top of page

‘Is it customary everywhere to treat the midwife with respect?’

‘Is there a custom that when the midwife dies, all of the children whom she brought into the world accompany her funeral procession with candles in their hands?’


The previously understudied yet important role of midwives in early modern Ashkenazi Jewish communities has in recent years been well documented by scholars, most notably Elisheva Carlebach and more recently Jordan Katz.  Often the only woman employed by the kahal or community board, ‘midwives were functionaries, and even authorities, in domains that were crucial to communal life.’[Carlebach, 2014] Sources documenting Jewish life in the shtetls of Eastern Europe demonstrate that this continued to be true in the modern period. These sources also show that, as in ancient times, the role of the midwife was ‘understood to be spiritual as well as physical.' [Hammer, 2015] 

One extremely important source on the midwife in the shtetl is the Jewish Ethnographic Program — a vast 2,087 question questionnaire created by S. An-sky’s ethnographic team based on their expeditions in the Pale of Settlement between 1912-1914, and translated into English by Nathaniel Deutsch in The Jewish Dark Continent (2011).  Unfortunately, due to the outbreak of World War One, the questionnaire was never distributed, however, based on research conducted in more than 60 Ukrainian shtetlekh, both its structure and the questions themselves are informative. One question asks, ‘Is it customary everywhere to treat the midwife with respect?’ Another asks ‘Is there a custom that when the midwife dies, all of the children whom she brought into the world accompany her funeral procession with candles in their hands?’ Memoirs in memorial books show that, at least in certain shtetls in Poland, this was the custom.

Ordering its questions according to the human life cycle, the Jewish Ethnographic Program opens not with birth, but with a section regarding the state of the human soul before it is born. Following questions about pregnancy and before the section on childbirth, is a separate section on the midwife, who tended to what Deutsch refers to as one of the crucial ‘peregrinations of the soul’ which defined the Jewish life cycle. Like the other women ritualists documented on this site, Jewish midwives tended the boundary between the spiritual and physical world, helping new souls to cross over and enter the living world. This helps us to understand why, even as modern medicine became increasingly available, many people continued to favour the care of a traditional midwife - known in yiddish as a bobe, heyvn, or heybam – to that of a medically-trained akusherke. In Koriv (Kurów), Poland, the heyvn’s presence at a birth was considered so important that, even when she was in her late 90s and could no longer walk, someone would carry her to the birthing bed on their shoulders. Meanwhile, a gabete named Beyle Shoyver had taken over some of the elderly midwife’s duties, a role for which she was – as was the custom with midwives – honored at the bris or naming ceremonies of newly born infants.


With the process of birth believed by some to create a soul-connection between the midwife and those she helped bring into the world, midwives were often treated as an honored member of the extended family. In small towns served by only one midwife, this made her a particularly important figure. Following a birth, a midwife was often honored with gifts at the bris or naming ceremony of the infant, as well as at other important milestones in the lives of ‘her children.’ One particularly common gift was a white shirt, given to the midwife at the marriage of a child she had birthed. In her famous memoir, Pauline Wengeroff recalled her midwife grandmother-in-law’s ‘great store’ of these white shirts.


Several sources suggest that midwives, who were often from relatively wealthy families, would, like Beyle Shoyver, also give ‘their’ children gifts on Jewish holidays or at important moments in their lives. In some places, it was believed that midwife's soul remained connected to those of 'her' children even after their deaths. In Saratov Province, it was recorded that “when a midwife dies, the women whom she delivered wind ribbons about her hands, so that the dead children may recognize and serve her.” [Listova, 1992] In Wselub, Belorus, a midwife known as Bobe Tzinke hoped to be buried with a girdle in which she had tied a knot for every child she helped to birth – a reflection of the belief that a midwife's work would be rewarded in the afterlife. Tragically, Bobe Tzinke was murdered by the Nazis, and did not get her wish. 

Like the other women documented here, shtetl midwives tended to be older women – indeed, one common Yiddish word for midwife, bobe, is the same as that for grandmother, hinting both at their elder status and the familial relationship they retained with those they helped to birth. In rural towns which, even at the beginning of the twentieth century, were often without modern medical services, midwives were one of the principle healers, and often heavily relied on. They were therefore well-versed in the kinds of “folk” remedies – like pouring wax and led – which led many women’s practices to be dismissed as “superstitious.”  As described below, midwifery often overlapped with other practices such as grave-measuring and incantation-saying, both of which were frequently used to aid women in childbirth.

most sources suggest that midwives tended to be highly educated in religious as well as medical matters. Both Pauline Wengeroff’s grandmother and Bobe Tzinke went to synagogue daily – an unusual practice for women. During the week, Tzinke was ‘the only woman … representing her gender at prayers.’ In Khlevisk, near Szydłów, Poland, a healer and midwife named Gitl also acted as a women’s prayer leader. Their stories, like those of the other women studied here, suggest that the line between ‘folk’ customs and the Jewish ‘Big Tradition’ was not nearly as sharp as it is often portrayed to be.

Maryem Gottdank.png

Maryam Gottdank, a midwife in Isterik, Galicia. Drawn by her granddaughter Miriam Isaacs. In this picture Maryam, who was trained both as a traditional bobe and a modern akusherke, is wearing a white apron of the kind often gifted to midwives by the families they served. 

bottom of page