannot be lightly disregarded. (It should be noted that Bardach, who became a prominent plastic surgeon, is the author of a very important memoir on his experiences in the gulag.) Yet, Professor Deutsch does not seem to follow through on Bardach’s genealogical claim.

Marriage is a major issue in the book because the author devotes much effort to assessing the Maiden’s gender role, particularly in the light of certain expressions in the Kabbalah and even in the background of East European Christianity. He often cites the studies of David and Rachel Biale who have written on eros and women’s issues in Jewish life. Many readers will not accept literally and unquestioningly the idea quoted from David Biale that for Hasidism “the only legitimate function of the physical is as a vehicle for its own elimination.” (p. 105) Professor Deutsch criticizes, again relying on David Biale, the supposed bad effects of early marriage among the Hasidim. This is an interesting matter, which requires more elucidation than simply a quotation from Professor Biale. One might wonder what the modern USA with its breakdown of family life has to teach about successful marriage or sexuality.

There is a sense through this book that we moderns may set certain standards of gender or egalitarianism and then assume the authority to judge others—e.g., the Hasidim of the Maiden’s times—by those standards. This is a risky practice for a historian and less valuable than trying to understand the ways such people viewed themselves on their own terms and in their own vocabulary.

A children’s novel by Gershon Winkler on the Maiden provoked a negative reaction in certain Orthodox circles, and Professor Deutsch is troubled by “the intransigent sexism” of these critics. Chabad’s approach was softer. However, Professor Deutsch asks, would they accept such a woman into their own community.

Much of this book is speculative. It is replete with words like “maybe,” “probably,” “perhaps,” “what if,” “could have,” “may have,” and “if true.” For example, a possible point of comparison between the Maiden and the last Lubavitcher Rebbe may hold true “if” the author’s interpretation of the rebbe’s behavior in the matter is correct and then “if” the Maiden indeed was prompted by motives similar to the rebbe’s. Speculation has its legitimate place, but sometimes there really is a simple answer to a problem. Professor Deutsch remarks that “Rabbi Leib Sarah’s” was buried in Ludmir and tells a story of the Maiden visiting his grave there. Then a footnote adds that some believe he was buried in Yaltushkow, near Rovno. The easily verifiable fact is that he was buried in Yaltushkow, and the Ludmir story is flawed.

The Maiden’s years in Jerusalem reached near the close of the 19th century so that decades into the 20th century, there were still people who claimed to remember her and even her husband. She continued to serve during her last years as a teacher and advisor primarily to the women of the Old Yishuv and probably on occasion to Arab women, and there are accounts of the Maiden leading groups of women to pray at the tomb of the matriarch Rachel and of her visiting Safed to study kabbalah.

Matthew B. Schwartz is a professor in the history department at Wayne State University and is a contributing editor.

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