A wail is heard from afar, the jangling of a collection tin, a cry 'charity averts death!' In the window appears a funeral procession, passing by slowly. Behind the coffin walks a wailing Jewess ...
S. Ansky, opening scene of the play 'Tog un nacht' - Day and night, in Ansky, Gezamlte shrift in fuftsn bilder – tsveyter band – dramen. (Poland, 1928.)
One of the thirteen Netivot – pathways, ways of being, or in this context archetypes of feminine ritual leadership – highlighted and studied by the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute is that of the Mekonenet, the professional mourning woman. The earliest reference to the existence of such a role is found in the bible, in the book of Jeremiah. With the people of Israel facing exile, the prophet instructs them to:
‘Call the mourning women [mekonenot], and let them come; send for the wise women, and let them come: let them set up a wailing over us, so that our eyes run with water … let tem teach their daughters weeping, and their companions lamentation…’
– Jeremiah, 9:16, translation by Jill Hammer
Further biblical and rabbinic references to mourning women are outlined by Jill Hammer and Taya Shere in chapter 12 of The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership (2015.) In the Mishnah, mourning women are referenced as a 'standard part of Jewish funerals' (Hebrew Priestess, 178.) In rabbinic sources we mostly read about mourning women in passages attempting to control and restrict their practices, demonstrating that the custom nonetheless survived. The twelfth century philosopher and rabbinic authority Maimonides, echoing a passage of the Mishnah [Moed Katan 3:9], wrote:
During [the intermediate days of Passover] women cry out, but they may not pound their hands on each other in grief or ritually mourn. Once the corpse is buried, they may not lament. On Rosh Chodesh, Chanukah and Purim, they may cry out and pound their hands on each other in grief before the corpse is buried, but they may not wail.
What is meant by crying out? That they all lament in unison. What is meant by wailing? That one recites [a dirge] and the others respond in unison.’
- Maimonedes, Laws of Rest on the Festivals, 6:24. Trans. Jill Hammer. Quoted in The Hebrew Priestess, 178-179.
As Tovah Gamliel’s research documents, the role of the professional mourning women is still found in Yemeni Jewish communities, including in Israel. Yiddish sources also demonstrate that the custom persisted in Eastern European Jewish communities right into the twentieth century.
A 16th Century Western Yiddish manuscript from Italy, referenced by Hammer, attests to the role of the mourning woman in Western Ashkenazi Jewish Communites:
Here they come, in their mourners' headresses; and even if their hearts were stones they would still make the others weep ... they bawl, they cry so sorrowfully, and stir up pity, beyond telling.
- Harry Fox and Justin Jaron Lewis, Many Pious Women (2011), p. 234.
Copious evidence from modern Yiddish literature, ethnographic research and Yizkor (memorial) books, examples of which I share below, show that thepractice of hiring professional mourning women - known in Eastern Yiddish as klogerins, klogerkes (wailing women), klogmuters (wailing mothers), baklogerins, beterins (implorers), baveynerins (weeping women) and zogerins/ zogerkes - remained widespread in the Jewish shtetelkh of Eastern Europe, albeit in decline by the beginning of the twentieth century. These sources also show that role of the mourning woman also overlapped with those of the other female cemetery ritualists I describe on this website, and with female religious piety in general, in which the vocal and public expression of emotion was an important component.
A photograph of three professional klogerins taken in the cemetery of Nemriov, Ukraine, by members of the 1912 Jewish Ethnographic Expedition lead by S. Ansky. The photo is published in the memoirs of Abraham Recthman, one of the researchers who took part in the exhibition. My translation of this section of his memoir is below.