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Leybeshekhe the 'Cemetery Jewess' of Kremenits

Updated: Dec 28, 2022

Zogerke, Zogerin and Firzogerin, are all female forms of Zoger – announcer or preacher, and are usually used to denote a female prayer leader – a woman well-versed in Hebrew and Yiddish prayer who would, like Gitele the Gabete, read the prayers aloud in the women’s section of the synagogue so that the other women could follow along. However, in several sources I’ve now come across, these titles are used to describe women with other ritual functions, among them professional mourners. In Mendele Moykher Sforim’s Di Klyatshe (the Nag), for example, Brayndl the Zogerke is among the ritualists sent for when the protagonist is believed to be seriously unwell. She goes to the cemetery to measure his grandparents’ graves, and also recommends other remedies such as ‘rolling eggs’ – a common technique for exercising an evil eye. Among the people remembered in a Yizker Bukh from the shtetl of Kletsk, Poland, was Shiphrah Leah the Zogerke, who people paid to go to the cemetery and mourn their loved ones on the anniversaries of their deaths. In another Yizker Bukh from Kremenits (Kremenets), now in Ukraine, a zogerke named Leybeshekhe is described as performing a similar function to Shiphrah Leah in Kletsk. In a passage describing customs on Tishe Bov (in modern Hebrew Tisha B’av, the ninth day of the month of Av, a day of mourning and remembrance for the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem), the writer describes how Leybeshekhe the Zogerke would – like Shiphrah Leah – remember all the yortsayts [death anniversaries] marked by shtetl residents, and on those days would go to the cemetery to ‘bring greetings from the living to their dead.’[1] The description below reveals that this was not just a mourning practice, but that as it was believed that on the anniversary of their death a soul would be elevated closer to God, and so this is a good time to ask the deceased to aid the living. In all the sources I’ve found and translated, zogerkes, klogerins and feldmesterins all seek to create a connection with the dead, and ask the dead to advocate with God on behalf of a living. On Tishe Bov Leybeshekhe would also go to the cemetery in Kletsk, where she would ‘rap with a stick on every tombstone, announcing to the corpse that their kin has come to ask for forgiveness. If an orphan girl needed to get married after Tishe Bov, she would ask for forgiveness in her name, and invite [her parents] to the wedding…’[2]

In Kremenits as elsewhere, zogerkes were paid professional ritualists. Zogerke is included in a list of various professions held by Kletsk residents, with the specification that this refers to zogerkes who worked ‘in the cemetery’.[3] Two zogerkes are named, Leybeshekhe and Leah, but I couldn’t find any mention of Leah in the rest of the book. Three other zogerins – Rivke, Golde and Reyze – are mentioned in a separate section of the Yizkor Bukh, which also features a photo of Golde and Reyze. I will write about them in a separate post. It seems clear that, at least in Kremenits, the cemetery zogerkes played an important role in religious life even in the early 20th century. One passage describing Leybeshekhe is followed by a description of how, in the period of political repression following 1905 revolution, the old world of the zogerkes and the modern world of revolutionary politics met in the cemetery, as groups of Jewish workers and intellectuals gathered around the graves of two of their recently deceased comrades to conduct their illegal meetings. ‘From then on, two generations encountered each other there.’[4] From the memoirs of former Kremenits resident H. Hoykhgelernter, Leybeshekhe seems to have been something of a hoypt or ‘head’ zogerke, at least during his childhood in Kremenits. In a section written by Hoykhgelernter titled ‘Kremenits characters, folklore and ways of life’, Leybeshekhe is the second ‘character’ described, after Mendele the Shames [synagogue beadle or sexton]. In other parts of the book, some of them also authored by Hoykhgelernter, Leybeshekhe is described as Mendele’s counterpart – just as the synagogue was Mendele’s realm, the cemeteries were her territory.

Describing the custom of saying kaddish [a prayer for the dead] in the great synagogue, Hoykhgelernter wrote:

‘Mendele was at home with the dead in his synagogue, just as Leybeshekhe, the zogerke, was at home with them in her cemeteries, where she would duke it out with them intimately, as she did with God on Yom Kippur.’[5] [emphasis in original.]

