This song relates the story of a Polish Jew named Yoyne (Jonah), who settles in Hamburg and marries a certain Fraydkhen without having divorced his first wife (not named). According to Judaic law, his first wife is thus an agunah, bound in matrimony and forbidden from remarriage until confirmation of either her husband’s death or the couple’s lawful divorce. “Travelling artists” reported to her of her husband’s whereabouts and marriage, after which she leaves her home and travels to her brother in Amsterdam in search of assistance. Together they came through Frisia to the city of Hamburg, where Yoyne was summoned to appear before the rabbinical court. The court ordered him to at least temporarily leave Fraydkhen and live alone until the situation could be clarified as to which woman should receive a get The “divorce certificate.” The husband was to give his wife this document in the presence of witnesses. If she accepted it, the divorce was legally binding. from him, but Yoyne ignored the court’s demands. The first wife saw herself forced to turn to the (Christian) city council, and Yoyne was arrested and jailed. While Yoyne was languishing in prison, Fraydkhen bore their child. His first wife had mercy on him and successfully petitioned for his release. Yoyne was forced to leave Hamburg and finally gave the first wife he had betrayed a get The “divorce certificate.” The husband was to give his wife this document in the presence of witnesses. If she accepted it, the divorce was legally binding.. This story — which has been simplified and shortened here — allows for a glimpse into the life of Ashkenazic Jews in the early modern period. The reader gains insight into the situation and status of Jews in Hamburg and Altona, into their legal practices, travel routes, and the experience of East European Jews within the western sphere of the Ashkenazim.
Between 1880 and 1924 / 25, approximately 90,000 Jews migrated from the eastern regions of Europe into large German cities, especially Berlin. The reactions of those emancipated Jews who had long been resident in these places varied greatly, from romanticization and idealization to open rejection. For a long time, the migration of the Ashkenazim from East to West in this period was seen as a collision of two worlds which previously had had little in common and little knowledge of each other. These late waves of migration were indeed unique in their absolute numbers and their political, social, and cultural significance. The concept of the “Ostjude” [Eastern Jew], however, predated the arrival of these Ashkenazim. These stereotypes were the result of a process which had begun in the early modern period and evolved throughout the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment) and public discourse in the modern era. East European Ashkenazim had emigrated from these areas towards the west much earlier, after the destructive Khmelnitsky Uprising the (so-called Cossack) rebellions in the years 1648 and 1649 of the Russian and Cossack populations against the Polish nobility and also again Jews and Jesuits. (1648–1657) and the Swedish invasions (1630–1648, and again from 1655 on) during the Thirty Years’ War. Previously, Polish Jews had migrated into German-speaking areas as merchants and military suppliers, as teachers, rabbis, cantors, kosher butchers, and printers in areas where there was a shortage of men with adequate religious training for these professions. After 1648, however, the social composition of the Jews migrating west changed and many arrived as paupers or even “begging Jews” [Betteljuden]. Although such beggars were assisted by their co-believers, the resources available (and at times perhaps the will) to help were limited so that the situation remained dire and conflicts inevitable: German Jews felt their charity was being abused and were annoyed by the unwillingness or inability of the new arrivals to integrate into their new environment in terms of clothing, language, and manners. In addition, some criminal activity meant that bail for prisoners had to be paid, the children of destitute parents had to be cared for, and the needy had to be provided with necessary supplies for celebrating the Jewish holidays at considerable expense to the community.
In Poland, the so-called “Council of Four Lands,” the highest instance of Jewish self-governance in Poland-Lithuania, had already recognized in 1635 what this migrations towards the West meant for many women, namely, that they had been left behind as agunahs. As a result, this unique body dispatched envoys to the German countries and to Bohemia, where they were to search for those men who had left their wives behind and been subsequently “lost.” In this song just such an abandoned wife is the central figure. She takes her fate into her own hands by going to look for her husband herself with the help of her brother. At the point at which this song was composed, the Ashkenazim had long since recognized the diversity within their own tradition and no longer felt themselves to be a uniform cultural group. By the 16th century, at the latest, a literary tradition had evolved to reflect the individual local or regional identities of the Ashkenazim — identities which were often characterized or ridiculed by others within the larger group. Various juxtapositions (German-Polish-Italian; German-Polish-Praguer Jew) provided a popular basis for barbed rhymes. These texts — often presented in the form of a dialogue — included references to religious knowledge and observance (or lack thereof), intellectual (dis-)abilities, virtues like hospitality and modesty, clothing and appearance, customs involving food and drink, social behaviors, traditions concerning weddings and marriage including the age at which one typically married, how married couples were expected to live, and the way to treat children, etc. Many of these diverse texts show some similarities to the song lyrics included here. The “Beautiful Story of a Polish Jew” [Schöne Geschichte von einem polnischen Juden] (presumably written in Prague in the later 18th century) is set in similar circumstances: a Polish Jew comes to Germany, remarries, and has children with the second wife. Because he does not like children, however, he wants to move away once again. The two women sue him, and he is forced to choose one before the rabbinical court. Apparently in this era, the Polish, bigamist Jew in the West (with neither a livelihood nor sense of morality) had already become a sort of recurring literary topos.
