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‘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 shtetlekh of Eastern Europe demonstrate that this continued to be true in the modern period. Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, as more opportunities opened up for women to be trained professionally as akusherkes — medically trained midwives — many Jewish women continued to favour the care of a traditional bobe or heybam. Stories like that of the 90 year old bobe of Koriv, who, unable to walk let alone provide medical care, was still carried on someone’s shoulders to be present at every birth, demonstrate that, in Jill Hammer’s words, the role of the midwife was ‘understood to be spiritual as well as physical.’[Hebrew Priestess, p.151].
One extremely important source on the midwife in the shtetl is the Jewish Ethnographic Program — a vast 2,087 question questionnaire created by Sh. An-sky’s ethnographic team and based on their expeditions in the Pale of Settlement between 1912-1914. 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, the questions alone are particularly revealing. I have shared the questions relating to midwives — translated by Nathanial Deutsch and published in his book The Jewish Dark Continent (2011), which I thoroughly recommend reading — in a post below. Other sources, shared in separate posts, as well as Deutsch’s own research, suggest that most of these questions — including ‘Is it customary everywhere to treat the midwife with respect?’ and the stunning ‘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?’ — would have been answered in the affirmative.
Ordering its questions according to the human life cycle, the Jewish Ethnographic Program opens not with birth, but with questions regarding the state of the human soul before it is born. This sheds light on the importance of the midwife, who tended to what Deutsch refers to as one of the crucial ‘peregrinations of the soul’ which defined the Jewish life cycle. [Jewish Dark Continent, p. 72]. In this way we can relate her work to that of the feldmesterins, zogerkes and klogmuters, who in their own ways tended the boundary between the spiritual and physical world. While these cemetery ritualists were able to communicate across that boundary and at the same time created ritual that helped enforce it, warding off the time when a human soul might have to cross over from this world to the world of the dead, midwives helped new souls cross the veil and enter this world. Much evidence shows that midwives retained an important connection with the souls they had helped to birth. In fact, Deutsch even suggests that some Jews may have shared the belief common among Russian Christians that the ties between the soul of a midwife and those she had brought in the world may themselves have survived into the afterlife.[Jewish Dark Continent, pp. 117-118]. Memoirs describing shtetl midwives often describe how they were treated as important family members of the children they had delivered, and honoured elders of the community as a whole — indeed, as Deutsch also points out, it is significant that the Yiddish word for midwife, Bobe, is the same as that for grandmother.
Midwives did not only deliver children and tend to pregnant women and those in childbirth, they often served the whole community as healers, often making use of the same kinds of magical incantations and herbal remedies as opshprekherkes. As we can see from Abraham Rechtman’s memoirs, where he described how almost every pregnant woman was under the care of an opshprekherke, there is also a clear overlap between these two roles. Like the other female ritualists described on this site and perhaps even more so, bobes seem to more often than not have been learned, pious women.
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.
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