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The Maiden of Ludmir

The Maiden of Ludmir: A Jewish Holy Woman and Her World

Nathaniel Deutsch
Foreword by Janusz Bardach
Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: 1
Pages: 329
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  • Book Info
    The Maiden of Ludmir
    Book Description:

    Hannah Rochel Verbermacher, a Hasidic holy woman known as the Maiden of Ludmir, was born in early-nineteenth-century Russia and became famous as the only woman in the three-hundred-year history of Hasidism to function as a rebbe-or charismatic leader-in her own right. Nathaniel Deutsch follows the traces left by the Maiden in both history and legend to fully explore her fascinating story for the first time.The Maiden of Ludmiroffers powerful insights into the Jewish mystical tradition, into the Maiden's place within it, and into the remarkable Jewish community of Ludmir. Her biography ultimately becomes a provocative meditation on the complex relationships between history and memory, Judaism and modernity. History first finds the Maiden in the eastern European town of Ludmir, venerated by her followers as a master of the Kabbalah, teacher, and visionary, and accused by her detractors of being possessed by adybbuk,or evil spirit. Deutsch traces the Maiden's steps from Ludmir to Ottoman Palestine, where she eventually immigrated and re-established herself as a holy woman. While the Maiden's story-including her adamant refusal to marry-recalls the lives of holy women in other traditions, it also brings to light the largely unwritten history of early-modern Jewish women. To this day, her transgressive behavior, a challenge to traditional Jewish views of gender and sexuality, continues to inspire debate and, sometimes, censorship within the Jewish community.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92797-1
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Janusz Bardach

    My first phone conversation with Nathaniel Deutsch took place one evening in October 1998. He introduced himself and told me he found out about me through Nechama Singer Ariel, my cousin in Brooklyn, and through my memoir,Man Is Wolf to Man: Surviving the Gulag, published in May 1998. The mention of Nechama’s name established Nathaniel as a legitimate interlocutor, and I continued our conversation. He told me that from my memoir he figured out that I’d lived in Wlodzimierz-Wolynski, a city in prewar eastern Poland, until I was twenty-one, and he asked if I’d ever heard of the legendary...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  6. INTRODUCTION: Ansky Visits Ludmir
    (pp. 1-11)

    In the summer of 1915 the Russian Jewish writer and ethnographer known as Ansky visited the town of Ludmir (in Russian, Vladimir Volinski). Like other Jewish communities in the western reaches of the Russian Empire, Ludmir was caught between advancing Austro-Hungarian and retreating Russian armies. Ansky knew the area well. From 1912 to 1914, armed with cameras, notebooks, and recording equipment, Ansky and the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition had journeyed into the same region to collect Jewish folk traditions before they disappeared, for, as he put it, “With every old man who dies, with every fire that breaks out, with every...

  7. CHAPTER 1 A Dybbuk Trilogy, or How the Maiden of Ludmir Became a Literary Figure
    (pp. 12-33)

    In the years following World War I, the town of Ludmir experienced tremendous cultural and economic changes. Gone were the Russian officials who had governed Ludmir since the end of the eighteenth century. In their place arrived representatives from the newly independent Polish state to which Ludmir now belonged. On Farna Street, the town’s main commercial strip, Jewish merchants began to sell furniture, fine china, and other luxury goods from Western Europe. Pan Ludachovsky, the Polish nobleman who owned an estate beyond Shulman’s flour mill on the road to Lutsk, even purchased a shiny new car to go along with...

  8. CHAPTER 2 Writing the Maiden
    (pp. 34-45)

    In 1924 Leyb Malakh, a young Jewish immigrant to Argentina, published the first dramatic adaptation of the Maiden of Ludmir’s life. Malakh was born Leybl Zalzman in the Polish shtetl of Zvolin, where his Hasidic father eked out a living as amelamed(teacher) and horse dealer. After the traumatic death of his mother, in his early teens Malakh abandoned Zvolin for the bright lights of Warsaw, where he earned his keep as a mirror polisher, a baker’s boy, and a painter, before deciding to become a Yiddish writer at the age of sixteen. By the time Malakh stepped off...

  9. CHAPTER 3 Afterlives: Remembering the Maiden
    (pp. 46-59)

    On November 28, 1997, theNew York Timesreported on the reunion of a Jewish woman named Nechama Singer Ariel with two Ukrainian brothers, Mikhail and Nikolai Vavriseevich. More than fifty years earlier, in the town of Ludmir, the brothers and their parents had helped to save Nechama and her mother during the Holocaust. Now in their seventies, the ailing Vavriseevich brothers had traveled from Ludmir to New York to be reunited with Ariel for the first time since the war. As I looked at the photograph that accompanied the article, I realized that after several years of researching the...

  10. CHAPTER 4 The Curse, the Cossacks, and the Messiah: Ludmir Before the Maiden
    (pp. 60-74)

    In 1840, during the reign of Czar Nicholas I, an archeological discovery was made in the town of Ludmir that confirmed its reputation as one of the oldest settlements in Ukraine. Not far from the centuries-old Russian Orthodox Uspensky Sabor (a cathedral), deep within the famously fertile “black soil” that had made the region Eastern Europe’s breadbasket, an ancient stone altar surrounded by bones and ashes was unearthed. Here, more than one thousand years earlier, the pagans who first settled on the banks of the Luga River offered animal sacrifices. Their altar had survived to tell its tale, but Ludmir’s...

