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Woman soul

Updated: Jan 11

This week I've been teaching an online workshop at Yiddish New York about Ashkenazi Jewish women's customs and practices. For the past three days, we've mostly been talking about the various women who worked in the cemeteries of Eastern Europe, performing rituals but also communicating with and creating connections with the dead. One of the questions that has come up is why were these women's functions, a question that I can't answer but about which I have some theories. One is that, because women are seen as less pure than men, it is less dangerous for them to spend time in cemeteries (unless they are pregnant - explaining why klogerins, zogerkes and feldmesterins were usually older women.) Another is that, as in many other cultures, in Jewish culture women were believed to have certain qualities that made them better able to make contact with the spiritual realm.


When I first read this poem by Aaron Zeitlin, who was well versed in Jewish mystical tradition, I was told that in mystical belief women, as well as 'mad' people, are considered to be spiritually weaker and therefore more permeable and open to the spirit world. Rooted as it may be in mysogyny, I like this idea that people considered weird or week might actually have special abilities that those who consider themselves superior can't see. The same idea pervaded the late 19th century spiritualist movement, in which seances were often conducted by young, poor women who were believed to be more susceptible to spirit possession. Historian Rhodri Hayward in his book 'Resisting history' argues that this actually gave these young women a lot of power, and that the threat posed by such magics prompted predominantly male scientific establishment to go to great efforts to explain away spiritualism with rational, psychological explanations. I think we can see this power in the figures of Jewish women like Leybeshekhe of Kremenits and Gitl the Gabete of Koriv, who was made fun of by the men but nonetheless revered by the women. We also see it in Aaron Zeitlin's description of this magnificent crazy woman. The original Yiddish can be found on page 233 of Zeitlin's 'Gezamlte Lider', Vol. 2.


Woman soul by Aaron Zeitlin. Translated by Annabel Cohen.


Through a window, a dark blue window

A window hidden in blind blueness

A beautiful mad woman looks out

At a pearl-chain of worlds

Which ebb rhythmically by.


The twilight stretches on and on

The window grows bluer and bigger

From minute to minute – and the woman sings a song

Which glints in the blueness like a knife

The beautiful mad woman.


The window is big, terribly big and closed.

It is not day

It does not want to become night.

The twilight stretches on and on

And the crazy, magnificent woman

Sings eternally her song

Sings forever that same song again and again

To the worlds, which stretch past.

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This is one section of a long article by H. Heyoys, published in YIVO's filologishe shriftn in 1928, entitled 'Beliefs and customs in connection with death.' The study was based on a survey conducted

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