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The wailing women of the shtetl

Updated: Feb 13

In his memoir Khoreve veltn, written in an effort to preserve in memory the customs of the Jewish shtetlekh of Lithuania destroyed during World War One, Abraham Simchah Sachs described how, in contrast to common assumptions, women, as well as men, played an important role in Jewish religious and ritual life, particularly when it came to the expression of grief and other strong emotions. This was particularly needed in month of Elul, the month leading up to the holy Days of Awe when shtetl Jews felt ‘like people on an unsafe boat in the middle of the sea, when at any moment a strong wave can come and overturn the boat, dropping everyone … into the deep.’[1] With the day approaching when God would once again pass His judgement for another year, deciding who would live and who would die ‘every orthodox Jew and Jewess began to live through a strange restlessness, a strange uncertainty in their own life and in the lives of their family and loved ones…In the days of Elul, the Jew became a kind of Faust, deeply aware of his own helplessness, who knew that over him stood Mefisto … Oh that Mefisto, Satan, Mekatreg – how the Jews in our shtetl feared him!’[2]

From the first sounds of the shofar heralding the start of the holy period, Sachs wrote, all the Jews in the shtetl began to live more piously. The men stayed longer in the bes-medresh, said more psalms, gave more to charity, and were careful to be fair in their business dealings and not to engage in loshn-hore or gossip. In sum, all traditional religious activity – study, giving charity, performing mitzvot – activities that were for the most part the exclusive domain of men ­– intensified during the month of Elul. However, when it came to processing the emotions of a community that felt it was teetering on the brink of the abyss and to facing that abyss, rather than just turning with more fervour to God – this was women’s domain.

And the Jewish women! It goes without saying, they could lead a war against Satan! They can’t study, they don’t count in a minyan, and they are not allowed to shlogn malkes [the ritual flagellation conducted on the eve of Yom Kippur.] The only thing that they could do, was cry. Nu, and boy did they cry. Cried for their own sins, for the sins of their husbands and children, and for the sins of all of Israel.

The Jewish woman, in the month of Elul, cried, poured out tears, gave charity to the miracle worker, went to the pure place [the cemetery], measured the cemetery, measured graves, begged for the virtue of the ancestors, awakened their mercy not so much for her own sake, but for that of her children, who were, after all, certainly pure and innocent and had not yet tasted the taste of sin.[3]

In the traditional world of the shtetl, crying – even loud, visible wailing and sobbing – was a normal, even an expected part of women’s prayer, which, as Sachs described, performed an important function. ‘When one cries, the heart becomes lighter’ – crying gave Jewish women the catharsis needed to move on with the next ritual task, which, in the month of Elul, was enlisting the help of the ancestors in their petitions for God’s mercy.[4] The Yiddish tkhines women recited, one of which is described above, were much more emotional in wording than the Hebrew tefiles (mainstream liturgical prayers) said by men in shul, and much more open to spontaneity. There was a tkhine for every time and place – including for the cemetery in the month of Elul ­– and when there was no tkhine already written, one could be invented from the heart. While most tkhines were prayed to God, some, particularly those said in the month of Elul, were directed towards deceased ancestors, either directly, or by calling on them to support the reciter with their ‘zkhus’ – merit, in her petition to God.

By crying audibly during prayer and, in moments of extreme distress, performing visible rituals like ‘dos oyfraysn/aynraysn dem orn-koydesh[5] – throwing open the doors of the holy ark in the synagogue and wailing – women could provide this kind of catharsis not just for themselves, but for the whole community. In the Haamek Davar Torah commentary, written by Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, also known as the Netziv, in mid-nineteenth century Volozhin, we learn that in some parts of Eastern Europe it was still customary to hire ‘mekonenot’ – mourning women, a custom we know existed in the biblical period from the book of Jeremiah: ‘Call the mourning women [mekonenot], and let them come: let them set up a wailing over us, so that our eyes run with water … let them teach their daughters weeping, and their companions lamentation.’[6] In Haamek Davar, commenting on the passage of Leviticus which prohibits the making of cuts and incisions on the skin ‘for the dead’, the Netziv wrote:

It is a custom of the nations of the world to add to the grieving of the dead with cuts on the living’s flesh. And to make a memorial in the form of the engraving of the deceased person’s name. And one who did not want to perform this on his own flesh would pay a poor person to do it on their own flesh, just as today there is a custom to pay mourning women and drumming women who beat on the heart.[7]

References to paid mourning women are also occasionally found in Yiddish texts, where they are referred to as klogmuters or klogerins – wailing women. For example in the story Etlekhe yor tsurik (Several years earlier) – a story about a nabor (Russian army conscription) in a shtetl, printed in installments in the Yiddish newspaper ‘Kol Mevaser’ in 1868 – ‘klogmuter’ is found in a list of the different professions and sources of income of the khaper (child catcher’s) wife, Itsyekhe.

