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Making soul candles for 5782

The first time I measured a cemetery, I did it on impulse. I was visiting the shtetl in Lithuania that my family were from and, finding no remains of Jewish life there besides monuments to Jews who were murdered and a dilapidated cemetery, I decided to measure the latter. At the time, I hadn't read much beyond fictional accounts of the ritual, and I now know that I did it completely wrong. I also, unable to find any cotton thread, used wool, which I subsequently found out really does not work as candlewick (I've since learned that women would sometimes measure cemeteries with cloth, used not for candles but to divide amongst the poor, and am still pondering what to do with my big ball of wool.)

Two years later, having read a lot more about it, I measured a cemetery for a second time, and was also able to share the ritual with others. This year I was teaching Yiddish language on the Yiddish Summer Weimar program. For one of our cultural activities sessions, I took the students to the Jewish cemetery and - using S Weissenberg's detailed description of how the ritual was conducted in 1906 – showed them how to measure it. Below are some photos photos, I've also written an article about it in the Yiddish Forverts which includes a video of us conducting the measurement.

When I suggested this as one of the activities, part of me expected the students to just call me meshuge and say they'd rather play bananagrams, but as usual since I started sharing my interest in this ritual, I was pleasantly surprised at just how much people shared it. One of the participants – theatre director, rabbinical student and fellow teacher Miriam Camini who is a regular at Yiddish Summer Weimar – told me that this ritual was ‘one of the highlights of her Yiddish Summer Weimar experience this year.’ She wrote “I loved the combination of learning and practicing the ritual at the same time; I find it very "jewish": Jewish tradition is all about "lilmod ulekayem": "Learn and do". Words have power, and there is a very thin line between studying a ritual and actually doing it: I was happy we crossed that line. Speaking of lines to cross (or not), I also loved the concept the ritual is based on: Death should not be "removed", but rather given space, within a certain border, a limit. The rest is for us to enjoy, as long as we are in this world. I'll keep this message and feelings with me in the new year and I am looking forward to burning the "fodem" on Yom Kippur eve, to complete the ritual."

For me doing the ritual with others was definitely important pedagogically – you have to do something to really understand how it works. It also helped me to emotionally understand the ritual, both how it may have been used in the past and how we can use it today. II felt connected not only to my female ancestors who used to this, but also to the Jews buried in Weimar, where this ritual may even once-upon-a-time have been practised before. This marking of Jewish history in Weimar also felt particularly important as the following day an annual Neo Nazi demonstration would pay homage to the history that saw the remnants of that community erased. Measuring, as Miriam described, reinforces the boundary between the living and the dead to ensure that the living will remain living, and death will be contained in its proper place. It is a form of protective magic that, as strange as it may have felt to those of us not accustomed to such rituals, was for me very grounding on a day when I was feeling anxious and threatened.

Nazis aside (and we should never give them too much credit or attention) Yiddish Summer Weimar was, for me and many others, the first time I had participated in a communal event, ponem-al-ponem, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Being together with people again, all day every day, singing together, praying together on Shabbes was beyond-words-wonderful but it was also overwhelming and made me aware of the grief that had been building during the time we’d been isolated. Despite all the care taken by the organisers, having travelled from France, where restrictions had barely been lifted, I was and am still also scared that this togetherness won’t last, that it could be dangerous. As government rules are gradually relaxed, we are having to negotiate our own boundaries, and how to keep ourselves and others safe. Walking around the cemetery in a hakafa – a circular procession – clasping a handful of grass against which I slowly re-wound the wool as my ritual-buddy unwound it, felt like a good ritual to ground and contain all the grief, overwhelm and anxiety.

When I left Weimar, I took the thread – now a connection to that place where I taught Yiddish in person for the first time and where I heard live music and got to sing with other human beings for the first time in a year and a half – with me to my new home in Brooklyn. I posted on facebook to see if anyone wanted to meet up with me in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to make some candles with it and was once again pleasantly surprised when quite a few people said yes. This past Sunday, a group of us gathered in Prospect Park where we made around 100 candles which, when put together, should be approximately equal in length to the boundary of the Jewish cemetery in Weimar. We each took some home and will light them tonight on Erev Yom Kippur.

From everything I’ve read, it seems that the traditional practice was to make two large, very long candles, one for the living and one for the dead. Weissenberg says in his article that it is important that the thread is not divided, but even though the Jewish cemetery in Weimar was pretty tiny, I cannot figure out how such a massive candle would work in practise. Perhaps the thread was woven multiple times to make it shorter. As a compromise, after dividing the thread into two even pieces – one for the living and one for the dead – we sat in a circle each working on a piece of it, making small candles but not cutting the thread to divide them up until we were done. While making the candles for the living, we took it in turns to speak aloud wishes we had for the new year, whether for specific living beings or for the world in general. While making the neshome (soul) candles for the dead we then mentioned specific names of beloved dead who we wished to call on to help us in the coming year or simply to honour.

