Witches gotta eat
Updated: Sep 23
In Yiddish literature, the practices described on this website are often viewed disparagingly, especially when women used to do them for money. Here are two examples from maskilic literature, written by authors critical of the "superstitious" aspects of traditional Jewish life. At the same time, the fact that the authors felt it necessary to criticise these practices indicates how widespread they were. Women in the shtetl also occupied paid ritualistic roles, even if outside the synagogue.
Firstly, from Isaac Meyer Dik’s story ‘Reb Shmaye Eliter, der gut-yontev biter’, written around 1860, Reb Shmaye’s wife, like her husband, is portrayed as a disingenuous, exploitative character, who feigns deep religious piety but is actually after people’s money. Here is what is written about her sources of income:
She didn’t spin flax, or wool, she didn’t spin with a needle, but with her tongue. She used to help her husband get his teaching positions, take brides to the water, go with them to the cemetery before the khupah ceremony, carry pieces away from a woman who had been lying in childbirth, once she was back on her feet, bring women’s questions to the rabbi’s court, measure the cemetery, make soul candles for Yom Kippur, prepare a suckling-dog to suckle the nipples of a wealthy first-time mother, prepare the Erets-Yisroyl earth, which she had brought six miles from linove, on Shemini atseres and Simkhes Toyre go around people ‘gut yontev’ with her husband [and getting some free food and booze in return], pour wax, also lead, apply an elflock, be well versed in all womanly-things… And further, she took donations.
Another such list is found in a story ‘Mit etlekhe yor tsurik’ – 'Several years earlier' – which was printed in installments in the Yiddish newspaper ‘Kol Mevaser’ in 1868. It’s a story about the forced recruitment of Jewish boys to the Russian army which was plaguing russian shtetlekh at the time, and in this section we learn about the ‘khaper’ – the man hired by the Kahal (community board) to capture poorer boys, so that the community would meet the quota of recruits it needed to provide, and the sons of the wealthy would be spared. In times when there wasn’t a ‘nabor’ – a recruitment – he didn’t make any money and it fell to his wife to provide – not unusual in the shtetlekh of eastern Europe where women were often the main breadwinners. Interesting in this description of the way she made her money is the fact that 'respected' professions like mikveh attendant are found alongside superstitious practices. The fact that she was the wife of the khapper also suggests that she was a member of the shtetl upper class, with connections to the kahal - governing board.
She is a healer, a servant, a shprekherin [exorcist/healer], a shameste [synagogue/community assistant], a zogerin [woman who leads the recitation of prayers in the women’s section of the synagogue], a midwife, kneytlekh-legerin [soul candle maker] a feldmesterin [cemetery measurer], a tikerin [mikveh attendant], a sedikhe [fruit seller], a baker, a witch, a spell-caster, a klogmuter [mourning woman]. On top of all this, she is a money lender, and this she continues to do even during the recruitment.
 In the seminar where I studied this text, taught by Yitskhok Niborski at the Paris Yiddish Center, there was some discussion as to what this could mean. Some people suggested that the ‘parts' (I've translated as 'pieces') here – חלקים – referred to the placenta, but another person who had more expertise in the period said that it was more likely to refer to the foods and other gifts that people traditionally brought to a woman in childbirth.  Earlier in the story we learn that she has a small pack of earth, supposedly from Erets Yisroyl, but actually from Poland which she inherited from a family member who tried to travel to the holy land but never made it. Earth from Israel used to be sprinkled on people’s graves, so that when the dead rose in the time of the messiah, they would already be buried in holy earth and would not need to burrow to Israel in order to be resurrected. The implication here is that she sold portions of this earth to people, lying to them about where it was from.  Melted wax is poured into a bowl of cold water, and the shape it takes is interpreted to tell the person's fortune. Melting lead is done in the same way, sometimes to get rid of an ayin hora (evil eye.)  I discovered this text at another class at the Paris Yiddish Center, given by the center’s director Tal Hever-Chybowski, who also found the story in the Kol Mevaser archive.