Candlesticks in Rhode Island (and a non-candlesticked woman of valor)


Only the candlesticks are visible above the snow. Newport, RI.

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Over the weekend, I visited friends in Rhode Island who took me to look at several Jewish cemeteries. I was interested in seeing whether, and if so how, the iconography of candlesticks marking the graves of women was found in America as well as eastern and central Europe. I had wanted to visit the old Jewish cemetery in Newport, near the historic Touro Synagogue (the oldest synagogue in the United States), but this was closed — and in any case, the stones were mostly covered by the thick layer of snow that still lies on the ground after many heavy snowfalls over the past few weeks. I was able only to photograph, at a distance, one stone — which bears carved decoration very similar to that found on the famous Colonial period Christian tombstones — an angel head with wings — over a Hebrew epitaph.

Gate to Old Jewish Cemetery, Newport.

Angel head over Hebrew epitaph. Rebecca, wife of Mr. Polock, d. 1764

There is another, much later, Jewish cemetery in Newport, though, occupying three fenced-off sections in a big municipal cemetery on aptly named “Farewell Street,” and here I found quite a few women’s gravestones bearing the decorative element of candlesticks. The carving was mostly quite simple and rather standardized, though some were slightly more elaborate.


One of the more elaborate tombs.

One tombstone was notable for the way the candles were depicted as flickering, or seeming to be on the verge of flickering out — you find a variation of  this motif in Eastern Europe, but with the flames pointing to the center of the candelabra, not to the outside.

Flickering candles

Also interesting (at least to me!) were the couple of tombstone of MEN that employed the candlestick imagery — like the one below, of a Nathan Shuser, a Jewish medical officer killed in World War II.

The most fascinating tombstone to me, however, was the gravestone of  Eva (or Hava) Segal, wife of Dov Mordechai Segal, which did NOT bear the candlestick imagery. In fact, it bore a carved motif that I had never seen before — a loaf of bread, with slices cut from it on a plate, and a neatly aligned knife and fork. No candlesticks in sight. To me, the image could symbolize one of several things.

It could refer to the Seudat Havra-ah, the first meal that mourners are served when they come home from the cemetery to start the shiva mourning period. Bread is generally part of this meal — as are eggs. Or it could illustrated that Mrs. Segal was generous (by showing food offered to be eaten.)

But — and this is what I like to think it represents — it could somehow be a pictorial representation of the “women’s commandment” of “taking Challah,”  that is,  burning a piece of dough when baking bread. (See in the “articles” section of this web site the article “A Mystery on the Tombstones.”)

As I have noted elsewhere, one of the reasons that candlesticks are used to represent women appears to be the fact that lighting the Sabbath candles is the only one of the three “women’s commandments” that lends itself to easy visual representation — in addition to lighting candles and taking Challah, the third commandment is Niddah, or observing the laws of menstrual purity.

Gravestone of Eva Segal, with image of bread

The epitaph does not shed direct light on this — though it praises her generosity. It reads: “A woman of valor; the crown of her husband, has mercy on the poor and guests in her home and acts well and honestly. [She] guided her sons on a straight path.”

The Jewish Cemetery in Newport: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I’ve decided to start posting poetry written about Jewish cemeteries. It’s a little off-topic for this web site, but the poems that I will posting reflect the power of place and imagery in a remarkable way. Many writers, and artists, too, have been inspired by these places — the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague was the haunt of Romantics in the 19th century, for example, and the Dutch painter Jacob van Ruisdael painted this oil of a  Jewish cemetery around 1657. (Now in the Detroit Institute of Arts.)

Since I am at Brandeis now, I’ve decided to start with this poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, about the Jewish Cemetery in fairly nearby Newport, Rhode Island — it was published in 1858. This means it was published around the same time or even well before most of the tombstones in Europe I’ve been studying were carved and erected….

The Jewish Cemetery at Newport

How strange it seems!  These Hebrews in their graves,
Close by the street of this fair seaport town,
Silent beside the never-silent waves,
At rest in all this moving up and down!
The trees are white with dust, that o’er their sleep
Wave their broad curtains in the south-wind’s breath,
While underneath such leafy tents they keep
The long, mysterious Exodus of Death.
And these sepulchral stones, so old and brown,
That pave with level flags their burial-place,
Seem like the tablets of the Law, thrown down
And broken by Moses at the mountain’s base.
The very names recorded here are strange,
Of foreign accent, and of different climes;
Alvares and Rivera interchange
With Abraham and Jacob of old times.
“Blessed be God! for he created Death!”
The mourners said, “and Death is rest and peace”;
Then added, in the certainty of faith,
“And giveth Life that never more shall cease.”
Closed are the portals of their Synagogue,
No Psalms of David now the silence break,
No Rabbi reads the ancient Decalogue
In the grand dialect the Prophets spake.
Gone are the living, but the dead remain,
And not neglected; for a hand unseen,
Scattering its bounty, like a summer rain,
Still keeps their graves and their remembrance green.
How came they here?  What burst of Christian hate,
What persecution, merciless and blind,
Drove o’er the sea–that desert desolate–
These Ishmaels and Hagars of mankind?
They lived in narrow streets and lanes obscure,
Ghetto and Judenstrass, in mirk and mire;
Taught in the school of patience to endure
The life of anguish and the death of fire.
All their lives long, with the unleavened bread
And bitter herbs of exile and its fears,
The wasting famine of the heart they fed,
And slaked its thirst with marah of their tears.
Anathema maranatha! was the cry
That rang from town to town, from street to street;
At every gate the accursed Mordecai
Was mocked and jeered, and spurned by Christian feet.
Pride and humiliation hand in hand
Walked with them through the world where’er they went;
Trampled and beaten were they as the sand,
And yet unshaken as the continent.
For in the background figures vague and vast
Of patriarchs and of prophets rose sublime,
And all the great traditions of the Past
They saw reflected in the coming time.
And thus forever with reverted look
The mystic volume of the world they read,
Spelling it backward, like a Hebrew book,
Till life became a Legend of the Dead.
But ah! what once has been shall be no more!
The groaning earth in travail and in pain
Brings forth its races, but does not restore,
And the dead nations never rise again.

