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In the month of Elul

Yesterday, as the rain poured down over our group in Mount Carmel Cemetery, Rabbi Noam Lerman spoke about the importance of crying and emotion in prayer – particularly in the type of spontaneous heartfelt prayer expressed in Yiddish tkhines. In the traditional Jewish religious life of Eastern Europe, crying and emotion was not seen as a sign of weakness, but as a necessity. In fact, crying was so important that women known as klogerins or klogmuters were even paid to do it on behalf of other members of the community. Noam’s words reminded me of this text about customs during the month of Elul, which I’ve been meaning to translate for a while.

While this text speaks specifically about Jewish women, as Rokhl Kafrissen, who has also written about these rituals in her column, pointed out yesterday, they were often carried out by the most impoverished and marginalised members of shtetl society. And as Rabbi Noam wisely teaches, Tkhines, although often said by women, were a form of prayer available for everyone not included in the educated, Hebrew-speaking male elite. For me, reclaiming these rituals is a radical act of inclusion not only of my female ancestors but all of those who the history books have undermined or forgotten.

There was something quite powerful yesterday in measuring a section of the cemetery fronted by the graves some of the best remembered male writers – Sholem Aleichem, Morris Rosenfeld, Vladimir Medem – using the rituals and prayers of some of the least remembered, like Gitele the Gabete of Koriv and the unnamed feldmesterins of Pruzhany. We chose to measure this section of the cemetery since it is through the work of those Yiddish greats, and those who followed them and preserved their work, that the world of the shtetl and the Jewish working masses has not been forgotten.

The following text is an excerpt from A.V. Zaks Khoreve Veltn ­– Ruined Worlds ­– written in 1917 to commemorate traditional shtetl life after much of it was destroyed in World War One. The Yiddish original is available here. The last two paragraphs are reminiscent of the tkhines - yiddish supplications – said by feldmesterins [cemetery measurers], klogerins [professional mourners] and other women visiting the cemetery in Elul. For more about tkhines, visit Rabbi Noam's website

More photos of our event in Mount Carmel Cemetery will follow soon, along with a ritual guide taking you through the steps of how to measure graves and cemeteries, and then to make candles with the thread . You can still register for the second, candle-making part part of our in-person event here

In the month of Elul – A. V. Zaks.

To have an idea of how the pious Jews of the shtetl felt during Elul, one needs to imagine people on an unsafe boat in the middle of the sea, where any moment could bring a strong wave and tip over the boat, plunging everyone on board or at least some of them into the abyss. Or somebody who lives at the peak of a volcano, which could without warning start spitting fire and molten metal and lay ruin to all their long years of work and to their physical person.

In the time of Elul, every pious Jew and Jewess began to experience an odd restlessness, a strange sense of uncertainty in their own life and in the lives of their loved ones and those dear to them.

In the days of Elul, the Jew became a sort of Faust, deeply aware of their own powerlessness, who knew that over them stood Mefisto making fun of them …

And that Mefisto, Satan, Mekatreg, how the Jews of the shtetl feared him! Mah Ani v’mah khay? Who am I and what is my life?

And the Jew began to comprehend the whole comedy of life and the tragedy of death. You work, toil, you bustle around, one moment you are running here and there like a wild cat and suddenly, unexpectedly, as if from a hiding place – aha! The angel of death comes and brings all your ambitions, your life, all your desires and struggles to an end.

… So, in Elul when the Jew heard the first sounds of the Shofar – Tekiye, Terue, Shevarim, Tekiye – they set about their work, the work of religious service. They stayed longer in the house of study, said more psalms, made sure to give the correct weights and measurements in business transactions, not to speak badly of others or to gossip, and indeed gave a bit more money to charity than during the rest of the year, when judgement wasn’t looking at them so squarely in the eyes.

And the Jewish women! It goes without saying that they knew how to go to war with Satan. They can’t study, they don’t count in a minyen, and they are forbidden from taking part in the symbolic flagellation on the eve of Yom Kippur. The only thing they could do, was cry. Nu, and boy did they cry. Cried for their own sins, for the sins of their husbands and children, and for the sins of the whole people of Israel.

In the month of Elul Jewish women cried, poured out tears, gave charity to the miracle worker, went to the ‘pure place’ [the cemetery], measured the cemetery, lamented at gravesides, invoked the merits of the ancestors, asked for mercy not so much for their own sakes, but for their little children, who are certainly pure and innocent and have not yet tasted the taste of sin.

When you cry until there are no more tears left, your heart becomes lighter, and after crying the Jewish woman really felt like a stone was lifted. She then started to console herself, that she is not - after all - alone, that God is after all a father, a God of mercy and compassion, and even if he doesn’t accept her plea – the prayer of a sinful woman – he will certainly have mercy in the merit of her grandfather, the tsadik, may his memory be a blessing, and of her mother, the tsadikniyes, who are surely sitting in heaven with crowns on their heads enjoying the light of shekhine. They, the righteous ones, surely have some clout there in the world above, in the heavenly court, and will plead in her favour …

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