As Miriam wisely said, we learn by doing, and only by actually doing this ritual have I learned how tricky it is and how much skill it required. No wonder people employed feldmesterins to do it for them. We spent so long untangling the thread, that by the time we got round to making the soul candles the sun had set, bats were flying overhead and we were all being bitten by mosquitos. As an aspiring Serious Academic, I often find myself worrying about getting the facts right – not to mention the Yiddish – that if I make one tiny mistake, I will somehow mess up future opportunities. Sitting in a circle with fourteen friends, holding space and giving instructions as we all moulded wax around one long piece of thread, I suddenly felt more concerned about my grandmother ancestors who might be turning in their graves at the fumbling efforts of this apikoyreste to revive their ritual. One tiny mistake, and maybe we’ll reverse the whole magic, inviting evil eyes and sheydim (demons) into the circle.

But ritual is always changing and being adapted. This custom itself appears in different forms in sources from different places in Eastern Europe, and no doubt also differed greatly from how it was practised in medieval Worms. I wouldn’t try to revive a practise that I’ve learned about in texts written in a world that is, for all its familiarity, so different from my own. But, as I’ve described, by practising it as well as reading about it, I can understand it better, and maybe also use it to inspire new, similar ritual that can be meaningful today. (tfu tfu tfu)

One particular moment when I suddenly felt out of my depth on Sunday was when we went around the circle naming our own beloved dead, and I realised that as the person who’d organised and was leading this ritual, I was holding that space too. One of the people present still has the custom of making candles for Yom Kippur, although in their case Yizkor (memorial) candles, which is something slightly different. We talked about the differences, and how it seems likely that the two customs of making and lighting soul candles and lighting yizkor candles became somehow entangled. I noticed that as we went round the circle naming the dead, most people, myself included, were more inclined towards naming them in memory, rather than doing what the tkhine for soul candle making tells us to do – call them in, ask for their help. I was actually relieved because I realised that, having been so concerned about getting the candle-making bit right, I had not given enough thought to the care I needed to take when guiding people to call in spirits. Whether you believe in actual spirits or not, calling in the dead – especially the recent dead, whose transition from this world is still raw – is something that needs to be handled much more delicately than when blessing their memory.

I have learned the small amount I know about cemetery measuring and wick laying from texts from Eastern Europe, written by or about communities in which the relationship with death and the dead was very different to ours today. In fact, I think it was partly because death was so present in daily life that people needed rituals like this to contain it. I finally got round to researching this subject during the Covid pandemic not just because I suddenly had some free time, but because death had become so present and life so fragile, and I felt drawn to it. Jews in Eastern Europe didn’t just memorialise their dead, they spoke to them, interacted with them in multifarious ways, even went to their graves and wailed at them. Measuring graves was, as one of Sore Bas Toyvim’s famous tkhines for soul candle making emphasises, proof that the dead had not been forgotten, but it was also a way of forging a connection with them. This and similar prayers were prayers not memorial prayers, but actively called on the dead to intervene with God on the behalf of the living. Performing this ritual, reading the tkhines outloud and trying to create my own, has made it more deeply clear to me that this was a type of connection with the dead that is different to the one forged by the more familiar customs I grew up with. I don’t know if I believe in life after death and spirits. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Either way I’m not sure if it matters. One thing I feel fairly certain of is that talking to the dead is healthy. It was only when, at the age of 20, a therapist suggested I start talking to my own mother, who died when I was 4, that I finally started to really grieve her loss. I remember telling my aunt, her sister, who is not a religious person but was nonetheless surprised to hear I never talked to my mum and told me that she talked to her all the time, even screamed and shouted at her. Through learning to talk to my mum – depending on where my agnosticism was that day, either to her spirit, or to her memory, or to a symbolic version of her, or to the bits of her that remain in me and my sister – I now feel that I have a healthy relationship with whatever part of her that has stayed with me, and, as far as possible, an acceptance that the living her cannot be here. So much so that on Sunday, when I placed my portion of thread in the sheet of wax, I felt solid enough in my connection to her both psychologically and spiritually able to call on her to help me and others as we enter this new year. Whether it’s her spirit, or the imprint she left in the world that provides that help, I am glad to have a ritual that reminds me to ask for it, and not only to honour her memory (which is also important.)

Tonight I will light a small collection of candles which, although they look like wonky, slightly broken witches fingers (the neat ones were made by my husband) are suffused with my mother’s mothering, my connection to Weimar and the people I weaved ritual with both there and here in Brooklyn, and all the qualities of the dearly departed we mentioned on Sunday night – whether we were expressing gratitude and respect for the memories they have left us with, or actively asking for their help. May we carry all of this with us into 5782.

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