There comes a time most afternoons when I run out of steam.  Tired and bored or frustrated, I have to get away from what I’ve been working on all day, my “real work”.  This often happens, as it is now, around 3:30-4 PM.  My bus, however, doesn’t come for another 45 minutes or so.  This little block of time I call my “screw around time”, and when I’m not wasting it on Facebook or generally searching the web, I try to use the library to explore some crackpot idea that is unrelated to my current research.  Once in a while, these new explorations actually yield something useful.  Not long ago I published an article on two copies of the first printed Jewish calendar in America, and a longer study of the calendar is due to appear in December.  These came out of some serendipitous explorations during downtime like this.  More often, however, they don’t produce anything productive other than adding to my own knowledge.

Over the last two weeks I’ve been using this time to track down, and ultimately disprove, an idea that I’ve been toying with for a couple of years: that the memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln are a forgery.

The idea came to me while reading the highly-redacted memoir in its most popular English translation.  How could a Jewish merchant woman who lived in the earloy modern period have possibly written such a thing?  It made me curious not only about Gluckel, but more importantly, about her manuscript and its chain of transmission.  So, sitting at my office desk in Providence, I turned to Wikipedia.

The Wikipedia entry contains the following:

The handwritten manuscript of Glückel’s diaries was kept by Glückel’s children and grandchildren. It was created by Glückel’s son Moshe Hamel who copied her original manuscript, and the copy was inherited first by Moshe’s son Chayim Hamel (d. 1788) and then by members of the next generation, Yosef Hamel and Chayim Hamel Segal of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). The manuscript was deposited in the Bavarian State Library in the second half of the nineteenth century. [Comments by David Kauffman, quoted by Rabinovitz 1929]

The Bavarian State Library manuscript was published as a book in 1892 by David Kauffman in Pressburg (Bratislava) under the name “Zikhroynes Glikl Hamel” (Yiddish: the Memoirs of Glikl Hamel).

This entry sent me in two directions.  First, was to the original manuscript, which was in the Bavarian State Library.  Second was to the original publication of the manuscript by David Kauffmann.  The first I pursued with an email to the Library.  For the second, I consulted WorldCat only to discover that there were very few copies of Kauffmann’s book in the U.S., and none available by interlibrary loan.

Then things started to get interesting.  The Bavarian Library responded that they did not own, and in fact had no record of owning, this manuscript.  On a whim, I then asked if they had records of their users and their requests from the late nineteenth century.  They did!  And they could find no record of David Kauffmann.  They referred me to the Frankfurt Library, which does have a copy of the manuscript.  Frankfurt made a microfilm and sent it to me.

Did I catch David Kauffmann in a lie?  Did he create the manuscript and make up a provenance for it?

Well, no.  Here in Jerusalem I was able to consult both Kauffmann’s original publication and the masterful work, Glikl: Memoires 1691-1719, ed. and translated by Chava Turniansky (Jerusalem, 2006).  The Wikipedia entry was somewhat misleading – Kauffmann never claims to have consulted the manuscript in the library.  Rather, he apparently got the manuscript directly from its owner to copy.  The work was already known and cited in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Moreover, Turniansky shows that Kauffmann used the same manuscript that is now found in Frankfurt.  She traces the transmission of the manuscript, although she cannot account for it during the entire period.

Is it possible that Glikl didn’t write it?  Yes, but David Kauffmann certainly did not forge it.  The very first page of the manuscript contains the information that Glikl’s son, and then grandson, copied the original manuscript.  We do not possess the manuscript in her hand, but Turniansky did discover her signature in an obscure register.  It is vaguely possible that her son or grandson forged it, but having been now properly chastised in my unfounded theories, I’ll stay with the consensus that it was actually hers.

So in the end, when it came to advancing knowledge, I accomplished exactly nothing.  I did, however, learn quite a bit along the way (including the life story of David Kauffmann, a Hungarian Jewish scholar who having written an almost unimaginable number of books and essays died young).

Next up: Translations of the Mishnah into Yiddish.