Note on stone-carving

By Ruth Ellen Gruber


Just an addendum to previous posts… In his detailed analysis of the Old Jewish Cemetery in Siret, Romania (in operation approx 1700-1840), Silviu Sanie notes that “shards and pieces” of “scrapped” tombstones were found during research  in the Old Cemetery, proving that there had been a stone-mason’s workshop “in the close vicinity or even inside” the cemetery.

He also notes the presence of Jewish families named Pietraru, in Romanian (as well as the Steinmetz and Picker noted by Moshe Barasch) indicated that they may have carried out the stone-mason trade.

A stone-carver’s thoughts on tradition and symbolism

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

A few days ago, I posted this picture of a tombstone-carver, taken in Ukraine in 1916.

Tombstone carver at work, 1916 (image from Bildarchiv, National Libraray, Vienna)

The one finished tombstone that you can see is very simply carved, but clearly painted in at least three colors. It also appears that the stone-carver may be teaching his son the trade — several sources, including David Goberman and the art historian Moshe Barasch report that tombstone-carving was often (or at least sometimes) a family business, passed on down the generations. In his essay “Reflection on Tombstones: Childhood Memories” (which I have cited before for Barasch’s contemptuous attitude toward the “primitive” artistic character of the stones) Barasch recalls hearing about two families of tombstone-carvers in Czernowitz after World War I — the Picker family and the Steinmetz  family (the name means “stone carver”), both of which had been in the business “for several generations.”

In his PhD dissertation on Jewish tombstone inscriptions and iconography is what is now western Ukraine, Boris Khaimovich of the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem cites an interview conducted in 1926  with the last professional tombstone carver from the town of Ozarintsy in Southern Podolia.  (For a fascinating account, including photos, of growing up in Ozarintsy at that time, click HERE. a photo of a synagogue in Ozarintsy in 1928 click HERE.)  He was a young man named Goldenberg. Taranoshchenko wanted to find out “what guided him in carving certain images on a tombstone: whether definite rules and tradition, or the wishes of the dead person’s family, or perhaps his own imagination.”

The young carver apparently had “poor knowledge of ancient tradition.” But he did adhere to memories of this and said he was “usually guided” by certain considerations. Regarding women’s tombs they were:

1) for the grave of a young girl – a chopped down tree, a small fir-tree, a wreath, a bird;

2) for the gravestone of an important woman – a candelabrum (since the mistress of the house must light Shabbat candles), two candelabra, two birds

Bolekhiv/Bolechow — tombstone of Esther bat Meshulem Zalman, 1805. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

(Sergey Kravstov of the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem has informed me that the interview was conducted by a Ukrainian scholar named  Danylo Shcherbakivs’ki [1877-1927], who had a tragic history under the Soviet regim. In a lecture that will soon be published, Sergey explains:  “Research of Jewish monuments went on in the Soviet Ukraine. Ukrainian art historians and ethnographers included it in the curricula of the1920s. Great efforts were undertaken by Danylo Shcherbakivs’ky, the museum curator and a professor at the Academy of Arts in Kiev, who organized student expeditions to Podolia and Volhynia. Shcherbakivs’ky tended to construct the art history of Ukraine along the lines of that of other European state nations, and thus his attitude to Jewish monuments was inclusive. Impeded in his many initiatives by the Commissars, he committed suicide in 1927; his name was blotted out of the Soviet curricula. Other great Ukrainian figures were a museum curator Stefan Taranushenko, and his assistant Pavlo Zholtovs’ky. By 1930, their documentation of Podolian synagogues in Mińkowce, Michałpol, Smotrycz, and Jaryszów had expanded knowledge about the wooden synagogues, surveyed in previous decades. However, the stifling atmosphere of the Soviet Ukraine barred any possibility of a comprehensive study of these monuments. Both researchers were arrested in 1933. Taranushenko was able to return to Ukraine only in 1953. Zholtovs’ky returned to Ukraine in 1946, and then he had the courage to study Jewish art in Lviv.”)

