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Memoirs of a Grandmother: Scenes from the Cultural History of the Jews of Russia in the Nineteenth Century, Volume One, by Pauline Wengeroff, translated with an introduction, notes and commentary by Shulamit S. Magnus.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.  385 pp.  $55.00.


Fifteen years ago, with the publication of her first article on the subject, Shulamit Magnus opened up the scholarly conversation on Pauline Wengeroff. Experts in the field of modern Jewish history had access to Wengeroff’s German-language memoirs, and thanks to an excerpt published in Lucy Dawidowicz’s anthology The Golden Tradition, even students knew of her existence, but until Magnus, no one had really written about Wengeroff and her life and writings. Now Magnus has taken the conversation to a new level, with the publication of the first volume of Wengeroff’s memoirs in a new English translation, with annotation and a lengthy introduction. 

In the introduction, Magnus jumps right into the ongoing conversation that she initiated. There is some biographical information about Wengeroff, but mainly the introduction thoroughly and skillfully problematizes Wengeroff’s writings. Despite the implied sentimentality in the title of her memoirs, she was “. . . [n]o grandmother spinning tales, Wengeroff bears the weight of her life and an age in Jewish history in her narrative. It is only with an appreciation of these complexities, especially the existence of both story line and counter-narrative in her writing, that we can begin to understand her . . .” (p. 4)

To reach this understanding, Magnus both engages with other scholars and provides new interpretive conclusions of her own. She suggests, for example, that the schema for understanding Jewish autobiography recently laid out by Marcus Moseley is insufficient to contain a woman like Wengeroff. According to Magnus, “Moseley’s definitional criteria derive from certain types of male writing, yet categorize Jewish self-referential writing as a whole”(p. 25).

Magnus then goes on to offer a broader critique of trends in modern Jewish history:


Wengeroff’s work goes beyond adding a female voice to the male-authored canon of self-reflective writing about this, acting as a compensatory addition to androcentric literature. It highlights the reality of gender as a variable affecting the consciousness, experience, and expression of all who write about this passage, which can no longer be represented as oedipal rebellion (most sons did not rebel against their fathers in the first half of the nineteenth century; many did not do so even later).  (p. 26)


Magnus contextualizes Wengeroff within the Haskalah, but also shows how her experience differed from that of her male peers. Indeed Magnus’ insights on gender are particularly significant. Magnus describes Wengeroff’s writing as neither feminist nor feminine, but “female” (p. 13). This is demonstrated most strongly in her depictions of Judaism. As Magnus shows, Wengeroff was not even herself aware of the female focus of much of her text. “The fact that Wengeroff does not notice that the candle ritual is purely female testifies to the naivite of her female identity and the degree to which female ritual was intrinsic Judaism to her—not, as we would see it, “women’s ritual,” but simply—Judaism” (p. 48).

The introduction is followed by a series of illustrations, and then the complete text of the first volume of Wengeroff’s memoirs. In her notes to the edition, Magnus scrupulously explains all of her editing, transliteration, and translation decisions. She felt strongly about the integrity of the original text, going so far as to call abridging or reordering it “violence to the whole and to her intentions” (p. ix). Given this stance, Magnus’ own decision to include photographs is somewhat surprising. “I felt,” she explains, “that it was crucial to include illustrations that would bring life to description that would otherwise remain obscure and inaccessible to contemporary readers and non-specialists” (p. xi). Magnus goes on to state that the photographs are not all from Wengeroff’s lifetime or region and that she elected to keep them in a separate section to show their external nature. It is not clear that the photos, some of which are fairly familiar, add a great deal.

In addition to maintaining the order, and all internal divisions and sections, Magnus says that she tried to retain some of the formality of the German in her translation. The text is smooth, fluid, and engaging. Indeed it seems to end almost too quickly. True to her stated editorial philosophy, Magnus has chosen to publish the memoir in two separate volumes, as it first appeared. Previous editions combined the two.

It is not entirely fair to review the first of a planned two-volume work. In her introduction, and especially in the notes, Magnus makes clear that certain aspects of Wengeroff’s life which appear only tangentially in the first volume and more prominently in the second, will be discussed only in the forthcoming volume. Thus for example although the break with tradition is a central theme in the second volume, Wengeroff sets it up in certain ways in the first. Magnus delays this and other topics of discussion. The minor frustration caused by these divisions will be remedied as soon as the second volume appears in print.

Magnus’ new translation cannot be discussed without reference to the previous one. Rememberings: The World of a Russian Jewish Woman in the Nineteenth Century, translated by Henny Wenkart and edited by Bernard Dov Cooperman, came out in 2000. Cooperman’s edition, as Magnus notes, not only combines the two volumes, but cuts out certain sections and reorders others. Presumably in order to fit into one, usable volume, ethnographic material in particular is often truncated. To give just one example, the version of Dr. Max Lilienthal’s visit to Brest in Cooperman’s text includes only the material on how the visit affected Wengeroff’s family directly.

In the original text, as well as in Magnus’ edition, readers gain access to a heder initiation ritual supposedly witnessed by Lilienthal, a dramatic formal promise he was said to have sworn to the Jewish community in Vilna, and his visit to Volozhin. Wengeroff did not witness any of these events. They do not move the plot forward in any way. Nor is it likely that any of them actually occurred. Nonetheless, Wengeroff elected to include them in her memoirs and they reflect her perceptions of both traditional education and Lilienthal’s visit. Cooperman’s more streamlined text is excellent for classroom use. Magnus’ two volume work, with its thorough scholarly apparatus might be too unwieldy and expensive to assign in the college classroom, but will be invaluable to scholars.

With the publication of the first volume of her edition of Pauline Wengeroff’s memoirs, Shulamit Magnus has once again significantly advanced the conversation regarding Wengeroff and her work. Graduate students and scholars who do not know German, and even those who do, will benefit from Magnus’ fluid translation and extensive research. Her incisive introduction draws on research into the period, as well as recent scholarship on Wengeroff. I look forward to the forthcoming second volume, which is sure to provide additional insights into what has become a vibrant scholarly conversation.

Eliyana R. Adler

University of Maryland