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'Rifke the crazy one' and Bobe Tzinke

Updated: Jan 27, 2023

Two years ago, in the first semester of my PhD program, I took a course with Prof. David Fishman on the history of the shtetl. In one of our classes, Prof. Fishman showed us this video of the Belarussian shtetl Novorgrudok/Navaredok, filmed in 1931 by former Novogrudok resident, the famous philologist, lexicographer and philanthropist Alexander Harkavy.

About 3 mins 39 seconds in, the camera stops and focuses on the face of a smiling young woman, pictured in the screenshot below. The Russian voice over says 'Crazy Rivka, everybody knows her. She smiles at every passerby very kindly.' [trans. Ilana Goldin] In the Novogrudok memorial book, which is online in English translation, I found the following description of Rifke, daughter of 'Yoshke the Klipe' - 'Yoshke the shrew.' [Klipe, a hebrew word, can also mean demon].

His [Yoshke's] only family was his daughter Rifke, a hefty maiden with rosy cheeks and big, expressionless eyes. She gazed at everyone. She went about barefoot in all seasons. She had her customers, where she cleaned their houses. But most often she followed Riva the midwife. She was a quite [sic] person and did not bother anyone. But, despite of this, she was called 'Riva [sic] the crazy one'.

[A Yerushalmi, 'Peculiar types of People', Pinkes Navaredok, (Tel Aviv, 1963) Trans. Oskar Delatycki z"l.]

In the translation it is Riva, the midwife, who is called the crazy one, and because the original Yiddish has not been digitised I haven't been able to check if this was an error. Either way, I am fascinated by this relationship between 'madness' and magical ability, as I wrote about in another post accompanying my translation of Aaron Zeitlin's poem 'woman soul.'

I couldn't find anything in the book about Riva the midwife, but below in the same section is a description of A. Yerushalmi's (Probably Eliezer Yerushalmi, the editor of the book) grandmother, Tzinke. Although from Yerushalmi's memory, she was not an official midwife, she played a similar role in her small town, Wselub, as that played by Beyle Shover in Koriv. It is worth noting that the word 'Bobe', which the translator has left in the original Yiddish as well as English, can mean both grandmother and midwife. We also see evidence here of the belief - discussed by Nathaniel Deutsch in The Jewish Dark Continent (2011) - that a midwife would be admitted immediate entry to heaven when she died, and the belief that was shared by many non Jews in the region that the midwife's soul remained connected to those she had helped to bring into the world. Like most official and unofficial midwives, Tzinke is also a gifted healer, particularly skilled in 'pouring wax' - a remedy we come accross often in Yiddish texts, which was used both for healing and for predicting the future. She was also, like many of the magical healers and ritualists I've come accross, not an outcast but a deeply pious and respected woman.

Though she was old, she managed to earn enough for her upkeep and did not have to rely on help from her children. Bobe Tzinke was renowned in all the villages around Wselub as an extraordinary healer by pouring lead. If somebody fell ill and the doctors could not help him, he would be taken to bobe Tzinke. She poured hot lead into a basin of cold water over the head of the sick. The head was covered with a sheet. She did the pouring from three to seven times, whilst uttering certain incantations. The sick began to feel better and most did recover. Most of the sick suffered from melancholy and lost strength from their affliction. She had a few patients every day and this is how she earned a living. She always had enough money to spare for the poor. There were several poor families in Wselub which bobe Tzinke supported, without anybody knowing about it. Bobe Tzinke was also a midwife and practised it for many years. On occasions, when a doctor was called to attend a birth, bobe Tzinke was called also. She would spend a week with the mother and child. She had a long, beautiful girdle and after each birth she made a knot in the girdle. She asked that the girdle with the knots should be put around her after she died, so that the newly born children would be her reference to allow her an entry to heaven. The money which she earned as a midwife she gave to charity. She would gather donations of food from the wealthy households and distribute it to the needy on Thursdays. She went to the synagogue three times a day. Midweek she was the only woman who was representing her gender at the prayers.

[A Yerushalmi, 'Peculiar types of People', Pinkes Navaredok, (Tel Aviv, 1963) Trans. Oskar Delatycki z"l. Novogrudok, Belarus (Pages 130 - 137) (]

As Yerushalmi tragically notes, Tzinke did not get her wish to be buried with her girdle with the respect befitting a midwife, but was murdered by the Nazis on December 8th 1941 and buried in a mass grave. By sharing this little bit of her story, alongside Riva and Rifkes, I hope this goes some small way towards lifting up their memories. Koved zeyer ondenk.

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Jan 13, 2023

A sheynem dank.

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