Roza, wife of Leyz­er ben Moses Judah, Title Page of the Reg­is­ter of a Jew­ish Mid­wife. Bib­lio­the­ca Rosen­thaliana, Spe­cial Col­lec­tions of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Amsterdam.

One of the pri­ma­ry goals of The Posen Library of Jew­ish Cul­ture and Civ­i­liza­tion is to open the entire­ty of Jew­ish cul­ture, includ­ing many over­looked voic­es, to Eng­lish lan­guage read­ers. Among the many voic­es we include in Vol­ume 6: Con­fronting Moder­ni­ty, 1750 — 1880 are those of Jew­ish women, across class, pro­fes­sion­al, and eth­nic lines. Each dis­cov­ery brought new excite­ment. What we thought of as lost and silenced traces of lives sud­den­ly appeared in over­looked sources. The role of Jew­ish mid­wives as respect­ed and nec­es­sary med­ical experts, par­tic­i­pants in rit­u­al law, and writ­ers who learned to shape their records and expe­ri­ences in their own voic­es, exem­pli­fies the volume’s inclu­sive vision. A small excerpt from the reg­is­ter of a Jew­ish mid­wife appears in the vol­ume (vol. 6, p. 22). Jor­dan Katz’s mas­ter­ful doc­tor­al dis­ser­ta­tion explored the mid­wives’ role in much greater depth, as her essay below demonstrates.

-Eli­she­va Car­lebach, edi­tor of The Posen Library of Jew­ish Cul­ture and Civ­i­liza­tion, Vol­ume 6

As a his­to­ri­an of pre­mod­ern Jew­ish life, it can be dif­fi­cult to find women’s voic­es in the sources. It’s not that Jew­ish women were absent, it’s just that they didn’t write often — or, at least, not near­ly as much as men. So you can imag­ine my sur­prise when, as I sat down to read rab­binic sources about eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry com­mu­nal life, I found a trove of infor­ma­tion about a group of pro­fes­sion­al Jew­ish women, sel­dom con­sid­ered: midwives.

While rab­binic sources are often mined for data on the devel­op­ment of halakha (Jew­ish law), I dis­cov­ered numer­ous cas­es in which rab­bis relied on the expert med­ical opin­ions of mid­wives to resolve their halakhic ques­tions. This adds a new dimen­sion to our under­stand­ing of how we can use rab­binic mate­ri­als to get at the his­to­ry of Jew­ish women in the ear­ly mod­ern peri­od (1750 to 1880).

From these sources, it becomes clear that mid­wives had far more expe­ri­ence with ques­tions of women’s bod­ies than rab­bis them­selves did. In many instances, rab­bis con­sid­ered their judg­ments more reli­able than those of (male) physicians.Midwives knew about women’s dis­eases, post­par­tum con­di­tions, and self-inspec­tions of their bod­ies; mid­wives sup­plied infor­ma­tion to rab­bis regard­ing women’s sex­u­al­i­ty, their ail­ments, and their mate­r­i­al gyne­co­log­i­cal prac­tices — all cen­tral com­po­nents of Jew­ish law.

Once I was aware of Jew­ish mid­wives, it became almost impos­si­ble not to see them. I began to locate them in all kinds of ear­ly mod­ern Euro­pean sources. They appeared in Jew­ish com­mu­nal sources, where they nego­ti­at­ed their salaries, assumed respon­si­bil­i­ty for deliv­er­ing the chil­dren of poor women, and tes­ti­fied that cer­tain chil­dren were born out of wed­lock. They appear in notar­i­al records to cer­ti­fy their con­tracts, or as wit­ness­es to extra­mar­i­tal affairs or vio­lent rapes.

Some Jew­ish mid­wives even com­mis­sioned trans­la­tions of med­ical hand­books into Yid­dish, as did Rachel Salomons of Ams­ter­dam. In 1709, she hired a local trans­la­tor to change a mid­wifery trea­tise from Dutch to Yid­dish, so she could read the work in her native lan­guage, So that she will not need to observe any oth­er mid­wife.” This book was like­ly part of her train­ing, along­side an appren­tice­ship with an expe­ri­enced mid­wife, which was com­plet­ed with both Jew­ish and Chris­t­ian midwives.

Some Jew­ish mid­wives even com­mis­sioned trans­la­tions of med­ical hand­books into Yid­dish, as did Rachel Salomons of Amsterdam.

