In 19th century Ukraine, Jewish boys were being spirited from their families to serve the czar, Hasidism was sweeping Jewish practice from Kyiv and Chernobyl through central Europe, and a Jewish girl became a controversial but charismatic Jewish leader.
Hannah Rochel, born Hannah Rachel Verbermacher, was the only independent female Rebbe in the 300-year history of the Hasidic movement.
Known as “the Maiden of Ludmir”, she has jokingly been called the second-most famous virgin in Jewish history. But to the people of her time, and even long after her death, Hannah Rochel was no joking matter.
She severely challenged the social and religious order of her time. Her leadership was based not on dynastic authority, but on the original Hasidic tradition of charisma. Furthermore, she did not ask for money or promote herself.
Little is actually known of Hannah Rochel. Only four of her teachings are recorded, and she wrote nothing of herself. The first scholarly study of her life was published in 1909, some 30 years after she died. Even that was based on hagiography, folk tales & legends.
Considerable poetic license has been taken to fictionalize her life. She is the subject of four novels, two plays, and is an important character in Isaac B. Singer’s novel “Shosha” and Ansky’s play the Dibbuk.
In 2003 a definitive scholarly biography of her life was finally published, written by Nathaniel Deutsche, Professor of Literature and History at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Hannah Rachel Verbermacher was born in about 1806, in the shtetl of Volodymir, Volhynia. Also called Ludmir, it is one of the oldest settlements in Ukraine. Located in an area of shifting borders, at the time it was part of the Russian empire.
Ludmir is also one of the earliest Jewish settlements in Ukraine. Jews first appeared and settled in Ludmir in 1171. By 1786 the town was an important Hasidic center.
Hannah Rochel was the only child of wealthy merchants who were pious Hassidic Jews. Unlike other children, she preferred studying to playing, and begged to learn Torah. To her father’s dismay she became an outstanding student and child prodigy.
It is believed she received her religious calling at age 12, when she had a fainting spell and visitation while at her mother’s grave. She and went on to gain fame as a scholar and holy woman able to perform miracles.
When she was 19, her father died and she inherited his fortune. She built herself a house of study, which soon became a house of worship and a place of teaching where she gave lessons and blessings. Her followers were mainly women and craftsmen … common Jews.
Hannah Rochel had no aspirations to become a female rabbi, and never tried to encroach or challenge male leaders. She just loved the Torah and her faith. She dispensed her wisdom while remaining in seclusion, as was common practice among ascetic tzadikim at the time. She dressed modestly, as was considered proper for Jewish women.
But she was doing things not done by other women at that time, and which are still not done by Hasidic women. Also, unlike other holy Hassidic women, she was not attached to a man.
So it was only a matter of time before her activity generated a furor.
That a woman had taken on a male role was distasteful to male leaders who considered her body merely a vessel for a male soul.
In addition, there was professional envy. One story tells of a male rebbe, supported by wealthy residents in Lublin, upset that many poor people left him to follow Hannah Rochel.
In her late 20s Hannah succumbed to the relentless pressure to marry. The next day, for reasons unknown, she dissolved the marriage, and for the next three decades disappeared from the public eye.
In about 1860, she moved to Jerusalem in Ottaman Palestine, and re-established herself as a holy woman. Her small group of followers, which included Arab women, came on Shabbat afternoons to hear her read from Torah. Often she accompanied groups of women to Rachel’s Tomb for prayer. She died in relative obscurity in about 1888.
In 2004, on the 22nd of Tammuz, or June 11, a memorial stone was unveiled on the Mount of Olives to mark the gravesite of Hannah Rochel Webermacher, which had been recently discovered by Nathaniel Deutsch.
In her day, “maiden” was a pejorative epithet foisted on Hannah Rochel by her detractors. To a degree, the stigma remains.
In 2014 The City of Jerusalem decided to name a street after The Maiden of Ludmir, Hannah Rachel Verbermacher. Orthodox Jews were outraged. Rather than maiden, the Hebrew word used in the street name translates as virgin, taboo for Orthodox Jews to use in public. A compromise was struck, but a street has yet to be assigned.
Amongst non-Orthodox Jews, her moniker is a non-issue. Some revere her as the first Hassidic feminist, and she has even become a cult figure for LGBTQ Jews who assume an affinity with her unusual position in the society of her day.
Hannah Rochel is a complex role model for the 21st century. She was a leader of women, not in the shadow of a male figure — thanks to her independent wealth. She defied social norms of her day, yet remained within the limits of piety.
To this day, Hannah Rochel’s transgressive behavior, which challenged traditional Jewish views of gender and sexuality, continues to inspire debate and, sometimes, censorship within the Jewish community.
As for Ukrainians, legend has it that people in Ukraine, including non-Jews, mourned her loss after she left—and long after she had died.