The earliest tombstones bearing candlesticks to mark women’s tombs that were found and described by Boris Khaimovich in Ukraine and Silviu Sanie in Romania (Siret, just on the Ukrainian border) date from the late 18th and very early 19th centuries. By the mid-to-late 19th century, the imagery was almost universal.

The young carver Goldenberg’s account in Ozarintsy shows how strongly engrained the tradition became.

Boris Khaimovich concludes that:

Apparently, the “poor knowledge of tradition” referred to the fact that the carver neither used nor knew the meaning of the motifs depicted on old tombstones, which the researcher had also documented in the murals of the Ozarintsy synagogue. This means that the tradition was totally lost by the turn of the 20th century. At the same time, the carver’s testimony sheds some light on the nature of this phenomenon, and clearly point at the existence of a special symbolic language, of which Goldenberg’s generation retained no more than vague notions and echoes. (BK Dissertation, p. 158)

More thoughts on candlestick typology


By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The basis of this project is the collection of photographs of candlesticks on Jewish tombstones that I myself have taken, in Romania, Ukraine, Poland and elsewhere. These images show a vast range of artistry, skill and invention in the portrayal of the candlestick motif in denoting Jewish women. But they are by no means exhaustive. And, in fact, the more I read and the more I work here at the Hadassah Brandeis Institute thinking and theorizing, the more I simply want to be back in the field, seeking out the stones  and documenting the iconography, particularly forms that I failed to photographs on earlier trips.

There is, actually, not very much published material on East European tombstone decoration, and even less about the candles/candlestick/menorah motif used to denote women’s tombs. Scholars have begun to bemoan this. There is, wrote University of Massachusetts professor Aviva Ben Ur, “an academic print culture that regards sculpted stones and cemeteries as largely peripheral […] The historian’s focus on the written word has also meant that stone imagery is at most a secondary consideration. Research on Jewish sepulchres has thus focused on inscriptions, and has been primarily concerned with local community history, genealogy of distinguished members, and linguistic aspects.” (See her article “Still Life: Sephardi, Ashkenazi, and West African Art and Form in Suriname’s Jewish Cemeteries” in American Jewish History, vol 92/1).

This attitude was borne out by the distinguished art historian Moshe Barasch, who in 1988 wrote a memoir article, “Reflection on Tombstones: Childhood Memories,” about the Jewish cemetery in his native Czernowitz (now Cernivtsi) Ukraine. Concerning the “level of artistic achievement” of the stone-carvings, he wrote:

Not too much should be expected. I shall have to describe the artistic character of the monuments as “primitive,” without going into a discussion of what the term means, fully aware that the meaning is far from obvious […] Keeping mind the rather modest quality of these monuments, one’s expectations as to what the free exercise of an artist’s skill may provide in them should not be too high. (article published in Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 9, No. 17 (1988), pp. 127-135)

I of course strongly disagree with Barasch! (And the pictures that go with his article also prove him wrong.) He does admit, though, that one can be  “often surprised” by “the variations invented by popular fantasy and executed by anonymous stone carvers.”

In his PhD dissertation (which he very kindly sent me) Boris Khaimovich, of the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem, writes deeply and exhaustively about the carving, form and iconography of Jewish tombstones in western Ukraine in the 17th and 18th centuries — a period where some women’s tombstones were marked by candles but before the “boom” in this imagery in the 19th century that made them so commonplace. (One question that intrigues me, in fact, is why the candlestick boom developed? And why, really, only in parts of eastern Europe?)

Boris delves in depth into the meaning of animal and other imagery such as that  of birds representing the soul, or heraldic eagles — with one or two heads — representing the absoluteness of heavenly power, or that of a bear holding or pushing through branches, found both men’s and women’s tombs, and believed to symbolize that the deceased was pious or righteous.


