Sunset just outside Kretinga, Lithuania, where my family on my grandfather's side are from. Many of the photos on this site, including the cemetery I sometimes use as a background, are from my trip to Kretinga in 2019.
About this project
With most of the sources on which we can study the Jewish past produced by a learned male one percent, ‘the history of Jewish religious life as it has been written is chiefly the history of the educated elite.’[Weissler, 1987]. I hope that this site will provide a valuable resource to scholars trying to address this imbalance, as well as to ritualists seeking to revive and reclaim those parts of Jewish tradition that have been sidelined or neglected.
This site began as project for the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, where I am currently a student. The Kohenet Institute teaches feminine, earth based approaches to Jewish practice, using 13 specific archetypes or netivot of female religious leadership defined by the institute's founders, Rabbi Jill Hammer and Taya Shere. Implementing a skilled, close reading of bliblical text alongside other contemporary sources, Rabbi Hammer has demonstrated persuasively that, before and even after the building of the temple in Jerusalem and the centralisation of the Israelite cult, women as well as men served as ritual leaders or priestesses. Documenting how these priestess roles have been gradually sidelined and repressed, Hammer's detailed research shows that, albeit often banished to the realm of folk ritual, elements of these ancient feminine practices have survived.
In the Hebrew Priestess (2015), Hammer demonstrates that even in the modern period 'the remnants of the priestesshood remain for those who seek them out.' (Hammer and Shere, 2015.) Reconsidering women's domestic practices in the context of ancient priestess tratitions, she lends them a significance that is usually overlooked in male-authored sources describing them as secondary and unimportant. For example, Hammer connects the women's custom of sewing Torah gartlekh (belts) or curtains for the holy ark - both common in Eastern Europe - to the female 'weavers' of the temple, who were accorded the same priveledges as male priests. Whether or not they would have welcomed the title 'priestess' - a radical innovation even in today's Jewish practice - this 'priestess' framework nonetheless might also help us to appreciate the importance with which Jewish women in Eastern Europe viewed their practice, which was often carried out with emotion and fervour sometimes mocked by their male counterparts. As Hammer also highlights, some of the tkhines said by women at the shabbes table actually compare the reciter to the high priest, demonstrating a familiarity with Talmudic texts that describe the table as a stand-in for the temple altar, and an appreciation of their own importance as the kindlers of light and bakers of bread (a replacement of the temple sacrifice) for that temple.
As a historian and a student of Yiddish literature, I have found the Kohenet 'netivot' to be a useful framework through which to reconsider the women's religious practices described in Yiddish sources. Indeed, as ethnographers like Abraham Rechtman commented, many of the charms and remedies seen as foolish superstitions by Jewish modernisers had their roots in ancient times, when - as in the 19th and 20th century shtetl - women as well as men were employed to deliver them. The common belief that a bride on her wedding day possessed special healing powers may not just be a projection of male fantasy about female virginity, but may be rooted in a tradition of maiden priestesses stretching back to biblical times. And as I describe on the page dedicated to mourning women, the emotion with which women prayed can be seen not as weakness or hysteria, but as part of a long tradition of evocative, public religious leadership by women.
While the netivot framework may be helpful in re-framing some domestic women’s practices, what is even more striking is the way that some of Hammer and Shere’s priestess archetypes map clearly on to the professional female ritualists documented on this site. As ethnographers like Rechtman also noted, the shtetl mourning woman or klogerin was a clear manifestation of the biblical mekonenet. Another netivah - the midwife - also shows up in the shtetl as an important facilitator not only of physical birth but of the spiritual transition that it entailed. The feldmesterins, zogerkins and opshprekherkes, all of whom in their own ways tended the veil between the world of the living and that of the dead, using the connection between these worlds for healing and protection, demonstrate many of the characteristics of the biblical shamaness or 'Ba'alat Ov' - translated by Jill Hammer as the 'keeper of an ancestor spirit.' [Hammer and Shere, 2015.] Even in the deeply gendered, patriarchal world of the shtetl, these 'priestess pathways' - whether or not they would have been described as such at the time - persisted.
Uncovering the history of female ritual leadership is not only an important feminist task. Or, rather, the task of Jewish feminism is not simply to reclaim a place for women, but to challenge entirely the exclusionary hierarchichal social systems that are intrinsic to and reflected by normative Jewish orthodoxy. As journalist and scholar Rokhl Kaffrissen comments, these women and their practices represent part of what antrhopologists call 'the little tradition' of Judaism - the 'folk traditions' practised by non-elites (although often by elites too) that, often not written down or sanctioned by those elites, are easily dismissed and forgotten. In fact, often these 'folk practices', which overlapped and shared wisdom with non-Jewish neighbours, have often been targetted by the male elites as part of Judaism's 'long battle against paganism', itself a battle against an 'other' that many Jewish feminists argue should instead be embraced. [Plaskow, 1991] Scholars like Jill Hammer and Judith Plaskow have demonstrated that women's religious practice, often earth and body-based, has frequently been targetted in this ongoing battle. In the modern era, 'supernatural' beliefs such as those documented here have also faced challenges posed by the idolisation of 'rationality' as the only acceptable framework through which to make sense of the world. While the supernatural aspects of 'the great tradition' are somehow acceptable, those of the 'little tradition' are often dismissed as superstition. I have always been confused as to why it is acceptable to believe in a male God who sits on a throne somewhere in the sky with total power over everything, but not in ghosts, or spirits, or demons.
