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In his 1928 study of ‘Jewish beliefs and customs connected with death’, H. Hayoys documented the belief that ‘99% of deaths were caused by an evil eye.’ [H. Khayoys, ‘Gleybungen un minhogim in farbindung mitn toyt’, Filologishe shriftn, 2 (1928)] The same was true of most illnesses and misfortunes.
Abraham Rechtman, an ethnographer who travelled through the shtetlekh of Ukraine in 1913 with the S. An-Ski Ethnographic expedition, also noted the pervasiveness of beliefs in the evil eye and of remedies – trufes and zgules — against it. He described how throughout the area the expedition visited, they encountered professional exorcists and magical healers — both men and women, usually elders — skilled in providing these remedies. Interestingly, he noted a number of differences between male and female practitioners. While male opshprekhers tended to use written charms in Hebrew and Aramaic, often given to the customer in the form of an amulet like the one in the photo above, female opshprekherkes spoke their incantations by heart, in Yiddish, Ukrainian or a mixture of the two. The content of their incantations also differed greatly – the incantations of male exorcists were usually also based in ancient manuscripts, which they cited heavily, women’s charms were passed down orally. Rechtman also observed that everywhere, the female healers were more popular and better trusted than their male counterparts.
While the opshprekherkes shared some of the magics used by their non-Jewish neighbours, their incantations were still clearly Jewish in content, always making reference to Jewish ancestry – female as well as male — and in doing so demonstrating their familiarity with Jewish written as well as oral tradition. While both male and female magical healers are usually portrayed in Yiddish literature as superstitious outcasts, many Yiddish sources – including Rechtman’s memoirs – reveal the opposite. Many of them were also respected, if impoverished community functionaries such as kheyder teachers or mikveh attendants, and deeply pious individuals.
In the way they call on the ancestors, the female exorcists opshprekhenishn (incantations) are remarkably similar to the tkhines (prayers or supplications) said in the cemetery by feldmesterins, klogerins, and zogerins, or by kneytlekh-leygerins and other women making soul candles. The opshprekherke might therefore be seen as another example of the biblical Ba’alat Ov – a keeper of ancestral connection who was able to use that connection to help the living. In so many features of their practice – their connection to ancestry, their use of earth and body imagery and plant magic, their embracing of non-Jewish as well as Jewish wisdom and their use of the vernacular, speaking their magic in words they and their clients understood, they are yet another example of female shtetl ritualists whose practices fit clearly into the lineage being studied and reclaimed by the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute.
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