Wengeroff, Pauline Epstein

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WENGEROFF, PAULINE EPSTEIN (1833–1916), author of Memoiren einer Grossmutter. Bilder aus der Kulturgeschichte der Juden Russlands in 19. Jahrhundert ("Memoirs of a Grandmother: Scenes from the Cultural History of Russian Jews in the Nineteenth Century"; 2 vols., Berlin, 1908, 1910). Wengeroff was born in Bobruisk into the upper echelons of Russian Jewry. The prosperous Epsteins were pious and strict in their religious practice, but Pauline's father, Judah Epstein, an accomplished Talmud scholar, was also an enthusiast of Haskalah and encouraged his daughters in their study of German. In 1849, Pauline married Chonon Wengeroff, who became a successful banker and served on the city council of Minsk. The couple had seven children. The first volume of Memoiren einer Grossmutter, published when Wengeroff was in her seventies, details the observance of the Jewish holy days and festivals in her parental home in the 1840s. Following the success of this work, she wrote a second volume that expanded her childhood recollections into a complex autobiography.

Written after the end of the Russian Haskalah, the memoirs depict traditional Jewish culture and family, their disintegration, and the emergence of Jewish modernity from a female perspective. Wengeroff's two volumes, whose significance for the history of Jewish folklore, haskalah, and assimilation was recognized from the beginning, were republished during her life and posthumously. They are a significant source on women's ritual practices, socialization of girls, and the role of gender in the experience of Jewish modernity. Skillfully crafted and written, they are also the first full-fledged self-referential writing by a woman in the history of Jewish literature to refract an age through the experience of women and to achieve publication through the author's efforts. Wengeroff is not simply an apologist for tradition; she shared many of the core values of the Haskalah and wrote in German. But she excoriates the wanton abandonment of tradition by modernizing Jewish men and their encroachment on women's control of the family, which robbed women of the ability to transmit Judaism, with catastrophic results.

Wengeroff's children included Semyon *Wengeroff, a prominent historian and critic, who converted to Christianity. Her daughter, Zinaida (1867–1941), was a renowned Russian literary critic who emigrated to the United States. Wengeroff considered the conversions of several of her children her greatest tragedy. In her later years, in addition to writing Memoiren, she devoted herself to providing vocational and Jewish education to impoverished young women.


J.R. Baskin, "Piety and Female Aspiration in the Memoirs of Pauline Epstein Wengeroff and Bella Chagall," in: Nashim, 7 (2004), 65–96; S. Magnus, "Women and Pauline Wengeroff's Writing of an Age," in: Nashim, 7 (2004), 28–64; idem, "Sins of Youth, Guilt of a Grandmother: M.L. Lilienblum, Pauline Wengeroff, and the Telling of Jewish Modernity in Eastern Europe," in: Polin, 18 (2005).

[Shulamit S. Magnus (2nd ed.)]