  11. CHAPTER 5 Birth and Childhood
    (pp. 75-86)

    The Maiden of Ludmir was born in 1815. Or was she? This is the year given by Horodezky and most of her other biographers. It is also the year that several important zaddikim, including the Seer of Lublin, passed away. As I contemplated her story, I wondered whether people had remembered the Maiden of Ludmir’s year of birth because it happened to coincide with the death of these sages or whether someone had simply chosen 1815 because it already stood out in the collective memory of the Hasidic community. After years of searching, I had almost given up hope of...

  12. CHAPTER 6 Love and Death
    (pp. 87-100)

    When she entered adolescence, the girl who would become known as Judaism’s most famous female ascetic fell passionately in love and was engaged to be married. Some say Hannah Rochel’s beloved was a former study partner, others a boy whom she glimpsed while walking along a lake. One author depicts him as a Jewish soldier briefly stationed in Ludmir. All her biographers agree that Hannah Rochel loved the boy with the same intensity that she had up to then devoted to study and prayer. This erotic awakening was accompanied by a second event, one with an equally powerful effect on...

  13. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  14. CHAPTER 7 The Maiden Possessed
    (pp. 101-123)

    One day, exhausted from crying at her mother’s grave, Hannah Rochel fell asleep in the cemetery. Upon waking in the evening, the girl looked around and saw that she was alone. In terror, she started to run home, zigzagging through the tombstones of the “holy men of old,”¹ until she tripped and collapsed on one of the graves. Hearing her cry, the caretaker of the cemetery ran to see what had happened. After helping Hannah Rochel to her feet, the caretaker accompanied her home, where she fell into a coma. For several weeks, Monesh Verbermacher kept a vigil at his...

  15. CHAPTER 8 False Male and Woman Rebbe?
    (pp. 124-143)

    “From this point on, she became like a man in her conduct.”¹ With this simple but provocative sentence, S. A. Horodezky described the dramatic impact of Hannah Rochel’s ecstatic vision on her subsequent behavior.² Over the years, other biographers have basically reiterated Horodezky’s view that the Maiden of Ludmir underwent a gender reversal in the wake of her illness and incarnation. Most recently Ada Rapoport-Albert has argued that she became a “false male” in response to the limited opportunities for women within Judaism.³ Ultimately, her biographers agree, this process of masculinization culminated in the Maiden of Ludmir embracing the role...

  16. CHAPTER 9 The Witch-hunt in Ludmir
    (pp. 144-172)

    Four hundred years after Joan of Arc’s famous trial of 1431, during which “the Maid” (as Joan was called in trial transcripts) was condemned as a witch, enchantress, and false prophet, the town of Ludmir was apparently enveloped in its own witch-hunt.¹ The curiosity that, in the words of Horodezky, had initially attracted “even learned men and rabbis” to the Maiden of Ludmir’sbeys medreshwas giving way to suspicion, fear, and, finally, anger among many in the Hasidic establishment. Perhaps her opponents realized that the Maiden’s behavior was not merely a youthful phase that she would outgrow, or perhaps...

  17. CHAPTER 10 The Wedding and Its Aftermath
    (pp. 173-189)

    By the early 1830s, relations between the Maiden and her opponents appear to have reached a dangerous impasse that threatened to destabilize an already volatile situation in Ludmir. In a last-ditch effort to assert control, the Maiden’s opponents decided to appeal to the most powerful Hasidic leader in the region — Mordechai (Mottel) of Chernobyl. According to the Maiden’s biographers, a letter was sent to Chernobyl, begging the famous zaddik to come to Ludmir and convince the town’s errant daughter to marry. Once she was safely under the authority of a husband, the Maiden’s opponents hoped, she would cease to...

  18. CHAPTER 11 In the Holy Land
    (pp. 190-210)

    By the time the Maiden reached her fiftieth birthday in 1856 (if we accept 1806 as her likely year of birth), her glory days as a religious leader in Ludmir were long behind her. In an era when fifty-year-olds were seen as elderly, the Maiden of Ludmir decided to undertake the arduous and dangerous journey to Palestine. The Maiden’s subsequent experiences in the Holy Land constitute the final phase of her long and rich life. Some say that she successfully reestablished herself as a woman rebbe in Jerusalem, others that she lived and died in complete obscurity. Before exploring these...

  19. CONCLUSION: Tracing the Maiden
    (pp. 211-226)

    For more than five years, I searched for traces of the Maiden of Ludmir in archival material from the Russian Empire and Israel, nineteenth- and twentieth-century newspapers, Hasidic hagiographies, post-Holocaust “memory books,” interviews with former and current residents of Ludmir, and my own visits to Eastern Europe and Israel. My principle guides on this journey were the native daughters and sons of Ludmir who shared their memories with me: Ansky, the poet-ethnographer in whose footsteps I attempted to follow, and the Maiden of Ludmir herself who always seemed to be present, yet not quite, while I was writing this book....

  20. AFTERWORD: Journey to Ludmir
    (pp. 227-240)

    In the summer of 1999, more than eighty years after Ansky’s last visit to the town, I retraced his steps to Ludmir. I had hoped to make the journey with former residents, yet one by one, people who initially had seemed eager to go bowed out of the trip. Some had sick relatives, others were afraid of being overcome by the July heat, all were troubled by what they would find when they arrived. Who would be living in their childhood homes? In what condition would they find their relatives’ graves? The truth is that I was also wary of...

  21. Notes
    (pp. 241-284)
  22. Bibliography
    (pp. 285-298)
  23. Index
    (pp. 299-310)
  24. Back Matter
    (pp. 311-311)