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.
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.
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.