Witches gotta eat
Updated: Apr 29
'Feldmesterin’ sometimes appears alongside other ‘superstitious’ female trades, including witchcraft. Here are two examples from maskilic literature, written by authors critical of traditional Jewish life, including all its superstitions.
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 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 atseret and simches Torah 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. There follows a description of all her different professions and sources of income:
She is a healer, a servant, a shprekherin [someone who utters spells or incantations], a shameste [synagogue/community assistant], a zogerin [woman who leads the recitation of prayers in the women’s section of the synagogue], a bobe, a kneytlekh-legerin [placer of candlewick], a feldmesterin, a tikerin [female bathhouse attendant], a sedikhe [fruit seller], a baker, a witch, a spell-caster, a klogmuter [woman employed to wail at funerals]. On top of all this, she is a money lender, and this she continues to do even during the recruitment.
This last title, 'klogmuter' seems to be an eastern European variation of the mekonenot – the mourning women of the biblical period, mentioned in the book of Jeremiah. It is also the title given to one of the Netivot or priestess archetypes that are studied in the Kohenet Institute. Grief and mourning is an area in which women have, throughout Jewish time and space, often taken on spiritual leadership roles. In Eastern Europe, it was common – even expected – for women to cry during prayer, and this was seen not as a sign of weakness but a necessary catharsis. I haven’t been able to find anymore references to klogmuters in Yiddish sources, although the biblical klogmuters are mentioned in a few Yiddish poems. It seems that in Yiddish ‘klogmuter’ also became the word for ‘cry-baby’ suggesting that the practice was at least widely known. It’s something I’m hoping to find out more about for a research paper this semester, so watch this space.
 In the seminar where I studied this text, taught by Yitskhok Niborski of 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 a technique used 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.  Bobe usually means grandmother, but here the meaning is probably ‘babe’ – hag, old witch