Inviting the dead to our parties - a post for Hoshanah Rabbah
In the summer of 2018, my little sister Viv got married. Our mother died when she was 2 and I was 4, and I was incredibly honoured when Viv asked me to take mum’s place under the khupe - the wedding canopy. It was only when we were all ready to walk her down the aisle that I suddenly felt the weight of what I was doing, the absence that was going to be marked by my presence. Before we left the room where we were all getting ready, I took Viv aside and asked her if she wanted to do something for mum. Looking relieved that I had brought it up, she said yes immediately. Not knowing what else to do, the three of us - Viv, my dad and I - recited Kaddish, the Jewish mourners prayer, in front of her bridesmaids and Marija, our adopted grandma who looked after us the night our mum died, and was now making the final alterations to Viv’s wedding dress.
Back then, I did not know about the practice - widespread in Eastern Europe - of inviting the dead to weddings. In the 19th and even the early 20th century, it was customary in many shtetlekh for an orphaned bride or groom (meaning someone who had lost one or both parents) to be taken to the cemetery on their khupe day. This was often led by a professional shamaness known as a Zogerin or Zogerke (a ‘speaker’), who would invite the deceased parent to the wedding, giving space for the bride or groom to express their sorrow at their loved one’s absence.
As one might imagine, inviting deceased spirits to any event - especially one as happy and therefore as vulnerable to bad mojo as a wedding - must be handled with care. We learn this in S. Ansky’s famous play the Dybbuk. The bride, Leah, is taken by her aunt to the cemetery before her khupe ceremony. Her aunt warns her that only close blood relatives can be invited, but Leah wanders off and presumably invites her deceased beloved, Khonen, whose spirit possesses her as a dybbuk. Maybe one of the morals of the story is that you should always pay up for a professional Zogerke.
I found a possible explanation for this rule about inviting blood relatives only in a 1925 study of customs around death and dying, conducted among members of the Vilna Yiddish teachers’ seminary. The study records a belief, widespread in the Vilna region of what was then Poland, that on certain occasions - like their yortsayts (anniversarys) and the celebrations of immediate family members - the souls of the dead sit by their graves and wait for us to come to visit them. If we don’t invite them to their children and grandchildren’s weddings, or come and say Kaddish for them on their yortsayts, it’s like standing them up. It offends and saddens them greatly. This may also explain why, in a community where summoning the dead was strictly forbidden, inviting them to stuff was extremely common, albeit within strict boundaries. I’m writing this post on the eve of Hoshanah Rabah - the night we are told the dead come to shul whether we invite them or not.
Recreating the ritual
Whether or not you believe that spirits are hanging around cemeteries waiting for us to include them in our simkhes (special occasions), most people have experienced how the absence of someone we’ve lost is amplified at certain special life events. Kaddish was what we knew at the time of Viv’s wedding and I’m glad we said it, but it also wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. What I wanted was to bring mum closer to us, not to lift her up into the heavens with the memorial prayer. I wanted to say that she was missed and wanted, and to acknowledge how unfair it was for her that she didn’t get to stand under the khupe with her daughter. These are exactly the words zogerins used to say, and I think we can learn something from them.
Recently, for the Kohenet smicha (ordination) that took place a few weeks ago, I tried recreating this ritual of ancestral invitation for the first time. All of us being ordained had people who have passed who we wanted to be there. Many of us have lost people during our training, and had witnessed each other’s grief. We were also all processing the news that the Kohenet institute - which is not only a present day structure but also represents a lineage and an ancestry - was going to be closing.
The following is a short description of how I conducted the ritual - based on my research of the zogerins in various Eastern European shtetlekh. I hope that it might be helpful for others who might want to take on the practice.
Unlike a shtetl zogerin, who operated in a small community where she usually knew everyone, living and dead, I do not know the families, blood and chosen, of most of my fellow kohanot. To prepare for the ritual, I asked everyone who wanted to take part to send me a list of the dead they wanted to invite, and to tell me a bit about them and their relationship, and what they miss about them. I weaved this information into my invitations, for example: “please come to support your grandchild at this moment just as you supported them when you were living” or “please bring the fabulous energy that you brought into every room you stepped into to this day of celebration”. I also, in the words of each invitation, acknowledged what I imagined were the needs of the deceased, and not just what they could bring to the living. Especially for people who had died young or had difficult lives, I emphasised that this was an invitation to enjoy the celebration and be part of our community.
Another difficulty with trying to recreate this ritual today is that many of us do not live near our loved one’s graves or even have access to them. For this event, I created a virtual cemetery on zoom, using a picture of some of the zogerins of Kremenits as my background. I also invited people to send me pictures of those we were inviting, or to bring objects remind them of them to hold or have near them. For protection, I also invited people to bring some salt to throw over their shoulders at the end, and if at any point they felt spooked (shouting, clapping, stamping, spitting and saying "tfu tfu tfu", is also good for this, if Yiddish literature has taught me anything.)
To protect us from unwanted spirits but without restricting the invitations to blood relatives, I began the ceremony with a couple of disclaimers. First, I made it clear that we were inviting, and not summoning anyone. No spirit was obliged to attend. Then, I added that only those we are naming during the ritual are invited. Again, whether or not you believe in spirits, I think both talking to the dead and setting boundaries with them is a healthy thing to do. Maybe you have lost people who were harmful to you in life, and while you may not wish them any ill will, you don’t want them at your party. Maybe there is someone you do very much want there, but you don’t want their voice to pop into your head telling them that your dress is too revealing just as you are signing your ketubah. These are all words you can weave into your invitation.
Combining two rituals
Partly because it’s a ritual I’ve become more comfortable with and partly because, doing this on zoom, I wanted to incorporate a physical element, I decided to make soul candles for the people we were inviting. There isn’t a Jewish cemetery in my town, but there is an ‘ancienne rue des juifs’ - a road near the cathedral where Jews used to live, presumably in the medieval/early modern period. A mostly neglected history, it felt appropriate for a kohenet ritual. So I measured the road, and used the thread to make candles. The idea was that we would light the candles at our smicha, after reading a tkhine, which I’ll share in a separate post.
Two weeks after Kohenet smicha, a dear friend and member of my cohort got married. Before the wedding, she went to visit her brother and father’s graves, to invite them to the wedding. She also measured both graves, and on the day before the ceremony, we used them to make dozens of candles which were then used to light the wedding feast. It was the most beautiful use of this ritual I've seen yet.
It has been so exciting over the high holidays to see so many posts on social media of people’s soul candles and how people are interpreting and re-imagining the ritual. While I'm excited to see what these rituals can bring to Jewish practice today, by working with them I’m also trying to lift up the work of the female shtetl ritualists who, often seen as leaders in their communities, have been mostly forgotten or remembered only in the derogatory comments of male maskilim about "womanly superstitions". If you would like to learn more about these women and their practices, I am teaching an online course at JTS, open to everyone, starting in a couple of weeks : https://www.jtsa.edu/event/the-forgotten-rituals-of-eastern-european-jewish-women/ If you haven’t already, you can also subscribe to this blog to stay informed about future course offerings.
For now, Happy Jewish Halloween, Gut yontef and a gut kvitl 🧙♀️