Sataniv, Ukraine -- woman's tomb, with bear holding branches

But he only mentions candlesticks as women’s markers in passing (if at all) — though the photographs that go with his text clearly show a variety of candlestick, candelabra and menorah motifs, including an 18th century tombstone with hands blessing the candles.

My friend Monika Krajewska’s ground-breaking book A Tribe of Stone, which came out in Poland in 1993, remains one of the most comprehensive discussions of tombstone art in Eastern Europe — though it deals almost exclusively with Poland. Monika and her husband Staszek were early pioneers in seeking out and documenting Jewish cemeteries in Poland; Monika’s earlier book, A Time of Stones, came out in the early 1980s and was one of the first books on a Jewish topic to be published following the loosening of censorship in Poland thanks to the Solidarnosc revolution of 1980.

She describes a wide variety of typology of candlesticks, including braided candelabra which — as I have mentioned in an earlier post — she likens to the braiding of Challah bread (and thus representing two of the three “women’s commandments” at once) but which others describe as a form of the mystical “endless knot” motif. She writes:

“Some stone-cutters produced unusual forms, like a five-branched candelabrum made of snakes, or ones with branches that end with birds’ heads, oak leaves, or imaginary fish which lions’ heads. The foot of the candlestick may also take various shapes, such as an anchor or griphons’ heads. Candelabra made of floral ornaments derive from the mystical concept of the menorah as a Tree of Life, even though the stone masons who rendered such carvings might have been unaware of the association.”

She also notes the many ways that stone-carvers used candles being broken or extinguished as “elaborate death metaphors.”

“These include an eagle shown extinguishing candles with its claws, or a griphon putting out a flame with its beak. The following image is also rare, as well as intriguing: in the center of the relief are candles in candlesticks, some broken and others not; on one or two sides, hands hold new candles and seem to be lighting them from the old ones. Is this an allusion to the handing down of tradition, or of transmitting life itself?”

Piotrkow Trybunalski, Poland, 2010. Broken candles and a griffin.


Gura Humorului, September 2009. Griffins and candlesticks. An extremely elaborate, elegantly carved stone, from 1863, including griffins and floral designs.

Pearl Gruber Kaplan, RIP

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

My Aunt, Pearl Gruber Kaplan, passed away Friday in Santa Barbara, California, at the age of 94. She was my father’s oldest sister; the oldest of my immigrant grandparents’ seven children; a military veteran; a mother; a grandmother and great-grandmother; a highly independent woman who lived her life on her own terms. May her soul be bound up in the bond of life.

I’ve already posted this before, but in 2009, when I was starting this project, I asked Aunt Pearl what her recollections were about her mother (my grandmother) lighting Shabbos candles and what her own relationship with the tradition had been. Pearl, ever iconoclastic, had this to say:

Yes, my mother lit the candles, closed her eyes and said the blessing; then we all sat down to the traditional (and always the same) Friday night dinner of roast chicken.  I don’t know whether she continued the ceremony after my father’s death.  But I have the candlesticks; and I’ve painted a still-life of the lit candles.

My parents emigrated from Eastern Europe and brought their religious observances, with them.  Success,for a man, was measured by his profession and /or income;  for a Jewish girl, it was marriage and her role as Queen of the Kitchen. She was the  guardian of the various rites and rules of the Orthodox faith, which she observed seriously and zealously.  The mother of a friend had four daughters, three of whom (including my friend) were successes, i.e. married. The ‘failure’ was the unmarried administrator of a large hospital in another city.  That was then, but the cultural mindset remained pretty much the same until the Conservative and Reformed congregations loosened things up a bit.  And of course Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, et. al.

Later, my cousin took a photograph of Aunt Pearl, with the candlesticks and the still life she had painted of them.

My Aunt Pearl, with my grandmother's candlesticks, and a painting Pearl painted of them

Transmission of Tradition — A Cousin Considers

My grandparents Frank and Rebecca, who emigrated from Radauti, with my Aunt Pearl and Uncle Art, c. 1920. Art passed away in 2010.

