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Tear open the heavens, people are dying

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

In the shtetlekh of Eastern Europe, screaming, and public, evocative wailing were a common response to death and the danger of death. Often, this would be enacted on behalf of the community by women known as klogerins, klogmuters or - as in this text - zogerkes, who also acted as professional mourners at funerals and gravesides. From what I've read, their laments served two purposes : firstly, they let everyone know about the crisis, so that the whole community would be mobilised to support the person suffering. Secondly, the act of wailing, crying and screaming helped release the energy needed to regulate the nervous system and allow for clear thinking and action on behalf of those suffering.

Watching from afar as this latest wave of violence - the worst I've seen in my lifetime - unfolds in Israel Palestine, I've been struggling to find my words. I don't want to speak, I want to scream. Since I don't know how to blog a scream, I'm sharing the following translation of a memory of this practice of 'aynraysn' - literally 'tearing in' to the shul - written by Sh. Leibovitz from the shtetl Tomashov. I hope that the words of these zogerkes help inspire us to tear open our shuls, our communities and the heavens themselves with our prayers and protests for an end to this horrific violence.


When the doctor suggested that a sick person was, god forbid, dying, or when it was something urgent ... people went running to ‘aynraysn’. This meant that the closest relatives and friends of the family of the sick person in question, all ran together to the town bes medresh, or in other shtiblekh where people prayed and studied, usually this was done in between minkhe and maariv, or first thing in the morning at prayer.

The women came into the synagogue wailing like a storm, and with lamenting, heart-rending voices they went straight to the holy ark, it was like an emergency appeal, they didn’t check if the Khazn [cantor] was in the middle of shmoyne esre [the prayers of the amidah], or leyning [from the torah], and they opened the ark. Then the oldest zogerke began her urgent, spirit-waking cries:

Raboyne shel oylem! Great master of mercy! Have mercy on a father of five little lambs, or on a mother of six young babies, Raboyne shel oylem! Do not humilitate us! Raboyne shel oylem! Open up the gates of mercy!

And every outcry was accompanied with a stream of tears from the accompanying women, they would ring their hands and cry so woefully that it moved everyone, even the most stone hearted person to tears.

This ‘aynraysn’ had such an unusual energy of spiritual awakening, the strong feeling of ‘he announces his sorrow to many and many will ask for mercy on him” [quoting Bal Shem tov, Tazria 3] – he should announce his sorrows publicly, so that many will ask for mercy on his behalf. This was seen clearly, that after such an ‘aynraysn’ even complete strangers were torn up alongside the sufferers, and the sorrow in question was shared by the whole shtetl. After leaving the shul, a minyan was quickly formed to say the special chapters of psalms that are capable of healing …


 - Sh. Leibovitsh, Tomashover Yizker Bukh, (1965) p.452-453.

Image: Lady liberty 'rayst kvorim' literally "tears" graves but this means to weep over a grave - in this case over the grave of George Washington 'the father of American freedom'. This cartoon, in the American Yiddish press, lamented the immigration act that prevented thousands of refugees from seeking safety in the US.


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