Rememberings (translation of Memoiren einer Grossmutter: Bilder aus der Kulturgeshichte der Juden Russlands im 19 Jahrhundert) by Pauline Wengeroff (Bethesda, Md.: University Press of Maryland, 2000). (YIVO)

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Wengeroff, Pauline

(1833–1916), writer. Pauline Wengeroff is the author of the two-volume Memoiren einer Grossmutter, Bilder aus der Kulturgeschichte der Juden Russlands im 19 Jahrhundert (Memoirs of a Grandmother: Scenes from the Cultural History of the Jews of Russia in the Nineteenth Century; vol. 1, 1908; republished with vol. 2, 1910; subsequent editions in 1913, 1919, and 1922). Written after the close of the era of the Haskalah, the memoirs offer a sweeping perspective on Russian Jewry’s passage from traditionalism to modernity. They paint a rich portrait of traditional society as modernity began to make inroads; depict the unraveling of this society under the impact of tsarist policies and the lure of Haskalah; and portray the devastating effect this dissolution had on families and, especially, women.

A carefully crafted work, the memoirs are a complex rationalization of Wengeroff’s life but, as their full title declares, are also memoirs of an era, told through the experience of one (supposedly paradigmatic) woman and her family. They are the first instance in the annals of Jewish literature of a woman who uses her life as a lens to refract Jewish history as a whole. In sharp contrast to the memoirs of the maskilim, Wengeroff’s contemporaries, Wengeroff’s memoirs make women’s experience central to the tale of the emergence of Jewish modernity and to grasping what Wengeroff portrays as the core tragedy of modern Jewish history: the demise of traditional Jewish culture.

This catastrophe, she asserts, illustrating through the events of her own life, was the result of women’s loss of power in the family at the hands of egotistical, short-sighted men bent on acculturation and material success. Wengeroff’s writing is unprecedented in its focus on women and assignment of global value to their experience, and in foregrounding the different perceptions and experiences of women and men. This focus makes her memoirs simultaneously an epic portrait of Russian Jewish society in transformation, and a major source about Jewish women’s history and about gender and Jewish modernity. The memoirs are also first-rate literature whose quality and significance were recognized by leading Jewish cultural and political figures of the time, including Gustav Karpeles, the Jewish literary historian and editor of the Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums; scholars Solomon Schechter and Israel Friedlaender; journalist and historian Shaul Ginsburg; and leading Zionists, including David Wolfson, Max Nordau, and Aleksander Zederbaum. Published and republished during Wengeroff’s life and posthumously, they attained a broad audience.

Born Pessele Epstein, Pauline Wengeroff (also rendered Vengerov) grew up in Brest-Litovsk (Brisk), in a wealthy and very pious home that, for its time, was also culturally forward-looking. Her father, who had studied at the Volozhin yeshiva, was a building contractor to the tsar, though his preoccupation, she says, was Talmud study. Wengeroff’s mother looms as a formidable defender of tradition and parental authority, in both of which areas Wengeroff fails utterly in her own household. Wengeroff’s depiction of the traditional women’s culture she experienced as a child is one of the most salient features of her first volume. Her bitter portrayal of the cultural impotence of women in modernizing Jewish society is an equally prominent feature of the second.

Wengeroff’s unwitting odyssey to a life devoid of traditional observance and values came as a result of her husband Khonen’s loss of faith while he was on pilgrimage to his rebbe (ca. 1850), after which he relentlessly pressured his wife to relinquish her own observance. Khonen—along with other modernizing Jewish men, Wengeroff insists—also denied the importance of Jewish education for the children. Two sons would convert when faced with anti-Jewish quotas at the university and bars to professional advancement, events she called the greatest tragedy of her life. Through graphic, first-person accounts of modernizing Jewish society in some of Russia’s most important Jewish communities (Kovno, Vilna, Saint Petersburg, Minsk), as well as in explicit pronouncements, however, Wengeroff makes clear that her sons’ conversions were the result of cultural disintegration in Jewish society as a whole, not just in her household.

After years of struggle, Khonen achieved success and recognition as director of a commercial bank and as a member of the City Council in Minsk. There, Wengeroff and her husband founded vocational schools for poor Jewish children, in which, she pointedly notes, Jewish traditions were observed. In his final years, she says, Khonen regretted his path—vindicating Wengeroff’s position.

For all her nostalgia about lost Jewish tradition, Wengeroff was neither culturally insular nor antimodern. On the contrary, she espoused core values of the Haskalah, especially its embrace of European education and literature, which makes her criticism of modernizing Jewish men the more interesting.

Several of Wengeroff’s children were highly accomplished, facts she omits from the memoirs (along with much other significant personal information). Simon (Semen Vengerov) was an eminent Russian literary historian and professor at the University of Saint Petersburg. Volodya (Vladimir) was a gifted cellist. Sina (Zinaïda) was a noted literary critic and translator. Isabelle (Vengerova) was a pianist who taught at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory of Music and at the Curtis School of Music in the United States.

Suggested Reading

Shulamit S. Magnus, “Pauline Wengeroff and the Voice of Jewish Modernity,” in Gender and Judaism: The Transformation of Tradition, ed. Tamar Rudavsky, pp. 181–190 (New York, 1995); Shulamit S. Magnus, “Kol Ishah: Women and Pauline Wengeroff’s Writing of an Age,” Nashim 7 (2004): 28–64; Shulamit S. Magnus, “Sins of Youth, Guilt of a Grandmother: M. L. Lilienblum, Pauline Wengeroff, and the Telling of Jewish Modernity in Eastern Europe,” Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry 18 (2005): 87–120; Shulamit S. Magnus, A Woman’s Life: Pauline Wengeroff and Memoirs of a Grandmother (Oxford, UK 2015); Pauline Wengeroff, Rememberings: The World of a Russian-Jewish Woman in the Nineteenth Century, trans. Henry Wenkart (Potomac, Md., 2000); Pauline Wengeroff, Memoirs of a Grandmother: Scenes from the Cultural History of the Jews in Russia in the Nineteenth Century,  trans. Shulamit S. Magnus (Stanford University Press, 2010; 2014).