Gitele the pious Gabete of Koriv, part 1.
I found the following description of a feldmesterin and gabete (female community functionary) in the Yizkor book of Koriv, a shtetl near Lublin in Poland. It is part of a much longer and incredible account titled 'Parents and grandparents and the biography of a generation', written by Rabbi Tuviah Gutman Rapoport, who had emigrated from Poland to Canada in 1928. From his introduction, it seems that these are his mother's memories of life in Koriv in the 19th century, which she told to him. The digitised Yizkor book is available online here. This passage, about Gitele the Gabete, begins on page 680. I will be posting more about Gitele, and some of Rabbi Gutman Rapoport's other memories from Koriv, in the coming days.
Gitele the pious Gabete
The subject of bygone gabetes [female community functionaries], zogerkes [prayer leaders[, klogerkes [mourning women] and ayin-hore [evil eye] enchantresses has quite a considerable history. The ‘gabete-epoch’ was rich with such interesting female characters, around whom developed in that time a most juicy and delightful shtetl folklore. I, however, intend here simply to describe Koriv’s ‘Gitele the Gabete’, and this is also connected to my grandmother’s biography.
Gitele the Gabete was not a full-blown Koriver, she came from the nearby shtetl Vonvolits (Vonvolnitse [Wawolnica]). There, God preserve us, she was widowed, and came to Koriv to live with one of her daughters. Upon her arrival in Koriv she quickly made a name for herself among all the women as a very important tsadikes [righteous woman]. And she really was a very pious and God-fearing woman, she prayed three times a day, and collectively at that – in the women’s section of the synagogue – and apart from that she was also a great learned woman. She had a mountain of thkines of all kinds, for any trouble that may occur, and knew all of them almost by heart. She also fasted on Mondays and Thursdays for her whole life. She was the only person in Koriv who measured the cemetery. The custom of measuring the cemetery
The matter of cemetery-measuring was as follows:
If someone’s child – God forbid – became unwell, one usually began by exorcising a ‘good eye’ (as an evil eye was called euphemistically). And if that didn’t help, the feldsher (healer) was called (there was no doctor in Koriv at that time), and if the healer’s remedies also didn’t help, people ran into the synagogue, said prayers and cried by the open ark, and if the situation – God forbid – really became very bad, they had to turn to the last resort – they ran to measure the cemetery.
The procedure of measuring the cemetery was as follows:
Two women went to the cemetery fence (boundary). They had with them a very long thread (the thread could not be the kind used by tailors, but was that wool thread with which socks were mended. The thread had also been endowed with supernatural powers through an incantation.) When both women arrived at the cemetery’s edge, they stopped and took out of one of their pockets the big ball of thread. One of them took one end of the thread, held it firmly in her hand, and in order to be stronger and more precise, tied the thread around her finger. The other woman started to walk around the edge of the cemetery with the thread in her hand and continued in this way until the two women came together. Then they tied the two ends together around the cemetery.
While tying the ends, they said the following prayer:
Raboyne shel oylem, azoy vi mir beyde hobn getsoygn dem fodem mit undzer gantsn koyekh, un der fodem iz nisht ibergerisn gevorn, azoy zoln botl vern ale beyze koykhes. Dem tayern kinds lebn zol kholile nisht ibergerisn vern. Master of the universe, since we both pulled the thread with all our power, and the thread was not broken, shall all evil powers come to naught. The dear child’s life shall not – God forbid – be cut short.
Measuring the cemetery was a task undertaken only by Gitele the Gabete. As long as she lived, she was the only cemetery measurer. She usually brought her deputy-gabete with her as a helper.
(Image of the Koriv cemetery, taken from the Yizkor Book)
What happened during cemetery measuring?
Once, Gitele almost met with misfortune. She was measuring the cemetery one time, for a very sick child. And as she was about to tie the two ends of thread, and was saying her famous prayer, suddenly the thread snapped in two! It was almost an affirmation that a child would – god forbid – leave this world. But Gitele, as a skilled Gabete, with her sharp mind and powerful eloquence, quickly found a solution on the spot, and kept straight on praying but with a completely different variation:
Raboyne shel oylem! Azoy vi der fodem hot zikh ibergerisn, azou zol obergerisn vern der beyzer gzardi’n
Master of the universe! Just as the thread was broken, shall the menacing decree of punishment also be broken!
Gitele’s good name grew to such an extent that, with time, the women of the town no longer called her with the regular name gabete but ‘Gitele di malekhte’ – Gitele the angel.