I'm a graduate student/researcher in History and Jewish Studies, focusing primarily on Holocaust history and Jewish responses to the rise of Fascism in the 1930s. I am originally from London, where I completed my BA in History and Masters in Historical Research. briefly worked as an intern at the Wiener Holocaust Library where I curated an exhibition about the Kindertransport, focusing on the letters of parents left behind in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. The exhibition 'A Thousand Kisses', traveled around the UK, and some of my research was also published in an article I co-authored for a special issue of the journal Jewish Historical Studies. I am now based in New York where I am studying for a PhD in Modern Jewish Studies. For the past two years before moving here, I was based in Paris, where I was conducting research for my Masters thesis on Jewish fighters in the Spanish Civil War and taking part in an immersive Yiddish language and culture program at the Paris Yiddish Center.
I first started learning Yiddish at UCL in 2015 as part of my Bachelors degree, and quickly fell in love with the language and the culture. As a Jew of Polish and Lithuanian descent who grew up with very little Ashkenazi culture – except for its ghosts – through Yiddish I felt like I had discovered something foundational which, before I found it, I hadn't realised was missing. Having started learning Yiddish just to facilitate my research, I've since become an enthusiastic member of the Yiddishist diaspora, and determined to make Yiddish and Yiddish culture accessible to others. I teach Yiddish on zoom for the London-based language school Babels Blessing, and I started this blog to share translations relating to an aspect of Yiddish culture that continues to fascinate me – women's religious culture and ritual.
Around the same time that I went full-Yiddish, I also started training with the Kohenet Hebrew-Priestess Institute - a spiritual leadership program focused on feminine, earth based approaches to Jewish practise. In my historical studies and research I have always been most interested in those stories that aren't told or written down, and for me one of the most exciting parts of the Kohenet program has been rediscovering the historical ritual and leadership roles of women, and how these were erased as Judaism became increasingly patriarchal. One of the forgotten practices featured in the Kohenet programme was something I had also come across in Yiddish literature: the ritual of kneytlekh-leygn - placing wicks - in which women made candlewick from threads that have been used to measure the perimeter of graves and cemeteries in other rituals known in Yiddish as as feldmestn and keyver-mestn. These rituals would be employed for the High Holidays or in times of deep need, and the candles made were either lit on Erev Yom Kippur, or donated to the Beys-Medresh (synagogue or house of learning) to 'light the study of Torah' - something from which women were traditionally excluded.
As someone who experienced a lot of death in my childhood and who spends much of my time researching the lives of people killed in war or murdered during the Holocaust, this physical ritual, in which women not only memorialized the dead but called on them, invoking the connection between the deceased and the living, somehow appealed to me.
Last summer after reading Moyshe Kulbak's Yiddish novel 'Montog' and falling in love with the feldmesterins Stesye and Gnesye, I tried out the practice for the first time. I was visiting the Lithuanian town of Kretinga, a former shtetl from where my family emigrated to the UK. I had read about the town in the memoirs of one of my great-uncles, but when I got there I found, of course, that all elements of the Kretinga he described had disappeared. The first thing I saw driving into town was a sign pointing into the woods saying 'Jewish genocide site', and in the town itself I found the only part of Jewish Kretinga that remained was the Jewish cemetery, which we had to walk through a building site to get to. In the cemetery, amongst the falling down headstones and overgrown graves, we found a monument written in bad Yiddish to the Jewish women of the town who had been taken into the cemetery and shot after the Nazi invasion of September 1941. After a week travelling through Poland and Lithuania, searching for signs of Yiddishland and finding mostly monuments to the murdered, I hit a point of overwhelm. I didn't want to read a poem, or try to find words for what I was feeling anymore, so instead I bought a ball of wool from the supermarket (on the site where the mikvah once stood) and I started unfurling it around the cemetery. I felt and looked completely mad, but it also made complete sense. A drunk man who was sitting by the wall drinking a can of beer started shouting at me in Lithuanian, I shouted back in Yiddish and kept walking out into the field wrapping my wool around the headstones. I've since discovered that I was doing this completely wrong, but I felt better, and my messy ball of grey wool is still sitting in my flat as a messy reminder of that grey and painful trip.
Since then, I've been searching for more Yiddish texts referring to and describing the ritual, and translating them as a resource for non-Yiddish speakers within the Kohenet community who might want to incorporate these examples into their own studies and practices. With the COVID-19 crisis, which has caused so much death and at the same time made it unsafe for people to attend funerals and burials, I thought that this ritual might actually be meaningful to a lot of people. Although often done in the month of Elul, it is a practice that can be done at any time. It was also frequently conducted in times of extreme illness and plague.
Since the irl world started turning again I've had a lot less time to post, but I will continue sporadically to share other translations relating to forgotten, marginalised and more often than not female traditions as and when I come across them. I am particularly interested in 'the supernatural' in the Yiddish world, and the beliefs and rituals that have become excluded or forgotten from 'official' Askhenazi Jewish religious practise, dismissed as superstition (in Yiddish 'zababones') or categorised under folklore. It is an unlikely coincidence that many of the practices considered superstitious and/or heretical were indeed those associated with women.
For the moment, at least, this is not part of my academic research, my aim is just to share these texts and stories with those who may not have otherwise come across them, along with some of my own thoughts and experiences. There are many people who have researched these subjects more rigorously, and I'll also try to post links to academic works for those interested. I'm very happy to be sent things to include on the site, in English or Yiddish, please email them to me at email@example.com.
I will publish all longer translations as blog posts, categorized to make them easily searchable. Whenever possible I will share links to or copies of the Yiddish originals.
Unless otherwise stated, all translations and photographs are my own, and I am therefore the owner of the copyright.
If you'd like to support the project, help me pay for a better domain name and cover the time I'd like to dedicate to it, you can donate directly at paypal.me/feldmesterin