This range of sources shows that by virtue of their gen­der, Jew­ish mid­wives were privy to sen­si­tive infor­ma­tion and able to serve as com­mu­nal func­tionar­ies in a man­ner not typ­i­cal­ly afford­ed to oth­er women dur­ing this peri­od. They found them­selves at the nexus between munic­i­pal and Jew­ish com­mu­nal author­i­ties, fre­quent­ly nav­i­gat­ing the com­pet­ing aims of these sys­tems. With­in their com­mu­ni­ties, Jew­ish mid­wives were able to unique­ly tra­verse bound­aries; they moved between gen­ders, reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties, class­es, and var­i­ous eth­nic com­mu­ni­ties with­in the Jew­ish world.

Per­haps one of the most sig­nif­i­cant ways that Jew­ish mid­wives con­tributed to ear­ly mod­ern life was by keep­ing records, and thus allow­ing us for the first time to hear their own voic­es, unmedi­at­ed by men. They par­tic­i­pat­ed in a burst of record-keep­ing in the ear­ly mod­ern peri­od. Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties began to keep writ­ten com­mu­ni­ca­tions of all sorts of occur­rences in dai­ly life, rang­ing from finan­cial dis­putes between com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers, to the appoint­ment of rabbis.

Mid­wives, for their part, assumed respon­si­bil­i­ty for a dif­fer­ent type of record keep­ing: birth records. Mir­ror­ing munic­i­pal efforts to doc­u­ment pop­u­la­tion growth, Jew­ish mid­wives began to keep track of the deliv­er­ies they attended.They doc­u­ment­ed this infor­ma­tion in per­son­al reg­is­ters that includ­ed details about the child’s sex, birth­date (accord­ing to the Jew­ish cal­en­dar), parent­age, and, in some instances, where the birth took place. Many of these entries men­tioned only the iden­ti­ty of the father, while the mother’s name remained a mys­tery — unless the child was born to an unmar­ried woman. By ver­i­fy­ing these births and track­ing fam­i­ly lin­eages, includ­ing ille­git­i­mate chil­dren, Jew­ish mid­wives became agents of bureau­crat­ic con­trol and com­mu­nal authority.

Per­haps one of the most sig­nif­i­cant ways that Jew­ish mid­wives con­tributed to ear­ly mod­ern life was by keep­ing records, and thus allow­ing us for the first time to hear their own voic­es, unmedi­at­ed by men.

As far as we know, these birth reg­is­ters were the only extant records sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly com­posed by Jew­ish women dur­ing this peri­od. I found in my research that over the course of the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, mid­wives began to play with dif­fer­ent ways of main­tain­ing these records, incor­po­rat­ing var­i­ous pieces of infor­ma­tion as need­ed. As a result, mid­wives’ records from the ear­ly eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry includ­ed some details that one might not expect to find in a vital record, such as the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of clients sole­ly through the per­son whose home they resided in, or by the baked goods they ped­dled on the street. Only by the end of the cen­tu­ry were such records con­sol­i­dat­ed into a rec­og­niz­able format.

By the time the mid­wife Roza bas Yukel of Gronin­gen, Nether­lands, sat down to record her deliv­er­ies in 1794, she was able to express in her own words what she per­ceived as the pur­pose of her reg­is­ter. On the title page, she com­posed a dual-lan­guage intro­duc­tion, penned both in Yid­dish and in Hebrew:

This is the book of the generations/​children of man, those that were born by my hands among the Hebrew women. I. came to them, I the mid­wife, for they are vital [Exo­dus 1:15 – 19] and give birth to a son or daugh­ter. I took this book as my pos­ses­sion, and I record­ed in the name of those giv­ing birth with the name of the new­born, with the date of birth, so that it should be a remem­brance from the day I began this occu­pa­tion and for­ward. And I prayed to the Lord above that he should strength­en me and give me courage and not let my hands fal­ter while I am engaged in this pro­fes­sion, and may no obstruc­tion be caused by my hands, heav­en for­bid, nei­ther to the woman sit­ting on the birthing stool nor to the new­born about to be born: Only let it be expelled from the uterus like an egg from a hen.

This expres­sion of pur­pose is unique to Roza’s reg­is­ter. Records from ear­li­er mid­wives bear no such intro­duc­tions or lyri­cal open­ings. Despite this, they embraced the same pur­pose: to serve as aides-mémoires through which to doc­u­ment the evolv­ing pop­u­la­tion of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in each locale; for the mid­wives them­selves, for the women giv­ing birth, and for the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty at-large.

Jor­dan Katz com­plet­ed her PhD in His­to­ry at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty. In the fall, she will begin a post­doc­tor­al fel­low­ship in the Juda­ic Stud­ies Pro­gram at Yale.