No one alive has ever seen Hannah Rochel Verber macher. She left no writing behind, and historians aren’t even sure where she is buried. Writing her biography should be a nearly impossible task, But not for Nathaniel Deutsch, whose new book. The Maiden of Luclmir: A Jewish Holy Woman and Her World (University of California Press, $34.95) chronicles her rise to legendary status as the only female rebbe in Hasidic history.
Before she was the Maiden, Hannah was an only child, born in Ludmir, a 19th-century cultural mecca, if only a speck on the Ukrainian map. Studious and devoutly religious, she received a “male” education and became a local legend by age 12. She didn’t stop there: after experiencing an ecstatic vision at her mother’s tomb, Hannah called off her impending wedding in favor of a life of prayer and study. She built her own study house and attracted a crowd of followers—mostly working-class women—who revered her teaching sand behaved she could heal the sick.
As the Maiden’s fame grew, so did the threat she posed to the male Hasidic dynasty. Local leaders began pressuring her to renounce her controversial lifestyle. Finally, at 50, she left Ludmir for Palestine, where she lived the rest of her days.
Little more is known about the Maiden of Ludmir. Since Deutsch stands on shaky biographical ground, he builds his memorial out of theory. He explores the history of Ludmir itself, analogies between the Maiden and female Christian saints, and her much disputed gender identity. Most importantly, he keeps the reader from celebrating her as an early feminist or, equally dangerous, a Hasidic poster child, describing her instead as the enigma she is.
And with good reason. Sadly, the Maiden is no more than a shadow in her own biography. As much as the book reveals about her, Deutsch’s biography also reveals how much pre-Holocaust Jewish history, especially women’s history, has simply been erased—or uprooted. Deutsch describes his own trip to Ludmir, now a depressed post-Soviet suburb. Even the Jewish cemetery has been destroyed, its tombstones now cobblestones, paving the path away from the town’s desolation.
Miriam Felton-Dansky, director of the Jewish Student Press Service, is acting artistic director of Polybe + Seats, a new theater company.