Such references to klogmuters and klogerins seem to be quite rare, at least in modern Yiddish literature and yizkerbikher (memorial books.) However, the words themselves, which took on the meaning ‘cry baby’, are quite common – suggesting that at some point so was the practice. And these were not the only titles given to women employed to conduct mourning rituals on behalf of the community or particular individuals.

In the Yizkor bukh of the shtetl Kletsk, today in Belarus, in a section titled ‘folksmentshn’ (common people), I found a description of a ‘zogerke’, Shiphrah Leah, who seems to have performed a role similar to that of a mekonenet.

In Kletsk lived a couple of thousand Jews, and in the cemetery there were no fewer, and still the 'Zogerke' Shiphrah-Leah knew exactly when was the yorstayt of this or that great-grandmother or grandfather and other relatives. In winter, in the worst frost, she would come to announce that tomorrow is the yortsayt [anniversary of death] …

My mother used to give her a clean, pressed handkerchief, and the next day at sundown she would bring it back, soaked through wet with tears which she had shed by my grandmother’s graveside, pleading with her to be an advocate for the whole family... She had earned her fee fairly.[8]

The term zogerke or zogerin – literally ‘speaker’ – usually designated a woman who read the prayers out loud in the women’s section of the synagogue, so that the other women, the majority of whom did not know Hebrew, could follow along. However, this is not the only example of the word being used for a different kind of female profession. In Mendele Moykher Sforim’s Di klyatshe (The Nag), the protagonist’s mother hires a zogerin, Brayndl, alongside a Bal Shem (miracle worker) and (lehavdl) a non-Jewish znakherke (healer/witch), to heal her son when he goes through what appears to be an episode of madness. The job of the zogerin is not to recite prayers, but rather she is ‘sent to the holy place [another term for cemetery] to raysn kvorim [lit. ‘tear graves’] and mestn feld [measure the cemetery].’[9] Mendele’s description of Brayndl mirrors that of Shiprah Leah from Pinkes Kletsk as well as the women’s Elul rituals described by Sachs. It also refers to two of the same rituals mentioned by the latter, which I will return to.

Coming in, she [Brayndl] kissed the mezuze three times and running up to my mother cried and sobbed these words: “I entreated by your grandmother Yente, your aunt Zelde, may they have a bright paradise, they were kosher Jewesses, your father, your grandfather Reb Shepsl and the whole family. I also asked the old Rebetsin, the righteous one, may her merits support us, that they shall take pains that the eternal one should hear their prayer, he is after all a father, a God of mercy, a tsadik. Yisrolik [the ailing protagonist] will, God-willing, be well.”[10]

Demonstrating her aptitude in all things healing and protective, Brayndl also recommends ‘rolling eggs’ and ‘pouring wax’ – two techniques commonly used both fortune telling and to exercise an ayin hore – evil eye.[11]

As the above examples show, cemetery and grave measuring – rituals often conducted in times of crisis, like the outbreak of plague, severe illness, or if a woman experienced difficulty in childbirth – were also associated with crying and emotion. Yiddish writer and critic Shloyme Bikl recalled feldmestn as one of the examples of the emotional, spontaneous religiosity of der alter heym which he so missed as an immigrant visiting the various modern temples of New York.[12] The urgency and spontaneity with which these rituals were practised, particularly in times of crisis, is clear in descriptions of feldmestn written by former shtetl inhabitants. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Joseph Isaac Schneerson, in his memoirs, described how in Yanovitsh, when a bride fell ill shortly before her wedding day ‘there was commotion. People ran to the cemetery to measure it.’[13] Solomon Simon, recalling feldmestn as part of the response to an announcement that another ‘recruitment’ was coming to the shtetl, wrote that ‘even now he could still hear the wails of the women in the cemetery.’[14]

However, these rituals did not only meet an emotional need. As the tkhines associated with them suggest, they had an important practical, even magical, function. By encircling the resting places of recent and long-departed loved ones with thread and then using it to make candle wick, women established a connection with the ancestors allowing them to share in the mitzvah of kindling lights, and at the same time imploring them to use their merits and their proximity to God to intervene with him on behalf of the living. Drawing a physical boundary around the ‘houses’ of the dead, these rituals and their associated prayers were at the same time used to reinforce the boundary between the world of the dead and that of the living, to prevent the living from crossing over too soon. In some cases, feldmestn was employed to help exorcise a dybbuk[15]– to return a dead soul to where it belonged – or to appease an angry spirit believed to be interfering in the lives of the living.