Under the sub-heading ‘prayer and study houses, kheyders [religious schools for children] and other Kremenits institutions’ – part of a larger section on the history of Kremenits, a similar statement is made about Mendele and Leybeshekhe: ‘Mendele was at home with the dead in his synagogue, just like Leybeshekhe the zogerke, was who would duke it out with them intimately in her cemeteries.’[6] [emphasis in original] Since Mendele was still the shames when the An-ski expedition came to Kremenits, in 1912/1913 (the exact date is not given) we can assume that Leybeshekhe was practicing as a zogerke there in the late 19th/ early 20th century, which is corroborated by the discussion of her ‘encounter’ with the 1905 revolutionaries. According to Hoykhgelernter, at some point presumably before World War One, she emigrated to Chicago, where she is buried. Coincidentally, back in January I attended an online talk by historian Nathaniel Deutsch, hosted by the Museum at Eldridge Street in connection with their exhibition of work by artist Debra Olin, inspired by An-ski’s research on motherhood. Deutsch mentioned klogerins, who – as I’ve written about – featured heavily in the research produced by the expedition, and one of the attendees asked him if he knew if the practice was brought to America by Jewish immigrants. He answered that he had only heard about one klogerin who practiced in America – in Chicago – where, when Deutsch was speaking there a few years ago, she was still remembered by some of the older Yiddish-speaking residents. I have no way yet of knowing if this woman was Leybeshekhe, but I’m going to try to find out more, and I hope this translation will not be my last encounter with her.

The following is a full translation of H. Hoykhgelernter's description of Leybeshekhe in ‘Kremenits characters’, where she is described as a firzogerin. Another woman, Ite, also a firzogerin, is also described in this section, I will also write about her in a separate post.

Leybeshekhe the firzogerin

Leybeshke the firzogerin quite literally managed – whether by debate, demand, or amicable persuasion – to get the dead to obey her wishes on a daily basis.

She was of a middling stature, with a broad, stout body, and a lot of wrinkles on her full face. The deep lines on her forehead were always covered by her scarf, or her thick woolen shawl in winter, which was pulled down over her ears and tied with thick bow at the front on her neck. Always wrapped up warmly, with a short, thick pole, which served as a walking stick, she looked like a village peasant. In the eyes of children, she seemed to come from another place, and to know everything about what happens in ‘the other world’. [the spiritual realm.]

If she showed up in your home, the children would hide themselves in a corner, not trusting themselves to look at her without staring for too long. As soon as Leybeshekhe finished drinking her glass of warm tea, she began to talk of her conversations with the dead, just as one might of conversations with the living. She talked about those who had been released from their suffering in the grave, and were now able in the world above to accomplish the things we demand of them. And she was on intimate terms with the dead, spoke to them as one would speak to the living.

If someone came to beg for forgiveness by their parents’ grave on their yortsayt or at a time of trouble, Leybeshekhe would lead them to the grave, rap on the headstone with her stick, as if to wake the corpse, call the deceased by their name and announce, who has come to visit them. At the same time, she would tell them all the news of their family.

On the day of a yortsayt, she spoke with quite exceptional eloquence. She made her case with more confidence, that since – according to the tradition of the ascension of the soul on a yortsayt – today the deceased would be elevated nearer to the divine throne, she was requesting forgiveness for the living, and for the soul of the deceased to resolutely defend those they had left behind on earth. They [the soul] should remember the living, just as today the living remember them, the dead.

She would present her arguments most assuredly with the deceased soul, when an orphan girl came to invite the dead to her wedding, on the day of the khupe [wedding canopy.] On such an occasion, either the bride or the groom would lean with their head on the tombstone and quietly weep. She, Leybeshekhe, would then assuage the soul’s distress over the fact that they would not have the honour of leading their child to the khupe:

‘Khaye, or, Reb Moyshe’ she said, ‘Your child has come to you to invite you to their wedding … offer them a mazel tov, that they should be led to the khupe with good luck, and that a child should be born and named after you, bless them there in heaven, with luck and with success’.

When Leybeshekhe used, after this, come in the house to tell us about what she had accomplished that day, everyone stood agape and even envied her for her ability to talk to the dead like that, and for the fact that the dead obeyed her.

When Leybeshekhe used to come to offer condolences to a household sitting shiva [observing the seven days of mourning after a death], it used to feel like the deceased’s soul was really floating around the home. She would tell them what she had done that day by the freshly dug grave. Everyone felt, that even though the body lay in the cold air, the soul was keeping warm in the house. They – the soul – hears everything that is said about them. They also cry while the kaddish is said before they part ways. They, the soul, float behind the white cloth which is hung down over the mirror and gazes at theirown reflection there, among the living, who are sitting on low chairs and speaking about them, or thinking about them and feeling them in their hearts.

The ‘cemetery-Jewess’, as Leyeshekhe was known, had the honour of finding her resting place in America, in the cemetery in Chicago.

The front cover of the Kremenits, Vizhgorodek and Potshayev memorial book, artwork by Leon Pokh

[1] P.321 [2] P. 321 [3] P.48 [4] P.321 [5] P. 147 [6] P.66.

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