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

As part of this project, I am examining — in an anecdotal way, to be sure — what I call the transmission of tradition. Specifically, I am looking at what happened between the generations of my (probably fairly religiously observant) women ancestors buried in the Jewish cemetery in Radauti, Romania and the generations, in the U.S., who came after.

The tombstones of my great- and great-great-grandmothers in the Radauti Jewish cemetery are marked by candlesticks. These two women probably fulfilled the women’s commandment to light the Shabbos candles — and maybe the other two commandments, too.

But what about us today, their descendants?

I myself am not observant, and most of my cousins married non-Jews. I have already recorded on this blog responses from some of my aunts and cousins, including my aunt Pearl, now 94 and, sadly, the recent victim of a stroke, and my cousin Nancy, who found a new direction in tradition through her involvement in the Seattle Women’s Torah project.

I’ve asked several other cousins about their relationship to Jewish tradition, observance and identity.

My cousin Merrick (Nancy’s sister and the daughter of my father’s younger brother Matthew) offered moving and evocative memories of her childhood in a small mill town on the coast of Oregon, where hers was the only Jewish family for many miles around, and a thoughtful meditation on the meaning of ritual and tradition.

Yes, Mom lit Sabbath candles when we were growing up. Even though Mom is not especially religious she probably didn’t ever consider not lighting Sabbath candles, but I suspect Mom & Dad had a special appreciation for this weekly ritual because we were so isolated from Jewish…. anything.

She didn’t hold her hands over the candles or circle them at all, she stood with head bowed and said the blessing (in English); now she holds her hands over the candles and says the blessing in Hebrew. It was sort of a special honor when we were little to be the child who she held the match out to & got to blow it out. Later, I would like to watch her as she had a certain way she shook the match to extinguish it. Friday dinners were usually a more special menu too, something like a beef roast, rice, salad, & vegetable. The candles would usually burn for some time after we left the table. It was really kind of pretty to go back into the dark kitchen for some reason with the candles burning low.

One kind of funny memory involving the Sabbath candles: We were all watching TV in the living room one Friday night when my (then) boyfriend (now husband), Mike, stopped by late and walked through the kitchen into the living room and joined in with us. After a while he remembered and said ever so helpfully, “Oh, Mrs. Gruber, you left the candles burning in the kitchen so I blew them out.” We were all stunned, and then burst out laughing. We had to go in and look at the stubs of candles sitting there in the candlesticks. No bolts of lightning… and the house still stands.

I don’t recall if I lit Sabbath candles as a young single woman. I doubt it. But candlesticks were a special wedding gift from Mom & Dad when Mike & I were married. I don’t remember if I lit candles when we were just a couple (which was only a year), but when I had children I did light Sabbath candles. I probably didn’t light them every Friday, but often (I will have to remember to ask my kids if they remember lighting Sabbath candles).

I loved lighting the candles… for any number of reasons, but really one of them was the connection I felt to a long, long line of women who did this before me and with me. Whatever Jewish traditions, few as they are, that I practice they have always connected me more to my lineage than to God…. Sabbath candles most of all. As my kids got older and life seemed busier and busier I looked forward to the brief moment of calm and gathering that lighting the Sabbath candles brought. It was refreshing. Somehow as Friday nights became obligated with the kids high school activities, Sabbath candles just didn’t get lit more and more often and then not at all. I haven’t lit Sabbath candles for years.

But now that I’m a grandmother myself, I’m realizing my grandchildren will probably only know Jewish traditions (other than Hanukkah & Passover) if I do them. Lighting the Sabbath candles is something I will begin again this fall. It’s kind of funny though, since it’s been so long since I’ve lit candles I feel kind of awkward about doing it. Will my family all roll their eyes and indulge me? Or make fun of me? I want it to be just a very natural, real part of Friday night. I wish I wouldn’t have quit, because now I will have to work to maneuver it back to that. And maybe I can’t get it there…

Tradition? I grew up as a member of the only Jewish family in a rural Oregon town. I admire how much tradition Mom & Dad (and grandparents and family), were able to pass on to us in that situation, but there are big gaps. I’m aware of that. But I still live in Toledo so I don’t have a very good gauge to know what Jewish tradition can really look like if you have a Jewish community. Right now, I don’t have a lot of Jewish tradition that I practice, but like I said earlier, that will be changing… at least a bit.

