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Klogerins un baveynerins – Lamenting women and weeping women - Abraham Rechtman

What follows is an excerpt of an ethnographic memoir - Yidishe etnografye un folklor (Jewish ethnography and folklore) – written in 1958 by Abraham Rechtman to document his experiences as one of the team of researchers who took part in the 1913-1914 ethnographic expedition led by S. An-sky. The expedition visited and documented the lives and customs of around 60 Jewish communities in the Volhynia and Podolia regions of the Russian Pale of Settlement - now part of modern Ukraine. This is my translation, but the entire memoir has recently been translated into English by Nathaniel Deutsch and Noah Barrera in 'The Lost World of Russia's Jews: Ethnograpy and Folklore in the Pale of Settlement', which also contains a fascinating introduction by Deutsch. It is well worth reading in full. The digitised Yiddish original is available on the Yiddish Book Center website.


Apart from the usual type of opshprekherkes (female exorcists and healers), who could be found in every city and town we also encountered – albeit in very small numbers – the remnants of a rare type of female elder, ‘klogmuters’, whose work, whose calling was to weep and lament and also to bring others to tears.

If someone died, God help us, they came to cry and lament over them. If someone became dangerously ill or was dying, they ‘moved heaven and earth’, ‘opened the holy ark’ and ‘tore graves’.[1] They did all of this with professional knowledge.


They would burst in in a place of worship with a clamour, with a heart-rending cry, throw open the doors of the holy ark,fling their heads inside and kiss the Torah Scrolls, losing themselves in a bitter lament, screaming at the top of their voices and beseeching that the sick person should recover quickly. When ‘tearing graves’ they went wailing to the holy place [the cemetery] and spread themselves out over the graves of the invalid’s relatives, praying fervently to awaken the dead so that they would rise from their graves to go knock on the gates of mercy and entreat on the sick person’s behalf.


On the wedding day of an orphaned bride, the klogerins took her to her parents’ graves. They wished the parents Mazel Tov and invited them to their child’s wedding. They shed streams of tears over the fact that they, the loyal parents, would not have the honour of leading their good, dear child to the wedding canopy. They listed the virtues of the groom, and asked the parents to intercede on behalf of the bride and her beloved.


In the month of Elul, they spent entire days in the cemetery. People coming to visit their relatives’ graves would hire them to mourn over their loved ones. The klogerins merely asked the name and the mother’s name of the deceased, and suddenly, abruptly, with no special preparations they would break out in a heartrending lament, hitting themselves on the head, beating their hearts and improvising unique prayers and petitions.


Like this they went from grave to grave, spilling out tears, lamenting and wailing, extoling the virtues of the dead and begging for mercy for the living.


The klogerins never used any printed tkhines or prayer books. All of their recitations they made up on the spot, so to speak – impromptu. One woman started, and the others repeated after her. Sometimes they would spin out their words, at others they were brief. This usually depended on the payment they received or expected to receive. For a pretty penny, they really let themselves go, wept more, sung more praises, raised their voices higher and drew out their laments for longer. For a smaller fee they dallied less.


It was not uncommon to find that, when they had been paid very well, they would go the extra mile: start crying again, throw themselves onto the gravestone and once again list the patron’s virtues.


You will find here a picture of three such old women, ‘professional klogerins’, who we met in the Nemirov (Nemyriv) cemetery during the month of Elul. We spent the whole day shadowing them and writing down their improvised lamentations and liturgical poems. At the end of the day, we rewarded them with a fine sum and wrote down a number of different versions of their chants for usual and unusual occasions, which they recited. The material is sure to be a great contribution to the treasure of folklore and ethnography gathered by the expedition.


- Rechtman, Abraham, Yidishe etnografye un folklor (1958) 306-307.


On page 327, Rechtman included this photograph of the three klogerins he met in Nemyriv. A better version of this image can be found in the English translation of his memoir, which I've linked to above.

In the past few days, I've scoured the archives of the expedition held by YIVO, but the klogenishn (lamentations) of the Nemyriv klogerins do not appear to be among the materials held there. Most of the ethnographic material collected by the expedition is now held at the National Library of Ukraine, in Kiev, which is for obvious and distressing reasons not currently accessible to researchers. It is possible that these records were also among those held by Rechtman himself, kept by his family in Proskurov when he moved to America and then lost during or in the aftermath of the pogroms which devastated that community in 1919. With the horrors currently taking place in Ukraine, it feels somehow very poignant to be reading and writing about Jewish Ukrainian mourning practices. It is painful to think about how needed these lamentations will be if they are found when this war ends. I share this post in solidarity with Ukraine and in hope that the end of violence and the space for mourning and recovery will come soon.

[1] This practise – in Yiddish ‘raysn kvorim’ – is usually understood to mean wailing by a graveside. The idea that this is ‘tearing’ the grave may come from the belief that the dead could hear and were disturbed by the wailing. However, I’ve also heard it argued that the verb ‘raysn’ in this context was not in fact the Yiddish verb ‘to tear’ but came from an old German word ‘to measure’, and that raysn kvorim referred to the practice of grave measuring or feldmestn, which was often accompanied by wailing and lament. The tkhines recited by klogerins and feldmesterins also seem to have been very similar in content, and other factors also suggest that the two practices were related.

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