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 rabbinic sources we mostly read about mourning women in passages restricting or banning such practices. 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. Translation by Jill Hammer. Quoted in The Hebrew Priestess, 178-179.
Despite such efforts to restrict women to private rather than public acts of mourning and to prevent them from acting as leaders of mourning ritual, copious evidence from Yiddish literature, ethnographic research and Yizkor (memorial) books testify to the presence of mekonenot in 19th and early 20th century eastern European Jewish communities, where they were known variously as klogerins (wailing women), klogmuters, baklogerins, beterins (implorers) and zogerins/ zogerkes. They were paid not only to wail and lament at funerals, but also in cemeteries during the month of Elul or on the occasion of a Yortsayt (an anniversary of death.) When someone was seriously ill, klogerins were often employed to wail in the synagogue in front of the open arc containing the torahs, or at the graveside of the sick person’s relatives.
These practises are discussed in detail below, in an excerpt from the ethnographic memoir of Abraham Rechtman, who met and shadowed three klogerins in the Ukrainian town of Nemyriv. Rechtman’s description of the klogerins lamenting in unison, or of one chanting and the others following in unison, demonstrates that the efforts of rabbinic authorities to ban such practises had not been successful. And as Tovah Gamliel’s research documents, the practise has also survived in Yemeni Jewish communities, including in Israel. I hope that the translations I share as blog posts below will serve as a further useful resource to those in the Kohenet and other communities seeking to revive or take inspiration from the mekonenot and klogerins of the past.