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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


This site began as project for the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, where I was ordained in August 2023. 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 biblical 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 traditions, 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 privileges 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, it is striking how clearly some of Hammer and Shere’s priestess archetypes map clearly on to the professional female ritualists documented on this site. As ethnographer Abraham Rechtman 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. 

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 mention in my introduction to this site, these female ritualists performed two very important functions for 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.

With most of the sources from 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 anyone seeking to revive and reclaim those parts of Jewish tradition that have been sidelined or neglected. Quite simply, these women, who served not only their living communities but also the ancestors who came before them, deserve to be remembered. At the same time, by reminding us that Judaism has always been more than great sages and rabbis, I hope that these sources might help us imagine a Judaism and a world beyond patriarchy. 

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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 two prizes for best dissertation and best performance at a masters level. Both my MRes and PhD research focuses on Jewish responses to the rise of fascism, holocaust resistance and the inter-War Jewish left. I am also an ordained Kohenet and graduate of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, where I have learned to embrace the spiritual side of the work that I do trying to uncover untold stories from the past.

I am a teacher and translator of Yiddish to English. I am a 2023-2024 Yiddish Book Center translation fellow, a Yiddish teacher with the Workers' Circle and this year I have also been teaching Yiddish language, literature and culture at Sorbonne Université, Paris. I have taught courses on various topics relating to History and Yiddish language at Sorbonne Université, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Beit Kohenet, YIVO, Shamir Collective, Yiddish New York, Yiddish Summer Weimar,  the Workers Circle, and Babels Blessing Language School. I have also given guest lectures at Yale University, Georgetown University, City College New York and Wheaton College. 

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. If you would like to support this work you can paypal @vayberishezababones venmo @annsplaining or click the donate button below. 

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.

I am currently looking into funding opportunities and I hope that in the future, I will be able to pay for articles from other researchers, translators, writers and descendants of female shtetl ritualists in order to turn this site into the best possible resource on these women and their rituals. If you have something you would like to publish here, please feel free to send it to me at feldmesterin@gmail.com, but please note that, although I would be very happy to promote your work, for the moment I am not in a position to pay for submissions. 
 

Unless otherwise stated, all translations on this site are my own, and I am therefore the owner of the copyright.

Publications 

 

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/

In Yiddish: 

'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/

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