My photo exhibit is up at Penn State

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Just a note to advise that my photo exhibit, “Remnants and Renaissance: Photographs by Ruth Ellen Gruber of Europe’s Jewish Heartland”, is now up and viewable at Penn State Harrisburg library’s Schwab Family Holocaust Reading Room. The show is small, but runs until May 1 — and I give a gallery talk there on March 21.

Candles and my cousin Nancy

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I posted here (and included video) of the Women’s Torah Project in Seattle — one way that women are reclaiming and refashioning Jewish tradition from a female perspective. My cousin Nancy was a proud part of this project. I asked her what her relationship to candle-lighting had been, growing up, and was today.

Nancy is the youngest child of  my father’s younger brother, and she grew up in Toledo, a small, paper-mill town on the Oregon coast where hers was the only Jewish family. My uncle and aunt — originally from Akron, Ohio — sent each of their three sons back to Akron to stay with relatives and study for his Bar Mitzvah. Those Bar Mitzvah’s were high points of my teens — and the occasion for big family gatherings.

This is what Nancy says about candles:

I used to light candles when the kidswere all home more than I do now, but I still try to light them when we’re all home. It gets dark here in the winter by 4:15ish, so if I light them it is always after sunset. Candle lighting is one of those traditions that worked more seamlessly into our lives when I was a stay-at-home mom, or when I worked part time. Still, when I am setting the candles up, securing them in the sticks, and covering my head, I never fail to think of my mom and family because I use the candlesticks from our house in Toledo. Repeating simple rituals like candle lighting makes me happy in a way that is hard to explain. Maybe I like it because it stirs embers of my childhood, my brothers and sisters, and, of course, my parents.

Visiting with Nancy, her family and various other cousins in Seattle, 2008

Different Tombstone Art

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Though the focus of this site and project is the representation of women in Jewish tombstone art, and particularly the use of candlesticks, it is interesting to see how women (and men) are portrayed artistically in other tombstone carving.

New England — where I currently am, on a fellowship at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA — is famous for its colonial period old cemeteries. In the past, I have visited one or two of them — and when I was in college at Oberlin, I had a friend from Connecticut, Charles Bergengren, who had made rubbings of many New England tombstones (and eventually wrote about folklore in New England gravestone imagery in the journal of the Association for Gravestone Studies).

From, a web site on cemeteries in Massachusetts and Maine, I discovered that there is a historic cemetery in Waltham dating back to the early 18th century — so I will plan to visit it in the next few days. Meanwhile, I’ve looked at the pictures from it posted on line — interesting to see that there is essentially no differentiation (at least in that cemetery) in the decoration or iconography used on the tombstones of men and women. Most seem to feature a winged skull (or occasionally a winged head) above the epitaph, with some decorative carving at the sides.

Transmitting Tradition: The Women’s Torah Project

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

One of the themes I am exploring in this project is the transmission of tradition. My great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother whose tombs I found and photographed in the Jewish cemetery in Radauti, Romania were buried under gravestones marked with candlesticks, denoting the signal role of  women in Jewish tradition and practice of lighting and blessing the candles on Shabbos.

Both of these ancestors of mine — Ettel and Chaya Dwoira — were probably religious (or fairly religious…) women who observed the tenets and traditions. In my generation and younger, however I know that few of us carry out anything more onerous than eating lox and bagel, holding or attending a Seder, making sure that children are bar/bas mitzvah and going to synagogue occasionally. Almost all the marriages of our generation of cousins have been “out,” to non-Jews.

One of my cousins, however, has been involved in a project that takes traditions  and refashions them from a feminist (or at least a female) viewpoint. It is the Women’s Torah Project in Seattle which aimed at ushering in  “a new era for Judaism and feminism” by commissioning “the first ever Sefer Torah to be scribed by women.”

The project was completed on October 15, 2010 to some fanfare.

It is not only the first Torah written and embellished by an international community of women, it is the first Torah literally sewn together in community. Dozens of people had the opportunity to fill in letters, sew the parchment panels together, and tie the scroll to the rollers. Many others watched or helped the six scribes put the 62 panels in order, under the exultant wings of Shekinah.

The completion of the Torah garnered a lot of press,including THIS PIECE in the Forward and THIS in the Seattle Times. The Project produced this video:

I Start Fellowship at Brandeis to Work on This Project

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I arrived at Brandeis University today (after an overnight flight from Los Angeles to Boston) to take up a Scholar in Residence fellowship at the Hadassah Brandeis Institute to work on this project — representing the woman in Jewish tombstone art.

I’ll be here until the end of February or beginning of March, putting order into material I have gathered during my research and — I hope — maybe tweaking and upgrading this web site…..