Stone-carver picture: a master at work

Tombstone carver at work, 1916 (image from Bildarchiv, National Library, Vienna)

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I’m posting this wonderful picture that Sergey Kravstov sent me of a tombstone carver in his shop in the town of Volodymyr-Volyn’skyi, Ukraine (known in Yiddish as Ludmir), in the Autumn of 1916 (the date is known from the date on the tombstone in the picture, which is assumed to have been carved — and painted — within the month after the funeral). The photo is from a glass negative held in the Bildarchiv (picture archive) of the National Library in Vienna.

The town is just inside today’s Ukraine near the Polish border, between Zamosc in Poland and Lutsk, Ukraine. At the time the picture was taken, about 6,000 Jews lived in the town.

If the finished stone show in any indication, this carver’s work was very simple — uh, minimalist? — and in no way approached the splendid sculptural style of past centuries. But — the picture clearly shows how the tombstone was painted. As seen below, this practice is still alive in Ukraine — in this picture, in the village of Sharhorod. (See comments to this post for a discussion of the methodology of painting and tombstones.)


Sharhorod, Ukraine -- sketched candlesticks and painted color.

When did candlesticks become standard shorthand for denoting a woman?

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Using candlesticks and candelabra to denote women on tombstones was very common by the mid to late 19th century in the parts of Eastern Europe where I have been focusing this study (northern Romania/Ukraine/Poland and surrounding territory). Indeed, by the late 19th century and early 20th century  this imagery was utilized almost across the board (though birds and flowers were also used) — and it still is the most common motif on women’s gravestones. By the late 19th century there was even a variety of  set designs or even pre-fab stencils or templates, including designs of fanciful candlesticks, such as the style that marked the grave of of my great-great-grandmother, Chaya Dwoira, in the Jewish cemetery in Radauti.

These designs are striking and intricate but not great examples of artistic stone-carving — though they derived from the wonderfully sculpted and imaginative stones of the 18th and early 19th centuries (and even in the 17th century). But, when massed together in a crowd, as in Radauti, they are very impressive nonetheless, providing a sense of — well — community or communality, in a way: a chorus. 100 years and more ago they would have presented even a more striking sight, as they would have been painted bright colors – traces of red, blue and green paint are still visible on some stones.

Amid the forest of stones, the tomb of Chaya Dvoira (small stone in middle, at left)

Some of these “off the shelf” designs are rooted in the earlier designs of braided candelabra branches and bases that formed the mystical “endless knot” motif. Others attach leaves or sprouts to candelabras, referring, I imagine, to the also mystical “candelabra/menorah as tree of life” motif. Some show hands blessing the flames; others do not. What is interesting, too, is that even stones that looks as if they were carved from identical stencils often differ in subtle ways — note, for example, how the hands are carved differently, and how there are other slight differences in the ornamentation.

Radauti -- tremplate design with candles sprouting leaves


Radauti -- tremplate designs with candles sprouting leaves


When did the candlesticks imagery become the norm?

In the Old Jewish Cemetery in Siret, Romania,  some of the women’s tombs dating to the very early 19th century bear candle imagery (one has the representation of an antique-looking menorah, others with more fanciful candelabra, in combination with plant motifs).

And some candelabra or candle-bearing stones in Ukraine  date back as early as the mid-18th century.

