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Zogerke, Zogerin or Firzogerin — literally female speaker — was title given to women who, being able to read Yiddish and often also Hebrew, would read aloud the prayers in the vayberishe shul or women’s section, helping the other women to follow the service. As I’ve described in some of my posts, emotion was a key component of prayer in traditional Jewish life, and especially of women’s prayer. The role of the zogerin was therefore also to lead this public expression of emotion, and as well as being well-educated in Jewish scripture, zogerins would usually be very talented creators of spontaneous, Yiddish prayer. As described in Rokhl Brokhes’ short story — performed beautifully here by Alona Bach with music and film editing by Uri Schreter — a zogerin was also someone that other women would come to for advice, blessings and prayers, and it could be quite exhausting work!
While most people who are familiar with Yiddish and Yiddish culture know of prayer-leader zogerins and zogerkes, what is less well-known is that the same title was also a title given to a type of female ritualist who worked in the cemetery. Sometimes prayer-leader zogerins also functioned as cemetery-zogerins, for example, a prayer-leader zogerin may have been the person who took a young bride to the cemetery on her wedding day to invite her deceased relatives to attend — a very common practice that is often mentioned in Yiddish literature and memoirs. However, in many shtetlekh the role of cemetery zogerin was distinct. Unlike female-prayer leaders, who did this as a mitsve, cemetery zogerins were — like other female cemetery ritualists — often paid for their work. In the Yizker-Bukh of Kremenits, where we read about two generations of zogerins, ‘firzogerin (cemetery)’ is listed among the professions practiced in the shtetl, underneath tea-house and inn keepers and the goose plucker.
As we see with Shiphrah-Leah, the zogerke of kletsk, Zogerke or Zogerin was a title sometimes given to professional mourning women also known as klogerins, klogmuters or beterins (wailers/lamenters and implorers). However, the title also referred to an often overlapping role – a woman who was able to communicate and entreat with the dead on behalf of the living, particularly on days when deceased souls were believed to linger in the cemetery, on their yortsayts (death anniversaries), the wedding days of living family members, and in the month of Elul. As you can read about on another page, this was something also done by a feldmesterin – a cemetery or grave measurer.
In their function as facilitators of a connection between the living and the dead, cemetery zogerkes and feldmesterins are clear examples of another of the ‘netivot’ or archetypes of feminine Jewish ritual leadership outlined by Jill Hammer and Taya Shere in The Hebrew Priestess — the Shamaness or in Hebrew Ba’alat Ov, which Hammer translates as ‘keeper of ancestor spirits.’ That this term is used to describe female practitioners of magic in the bible is very interesting when we consider that most of the magics and indeed many of the tkhines or prayers practiced by Jewish women in Eastern Europe seem to have drawn heavily on ancestral connection.
As Jill Hammer describes in her chapter on this archetype, Jewish law is somewhat ambivalent and even contradictory regarding what kinds of spirit connection are allowed and kosher. While witchcraft, including communication with the dead, is explicitly banned by the bible and condemned by the Talmud, both are also full of evidence that it continued to be practiced, including by the Rabbis themselves. Anyone familiar with Yiddish literature will know that magical practices - including communication with the dead, who were believed to involve themselves in the world of the living whether or not the living wanted them to — persisted in the nineteenth and even twentieth century Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. However, as many of the sources gathered here show, there were rules and limitations which were understood and enforced by female ritualists as well as by the male religious leadership. In Sh. Ansky’s the Dybbuk, when the bride Leah goes to the cemetery to invite her relatives to the wedding, she asks her aunt Frayde if she can also invite her deceased beloved, Khanan. Her aunt tells her firmly that she may only invite blood relatives — who a 1928 YIVO ethnographic study tells us would already be lingering in the cemetery waiting for their invitation. Leah ignores this advice, and Khonen’s soul possesses her as a dybbuk.
Yiddish sources — memoirs, yizker bikher, ethnographic research and fiction based in real life like Ansky’s— show us that communication with the dead was an essential part of Jewish religious life. The dead were able to help the living, but also – as the aforementioned ethnographic study tells us — if they were not visited at the appropriate times, they were liable to become offended, which could also have terrible effects on the living. Such communication was therefore also dangerous, explaining why in many places skilled professionals — often women — were paid to do it on behalf of others. Indeed, if Leah had gone to the cemetery with an experienced Zogerke rather than the anxious Frayde, who is alarmed by her niece’s attraction to the dead, she may have been better protected.
Right to left: Golda and Reyze,zogerins in Kremenits, Ukraine, before the war. From the Kremenits, Vizhgorodek and Potshayev Yizker Bukh (1965.) I've translated one part of this book, about Leybeshekhe the 'firzogerin' of kremenits, which you can read here. A separate post about Golda and Reyze will be up soon. It is worth noting that, practising later than Leybeshekhe, they are reading from prayer books rather than speaking spontaneously, showing how the custom had changed.
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