Women! Yiddish!

The Emily Post of the 17th Century.

First published posthumously in 1609, Meneket Rivkah ( Jewish Publication Society, $55), by Rivkah Tiktiner is considered the oldest Yiddish-language book written by a woman. Add to this the fact that the book was believed lost since the late 19th century and was not rediscovered until roughly a century later, and the text takes on a life of its own. The long-lost moral-homiletic book comes back to life in a reissued English translation with annotations by historian Frauke von Rohden, intended to make Tiktiner’s words more accessible to a wider audience.

The book’s title, Hebrew for “Rebecca’s nursemaid,” is a Biblical allusion to the death of Rebecca’s nursemaid, Deborah. The work belongs to the canon of musar (ethical) literature, written in Yiddish and popular among women and uneducated men in the 16th and 17th centuries. The main thrust of Meneket Rivkah is Tiktiner’s laundry list of how a married Jewish woman is to conduct herself in the domestic and social spheres. Each of its seven chapters tackles a different aspect of a woman’s conduct; the most space is devoted to childrearing and education. Ironically, although Tiktiner was herself clearly a role model for Jewish women’s education in her day and age, she does not explicitly advocate that girls should know Hebrew, nor does she outline any specific educational program for girls.

The publication of Meneket Rivkah was no small feat in its day — especially since many Jewish women could neither read nor write, let alone entertain the thought of composing a full-scale book. Indeed, the book’s printer was so impressed that he indicated as much on the cover page: “Who has ever heard or seen such a novelty?” Until Tiktiner, Jewish exegetical texts had all been composed solely by men. With her work came the rendering of new interpretations of the Torah’s written law and oral tradition that sometimes broaden rabbinic interpretations and offer an explicitly female perspective. For instance, the traditional rabbinical interpretation views menstruation and the pains of childbirth and labor as punishments for Eve’s sin of having eaten from the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Tiktiner distances herself from such a misogynistic approach. Instead, she attributes these physiological functions to “women’s natural character, since animals, too, are capable of pregnancy and birth.” Meneket Rivkah is a literary timepiece that provides a deeper perspective on the position of Jewish women in the early modern period, as well as the unusual insights and uncommon erudition of one such woman.

Rivka Chaya Schiller is a reference librarian at the Center for Jewish History in New York City, a native speaker of Yiddish, and a translator of Yiddish; she writes in English and Yiddish.