The song is a valuable historical source about the life of the Ashkenazim, the circumstances of life in Hamburg (and Altona), migration patterns, and also the formation of stereotypes. Several major centers of Jewish settlement (Poland, Amsterdam, and Hamburg) play a role, as do actual routes for travel (Amsterdam – Frisia – Hamburg – Altona). Various bodies of governance are involved, including the rabbinical court, Hamburg’s city council, and the executive of Hamburg-Altona. Issues both of women’s autonomy (travelling alone) and their dependence (on male relatives) come into play, as does the fact that this is a Polish Jew in a western Ashkenazic region. When the song was printed in 1675, Hamburg, Altona, and Wandsbek were united in the so-called triple congregation Dreigemeinde. These congregations shared a rabbinical court seated in Altona, which is where the majority of the Ashkenazim lived. Because the residency laws for non-Sephardic Jews in Hamburg were very restrictive, many Ashkenazim who worked there had to return to homes outside of the city — in Altona, for example — at the end of their work day. This meant that news travelled quickly between the communities. In the song, it is not just the Jews of Hamburg that know about Yoyne's situation, but also those living in Altona (verse 14.5). Yoyne’s first wife and her brother petition the rabbinical court seated in Altona to force a decision in the case, and Yoyne is called before the court there. This was the typical procedure in cases of familial dispute, for the laws concerning such relationships were part of the Judaic law (Halakhah). As a result, rabbis, rather than the civil courts, presided over cases of divorce. The rabbinical court seated in Altona is known to have been quite influential not only in terms of the significance accorded its judgements but also in simple geographical terms: its jurisdiction reached over Hamburg and all of Schleswig-Holstein. Throughout the text, the Hamburg city council is portrayed as civil and courteous towards the Jews: Yoyne’s wife is dealt with in a sympathetic manner, and the executive is actively engaged to help her. Fraydkhen also claims to have a good relationship with the rulers of the city (which, since it was insinuated that she maybe had worked as a prostitute, could have a double meaning). Indeed, in the 17th century, the Hamburg city council generally displayed liberal attitudes towards the Jews, unlike the city assembly. It is common knowledge that they were quite divided on the questions of where to permit Jewish settlement and how to treat the Jewish community, especially the Ashkenazim.
Another interesting aspect of the text is the presence of Polish Jews in Hamburg. In 1656, a group of Jews from Poland took refuge near Hamburg. The Sephardic community helped them with monetary and material donations and provided ships for their continued travels. The same year, Polish refugees settled in Altona. On the other hand, the Sephardic Jews were not particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of living alongside their Ashkenazic brethren in Hamburg. The refugees often came into the city from Altona or other places; some of them resided there, (silently) tolerated by the authorities, others legally. It is not clear whether or not the figure of Yoyne was an illegal resident of the city (of which there is no indication in the text), whether the poet Ezekiel was not aware of the situation, or whether Yoyne was simply living among other tolerated Ashkenazim in the city.
One of the most knowledgeable scholars of Yiddish language and literature, Max Weinreich (1894–1969), was convinced that the song is based on actual events. In the historical record for Hamburg and Altona, however, no case has thus been found of a bigamist Jew from Poland. Despite these unanswered questions, the song provides both a fascinating witness to the circumstances under which Jews lived in and near Hamburg during the 17th century and insight into how contemporaries in this area perceived this situation. For example, the song assumes familiarity with the living conditions of the Ashkenazim between Hamburg and Altona and does not dwell on the presence of Jewish migrants from Poland, which seems to be completely normal. Of especial interest is the portrayal of the relationship between the Jewish congregation and the city council. Hamburg’s city council appears to be quite helpful and supportive in matters regarding the Jews. In the song, it even acts as the executive within the context of the ongoing cases of the rabbinical court. In this way, the song references the contemporary positivist liberal attitude of the city council towards the Jewish residents and, simultaneously, the common practice of intervention by secular (Christian) authorities for the enforcement of decisions felled in the rabbinical courts.
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Diana Matut, Dr. phil., teaches in the department for Jewish Studies at Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg. Moreover, she has worked as visiting lecturer at numerous universities in and outside of Germany. Her research interests are Jewish music and yiddish language and literature especially in the early modern period.
Diana Matut, What happened in Hamburg. . .: A Western Yiddish Song about Polish Jews in 17th century Hamburg (translated by Ellen Yutzy Glebe), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, August 20, 2018. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-96.en.v1> [September 22, 2023].