From my own experience, the practices documented here have the potential not only to help us better understand the Jewish past, but also to enrich the Jewish present. As I mentioned in my introduction on the home page, these female ritualists provided two very important functions to their communities. Firstly, they helped to facilitate a healthy, public expression of emotion that both helped their clients process and find relief, but also created a strong sense of community cohesion in which every problem or tragedy was shared by everyone. Secondly, they looked after the connection between the living and the dead, allowing for a continued relationship that, whether or not we share their beliefs about the afterlife, is psychologically very healthy. Anyone who has lost anyone knows that the dead never fully leave us, and these rituals that allow us not just to memorialise them but to talk to them, even to ask them for help, allow for a sense of connection that is often missing from today's Jewish grief customs.
About me - Annabel Gottfried Cohen
I am a PhD student in Modern Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. I have a Research Masters in History with distinction from the University of London, for which I was awarded the prize for best dissertation for my dissertation on the origins of the International Brigades, the Communist volunteer force that fought for the Spanish Republic in the civil war of 1936-1939. My PhD research focuses on Jewish responses to the rise of fascism, holocaust resistance and the inter-War Jewish left. I am also a student at the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, where I am able to embrace the spiritual side of the work that I do trying to uncover untold stories from the past.
I also work as a teacher and translator of Yiddish to English. Since late 2019, I have been teaching Yiddish language with the London-based language school Babels Blessing. Next semester I will also be teaching at the New York Workers' Circle and at YIVO, and I previously taught on the Yiddish intensives at KlezKanada and Yiddish Summer Weimar, where I also delivered a workshop in Yiddish on the women's custom of cemetery measuring. Over the high holidays, I ran workshops on this custom with Kohenet Sarah Chandler and Rabbi Noam, as part of the Shamir Collective. I recently taught a course on this and the other women's practices presented on this website for Yiddish New York. I have also taught classes and workshops on Yiddish song, Life in the Shtetl, the Holocaust, Holocaust resistance, and Jewish fighters in the Spanish Civil War.
If you would like to contact me with teaching, writing or translation opportunities, you can do so using the form below. Please note that this website is already a labour of love, and I can't take on any more unpaid work at this time.
I am also very happy to be contacted with questions, comments, invitations and anything you'd like to see published on this site. Since this is one of many projects, I am not always quick to respond - please excuse me if I take my time to get back to you.
Unless otherwise stated, all translations on this site are my own, and I am therefore the owner of the copyright.
Abraham Sutzkever, 'Paris', trans. Annabel Cohen, Ingeveb (Dec. 2022). https://ingeveb.org/texts-and-translations/paris.
Annabel Cohen, ‘Gravewalkers’ in T.S. Mendola, Jewish Voices from the Pandemic (Ben Yehuda Press, 2021)
Annabel Cohen and Barbara Warnock, ‘The experiences of Kindertransportees and their parents: evidence from the archives of The Wiener Holocaust Library’, Jewish Historical Studies, 2020, 51(1), 33-50
'A deep-dive into the issue of gender in Yiddish-literature' review of Estraikh and Krutikov (ed.s), Men, Women and Books: Issues of Gender in Yiddish Discourse (2019), Forward, (Nov. 2020) https://forward.com/forverts-in-english/459056/a-deep-dive-into-the-issue-of-gender-in-yiddish-literature/
'Making Soul Candles : a female-led Jewish ritual revived', Forward (Sep. 2020.) https://forward.com/culture/455139/making-soul-candles-a-female-led-jewish-ritual-revived/
'The forgotten women's rituals of Yom Kippur', Vashti Media (Sep. 2020)https://vashtimedia.com/2020/09/25/issues/review/the-forgotten-womens-rituals-of-yom-kippur/
'Ikh lern studentn an altn froyen minheg far yom-kiper', Forverts, Sep. 2021. https://forward.com/yiddish/475394/teaching-a-pre-yom-kippur-ritual-jewish-women-did-for-centuries-ancestors/
'Dos bukh vegn min in yidisher literatur diskutirt say froyerishkayt say menerishkayt', Forverts, Nov. 2020. https://forward.com/yiddish/458442/this-book-about-gender-in-yiddish-literature-discusses-both-femininity-and/
'A traditsioneler minheg gefirt fun froyen : feldmestn un kneytlekh-leygn', Forverts, Sep. 2020 https://forward.com/yiddish/455029/a-traditional-female-led-ritual-using-measuring-threads-to-make-yom-kippur/