In Stutchkoff’s Oytser fun der yiddisher shprakh, ‘mestn feld’ and ‘kneytlekh-leygn’ are both included under verbs ‘to do magic’, while ‘mestn feld’ and ‘raysn kvorim’ are also listed as verbs which express ‘bashlosnkayt’ or ‘akshones’ – determination, stubbornness.[16] The crying and outbursts of emotion associated with these rituals were not seen as signs of weakness, but necessary catharsis. Sachs described how, in the precarious month of Elul, crying out their feelings of fear and hopelessness allowed women to ground themselves and turn to the task at hand – keeping themselves and their loved ones alive, in this world, for another year.

After crying everything out … she started to trust, that she wasn’t alone, that God is after all a father, a God of mercy, and if he wouldn’t accept her prayer, the prayer of a sinful woman, he would surely have mercy in the merit of her grandfather, the tsadik, of blessed memory, and of her mother, the tsadiknies (wise women) who certainly sit already in heaven with crowns on their heads in the glory of shekhine.[17]

In a society where any ‘misfortune, an illness, or – God forbid – a funeral … was immediately everyone’s misfortune, everyone’s illness and everyone’s funeral’[18] the wailing of ordinary women saying tkhines, of professional zogerkes, klogmuters and feldmesterins, met an emotional need not just for them as individuals, but for the whole community. Today, when few of us live in such tight-knit communal worlds, it is easy to forget that we are all still connected, that anyone’s misfortune is still everyone’s misfortune, that no one is free until everyone is free. Discomfort with displays of emotion, whether our own or others’, can be difficult to overcome. And with technologies that let us see with one click not just what’s happening in our immediate surroundings, but all over the world, the suffering we are aware of on a daily basis can feel like too much. How would we ever stop wailing?

Today, as screams rise up again from Gaza, I am trying to take an example from my wailing Ashkenazi ancestors, and, at the very least, listen rather than letting myself shut down in discomfort. Maybe I’ll even scream along, and maybe at some point, if enough of us scream together, and loud enough, we’ll find the power, the bashlosnkayt to finally stop this horrific cycle of violence and persecution.

[1] Sachs, S. A., Khoreve veltn, 3rd edition (New York, 1927.) p.161. [2] Ibid, p. 162. [3] Ibid, p. 165. [4] Ibid, p. 165. [5] Stutchkoff, Nahum, Der Oytser fun der yidisher shprakh, (New York, 1950.) p. 619 under ‘gotsdinst [6] Jeremiah 9:16, quoted in English translation in Jill Hammer and Taya Shere, The Hebrew Priestess – Ancient and new visions of Jewish women’s spiritual leadersip (Ben Yehuda Press, New Jersey, 2015.) p.174. [7] Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, Haamek Dvar on Leviticus 19:18 (Volozhin c.1840-1880). Available at Thanks to Shoshana Jedwab for showing me this source [8] Cohen, Aaron, ‘Folks-mentshn’, Pinkes Kletsk, (Tel Aviv, 1959.) pp. 308-309 (p.309.) [9] Mendele Moykher Sforim, ‘Di klyatshe’, Ale shriftn, vol. 1. (New York, 19--) p. 455. [10] Ibid p. 455. [11] Ibid p. 455. [12] Bikl, Shloyme, Yidn davenen – Nyu Yorker reportazhn (New York, 1948) p. 63. [13] Schneerson, Joseph Isaac, Sefer Ha-Zikhronot (New York, 1955) p.108. [14] Simon, Solomon, Vortslen (Buenos Aires, 1956) p.224. [15] See for example Shyene-Rokhl Semkof-Bader, In gerangl funem lebn, p. 128. See also the collection of Hasidic stories Fun Rebns Hoyf. [16] Stutchkoff, Oytser, p. 615, p. 387. [17] Sachs, Khoreve veltn, p. 165. [18] Semkof-Bader, Sheyne-Rokhl, In gerangl funem lebn: dertseylungen un noveletn, (New York, 1949) p.119.

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