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Pulling at threads 

Rediscovering the forgotten rituals of Eastern European Jewish Women

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Introduction

One of the many stereotypes that still dominate our understanding of traditional Ashkenazi Jewish life in the shtetlekh of Eastern Europe - home at the turn of the 20th century to around 40% of the global Jewish population - concerns the religious role of Jewish women. In the 1952 study Life is with People – ‘the most influential of all popular renderings of Eastern European Jewry in the English language and, arguably, the book that Jewish historians of the region loathe more than any other’ [Zipperstein, 2013] – Jewish life in the shtetl is described as divided into two gendered ‘realms.’ The spiritual realm, centered in male institutions, was, according to the authors, the realm of men, while women's domain was the home. Basing their anaylsis mostly on texts written by men, the authors claim was that a man's work was to tend to the spiritual realm, dedicating their time to prayer and study, while the role of women was to facilitate this by looking after their husbands' and sons' material needs. 'Exempt' or rather excluded from much of institutional religious life, a woman - claim the authors - had to rely on her husband to secure her a place in the world to come, as the ‘cup from which she sips her heavenly reward.’ [Zborowski, Herzog and Mead, 1952]

Anyone well-versed in Yiddish literature and culture knows that this is a gross exaggeration, based on an ideal projected by the male educated elite that, although pervasive, does not fully reflect reality. This is not to deny that traditional shtetl life was deeply patriarchal, nor to - kholile - underestimate the suffering this caused its non-male members. In modern Yiddish literature, the 'canon' of which is, like the religious canon, dominated by men, female religiosity is often sidelined or even made fun of as superstitious 'vayberishe zababones'.  Yet, in the words of the author of a 16th century Yiddish manuscript about women's customs 'women are always there.' [Fox and Lewis, 2011]. Women's supplications or tkhines alone reveal, in Chava Weissler's words, an 'intensely lived religious life, and a richly imagined spiritual world’ which women by no means left to the care of men. [Weissler, 1987].

 

Female religiousity was also not - as is usually assumed - restricted to the home. In fact, many women, like men, served shtetl communities as paid religious functionaries who played crucial roles in the spiritual fabric of society. I created this website to share English translations of Yiddish sources - most of them my own - related to five female ritualists who appear particularly often in literature, memoirs and memorial books: Feldmesterins - cemetery measuring women; Klogerins - professional mourning women; Opshprekherkes - female exorcists/healers; Zogerkes - a title given both to female prayer leaders and to women who facilitated connection with the dead, and Bobes - midwives. This site has a dedicated page to each of these ritualists, where I share texts from Yiddish literature, memoirs, ethnographic studies and yizker bikher (memorial books) relating to their work. There is also a page dedicated to the tkhines, klogenishn (laments) and opshprekhenishn (incantations) used and often created spontaneously by these women. Alternatively to read all the posts unfiltered by topic or source-type, click here.  

 

Looking at and comparing the work of these forgotten ritualists, I have discovered that women seem to have played a leading role in two crucial facets of spiritual life. Firstly, all of these women were in some way tending relationship between the physical world and the spiritual realm - the world of spirits and deceased ancestors that in traditional ashkenazi belief was not far-removed but ever present. Skilled in communicating with that realm, they helped to maintain ancestral connection and use it to get the spirits to help the living in times of need. At the same time, they helped to keep the boundary in place, preventing living souls from crossing over before their time. Secondly, many of these women were skilled leaders of emotional expression - a crucial function of prayer. This research also demonstrates that, while many institutions of religious life in the shtetl were, indeed, dominated by men, one extremely important public institution seems, in many places, to have been a space looked-after by female ritualists; namely the cemetery. 

To read more about me and this project, click here. 

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