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'The entire shtetl accompanied her to her eternal rest' - reverence for the midwife

As I wrote on the introduction page about midwives - known in Yiddish as bobes or heybams - a crucial source on the role and importance of shtetl midwives is Sh. Ansky's Jewish Ethnographic Program — a vast questionnaire on Jewish customs created on the eve of World War One, which has been translated into English by Nathaniel Deutsch in The Jewish Dark Continent (2011). As Deutsch explains in his introduction to the program, while it was never distributed, the questionnaire – based on the extensive research conducted by Ansky's expeditions – is so detailed that, even without the answers, the questions themselves tell us a lot about Jewish life and practices. Of the many questions about midwives, one is particularly striking:

‘Is there a custom that when the midwife dies, all of the children whom she brought into the world accompany her funeral procession with candles in their hands?’

Here are two excerpts from Yizkor Books, describing such a custom in Tomaszów and Rożniątów, Poland.


'Yelke the healer's wife', excerpt from Sh. Leibovitsh, 'Birth', Tomashover Yizker Bukh, (1965) 451-452. Trans. Annabel Gottfried Cohen.

Every woman gave birth at home, without a doctor, but the midwife was called, Yelke the healer’s wife, and later Sheyndl Blank, Rokhle Eliyahu the healer’s wife and so on. There was an interesting custom when a midwife died, all the people she had helped to birth lit a candle. So when Yelke the healer’s wife died as an old woman, hundreds of people lit candles for her.Usually homely remedies were also used for a woman in childbirth, like to walk around the table seven times before she lay down in bed, or giving her black coffee (not chicory), blowing in a bottle,  putting the book Raziel the angel under her pillow, or Noam elimeylekh


'Zlate di bobe', excerpt from Moyshe Dovid Litvak 'My years in Roznyatov', Sefer zikaron liḳehilat Rozniʼaṭov, Prahinsḳo, Broshnyov ṿeha-sevivah (1974). Trans. Annabel Gottfried Cohen.

There were good healers, who in Roznyatov were called “feldshers”, Like Motye Beraye, who used to recommend remedies, pull out teeth and apply leeches and cups. He was an honest good man, who didn’t take any money from the poor for haircuts. He also helped the poor for free when they were unwell. He had a barbershop in Ringplats. His wife, Zlate, who people called “Di Bobe” - was a midwife by trade, a heybam an akusherke and a woman of valour. A good, charitable woman, who didn’t accept any money from poor women in childbirth. When she died, the entire shtetl accompanied her to her eternal rest.




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