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'm currently in my final year of a Masters of Historical Research looking at Jewish volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, and my first year of a PhD in Modern Jewish Studies.
Since February 2019 I have been based in Paris where I am conducting my MRes research and taking part in an immersive Yiddish language and culture program. A language that I started learning to help me study the past has become a huge part of my present, and it is in part my desire to help keep the traditions and culture of 'yiddishland' alive that prompted me to start this blog.
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 practises featured in the Kohenet programme was that of kneytlakh-leygn - placing wicks - the ritual of making candlewick with threads that have been wrapped around graves or used to measure the perimeter of the cemetery - rituals known 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 usually donated to the Beys-Midrash (synagogue or house of learning) to 'light the study of Torah' - something from which women were traditionally excluded.
I had already come across these rituals a few times in Yiddish literature and memoirs, usually as passing references to a practice done by women before Yom Kippur, or in a list of jobs done by impoverished women to make ends meet. As someone who experienced a lot of death in my childhood and who spends a lot of my time researching the lives of people killed in war or murdered during the Holocaust, this physical ritual, in which women invoked 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 practise for the first time. I was visiting the Lithuanian town of Kretinga, where my family on my grandfather's side came from. 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 Kretinga 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 practises. 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 practise that can be done at any time, including once the cemeteries open up again and people are able for the first time to visit the graves of those who have passed during these months. According to one of the the sources that I'm sharing here, it was also a ritual done in times of severe illness.
I will also use this site to share other translations relating to forgotten, marginalised and, more often than not, female traditions, rituals, spells, beliefs and practices, as and when I come accross 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 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 an academic project, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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. The majority of photos I've used are from my trip to Kretinga in Lithuania.
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