A Woman's Life

Pauline Wengeroff and Memoirs of a Grandmother

By Shulamit S. Magnus

Pauline Wengeroff was born in 1833 into a pious Jewish family in Bobruisk (in what is now Belarus), and 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 19th 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 behavior 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-centered 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. 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. [Subject: Biography, Jewish Studies, Women's Studies]


338 pages

Publication Date: 1/1/2016
Format: Cloth
ISBN: 9781906764524