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"Today it is customary to go to the cemetery with an elderly Jewess"

Updated: Jun 5

I'm getting ready today to teach my final class on this online course with JTS, in which we will be taking a closer look at the professional mourning women of eastern europe, variously known in Yiddish as klogmuters, klogvaybers, klogerins, veynerins, beterkes, and zogerkes. Especially in the current circumstances, it feels like we have a lot to learn from these women who lead their communities in grief. On that note, stay tuned for an announcement of a new course on the same topic, starting in January 2024.

I'm sharing here my translation of part of a study conducted in the 1920s in the shtetlekh around Vilne (Vilnius) by members of the Vilne teachers' seminary, led by H. Khayoys. The names of the towns where the customs were remembered or recorded are noted here in brackets. Interestingly, the study not only recorded some of the "klogenishn" - laments - spoken or wailed by these women at gravesides, it also documented how the practice had changed. It is worth noting that while Abraham Rechtman, who met and interviewed some klogerins on the eve of World War One, with the Anski expedition, wrote that the mourning women "never used tkhines or printed prayer books", in this source written just over 10 years later, it is stated that at least in the shtetl Orle (Orla), the zogerke or beterke reads from the Ma'abar Yavok - a 17th century book of prayers and rituals relating to illness and death. We can see this change also in the Yizker Bukh of Kremenits, which records several generations of zogerins or "cemetery jewesses." While Leybeshekhe, the powerful "ba'alat ov" (keeper of ancestor spirits) who served the community in the late 19th century was able to speak to the dead at will, the following generation of zogerkes, Golde and Reyze, are pictured in the1920s reading from prayerbooks (see below).

Professional mourning women in H Khayoys, "Beliefs and customs connected with death" , Filologishe shriftn, (1928). Trans. Annabel Gottfried Cohen

In the past, women would come to the deceased of their own accord, uninvited, and cry and praise the deceased and recite their good deeds, then follow the corpse on the stretcher crying. Later, after the funeral they had to be paid for their work. (Kolomay.)

Today it is customary to go to the ‘holy place’ [the cemetery] with an elderly Jewess, a permanent zogerke, or a ‘beterke’ (Orle.) Most of what she says comes from Ma’abar Yavok [a 17th century book of prayers and rituals relating to illness, death and dying] and everybody wails (this is the remains of the past custom of ‘klogvayber’ – wailing women.)

From the home where the corpse is lying screams and wails are heard. People then run out onto the street and scream ‘Oy, Oy, who have you left me to depend on? Oh my tsadik, my rebbe, my khokhem, my advocate!’ And to the deceased ‘May good angels walk before you…

And at the graveside:

‘Oy, such a bright shining star is suddenly covered by a black cloud!’ The cries are interrupted by praises.

‘He had a holy mouth! He never said a bad word about anyone. Such a kosher soul, he didn’t bother anyone during his life, he didn’t forget about his children for one minute … And now he has left us. We have lost our provider … Who will make the children shoes now? Who will pay for their kheyder? On whom have you left us to depend? The little sheep are left without a shepherd. You have left us on a ship in the middle of the water’. (Volp.)

“Dear father, sweet father, how do you leave me behind? It used to be light in every corner. What use is the nest to me if the bird is no longer, here, beloved father?” (Laskashzev, YIVO ethnographic commission )

“Darling husband, bright husband! My whole life is broken. Where will I go? Where will I stand? The little one still can’t stand sometimes. What will I do with such a tiny home? We will be forced to die from hunger and need, loyal father in heaven! Halevay, it would be better for me to lie in your grave. What will my little swallows to without someone to provide for them? What use is my life to me? What dark luck I have! What sin caused this to happen to me? Raboyne shel oylem in heaven, don’t punish me for these words! ”

“My darling man, you died a real kosher Jew, like a real Jew should die. May you achieve the merit of our ancestors for me so that I may live to a good age, and not be in the cemetery before my time!” She doesn’t shed a tear while saying this, because she says that the holy torah says one should not cry when a pious Jew dies.

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