These were documented by the researchers Benjamin Lukin and Boris Khaimovich from the Center for Jewish Art, who did his PhD on 17th and 18th century Jewish tombstones in Ukraine. They report (in the book Grandeur and Glory: Remnants of Jewish Art in Galicia, p 123) that the stone of Esther daughter of Yitzchak, which dates from 1781, is one of the oldest stones in the Jewish cemetery in Kosuv, Ukraine. It shows hands blessing the flames on a seven-branched Menorah and may be one of the earliest stones to bear this image of blessing hands.

Otherwise, the older stones do not seem necessarily to use a specific visual signifier for woman. In the cemetery at Sataniv, for example, the tombstone of Rivkah bat Eliezar Susman, from 1803, bears the mysterious “three hares” carving — three hares joined at the ears an in optical illustion — in a floral medallion flanked by birds and griffons.

Sataniv, Ukraine, 2006 -- woman's tomb with the Three Hares motif

New Page on Candlestick Typology

I just want to attention anyone reading this blog to a new permanent page I have created called “Candle Types,” on the typology of candlesticks on tombstones.

I have posted representative pictures of various types of candlesticks.

They range from what I would call “classic” Shabbos candles — two matched candles in individual candle-holders — to multi-branched candelabra (including seven-branched menorahs) of various types. Some of them look as if they could have come off of a household’s shelf. Others  look like classic Menorahs of antiquity. Many are elaborately ornamental but still look like physical objects. But others still are intricate figures that weave and twist and entwine the branches of the menorah and/or the base of the menorah into fanciful convoluted forms. And some clearly combine the imagery of the Menorah with that of the Tree of Life — or, perhaps, of death, as in some examples the branches of the menorah may look like snakes.

Some stones bear images of hands blessing the flames.

In their fascinating and wonderful book Traditional Jewish Papercuts: An Inner World of Art and Symbol (Hanover NH, 2002), Joseph and Yehudit Shadur write that the intricately convoluted menorah forms appear almost exclusively  in  two places — in traditional East European Jewish paper cuts (where they are often dominant compositional elements) and on some East European Jewish tombstones. They appear to represent a development of the “endless knot” motif.

The Shadurs write (pp 170-171):

As far as we could ascertain, neither the convoluted menorah configurations nor the endless-knot motif have ever been considered as distinct visual symbols in Jewish iconography. And yet, they are so common and figure so prominently in East-European Jewish papercuts that they can hardly be regarded as mere decorative motifs.

They theorize that

the metamorphosis of the traditional menorah of antiquity and the Middle Ages into the convoluted, endless-knot configurations appearing in the papercuts coincides with the spread and growing popularization of messianic mysticism and the Kabbalah throughout the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe from the early eighteenth century on [.]

In her  book A Tribe of Stones, Jewish Cemeteries in Poland (Warsaw 1994) Monika Krajewska, a post-World War II pioneer in the study of gravestone imagery — who is also an accomplished paper-cut artist, likens the twisted menorahs to the braiding of Challah loaves — and in a way, that would mean that the images denote two of the three “women’s commandments” (lighting the Shabbos candles, “taking Challah” or removing a piece of dough when baking bread, and Niddah, or keeping menstrual purity).

Winged heads (soul effigy, angel or other)

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Yesterday I posted about my visit to Jewish cemeteries in Rhode Island — and I included a photo of the tombstone of a woman (Rebecca Polock) who died in 1764, aged 65. It bears the image of a winged head —  very similar to the images found in Christian tombstones on New England from the Colonial period, of men and women alike. (These are usually described as “soul effigies” that symbolized the soul in spiritual transition from death toward “new life” in the afterworld.) The image seems to have developed from  the death symbol of the winged skull as well as from depictions of the winged heads of cherubim.


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


Winged angel head -- gravestone of Sarah Robinson, Newport RI. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

One of the few Jewish tombstones I have seen with this image on it is this one in the Jewish cemetery in Nova Gorica, Slovenia (Gorizia, Italy). It appears to be that of a man named (I think) Avraham Rosati.

Winged head in Gorizia/Nova Gorica. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber