About carving gravestones, today

In the currently used Jewish cemetery in L'viv, Ukraine

In the currently used Jewish cemetery in L’viv, Ukraine

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I just came across this fascinating article, about the process of creating a gravestone memorial, on a public radio station in San Francisco — How do you Capture a Life in Stone? Blending Artistry and Culture to Honor the Dead.

The author, Melanie Young, speaks with gravestone carvers who work today in the area — including one immigrant from the former Soviet Union, who explains the technique used there, which includes detailed etched portraits of the deceased and other sculptural forms.

Leon Radar opened Art in Stone in the 80s during a wave of Russian immigration. His son, Michael, immigrated with the family and he explains, “The Russian Jewish community, they’re accustomed to what they saw back in their homeland and they didn’t have anybody to manufacture it for them.”  

Leon Radar learned his craft in the Soviet Union. “I came to work with artist when I was 14 years old. Step by step I learned. Working, working, drawing, drawing.”  

Through his training, Radar mastered the very distinctive Russian style. If you go to the Russian section of the Jewish cemetery, it feels a little like you’ve entered a fairytale. Huge, granite sculptures rise up to represent the dead. They cover the entire grave and reach as high as 16 feet. Some take the form of a loved one’s passion, such as a life-size guitar or grand piano for a musician, or a winding strip of film for a photographer.  

For many years, Radar also hand-etched images into granite. Much like creating a tattoo, he would use a needle and etch in each dot. He created vivid images. The work was slow and painstaking. But he says he didn’t mind.

“Oh I love it,” says Leon Radar. “When I work I don’t need food, I don’t need water, I don’t need anything, I am fully in this work.”

Today, Leon Radar’s son, Michael, says computers have changed all that.

“We have a different technique now. It’s also etched in stone but it’s half computerized half sand blasted,” Michael Radar explains.

In a way, the process transforms granite into a photographer’s lens. Families can design much more intricate and realistic imagery for their loved ones. Michael Radar points to an example of the work.

Stone-carver images

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The wonderful imagery on East European tombstones was created by talented and extraordinarily creative stone-carvers who are now, for the most part, anonymous. Everyone so often, a photograph of a more recent traditional stone-carver turns up. Sergey Kravstov has sent me the image below.

Stone-cutter in Ostroh, Volhynia (c. 1912-14)
The illustration is from the catalogue: The Jewish Art of Solomon Yudovin (1892-1954). From Folk Art to Socialist Realism, by Ruth Apter-Gabriel (Jerusalem, 1991). Yudevin was a wonderful artist born near Vitebsk, the same town where  Marc Chagall was born.

The drypoint at right, dated 1939, is clearly based on the photo at left, taken in Ostroh/Ostrog in Volhynia — probably during the  expedition into Ukraine led by the Yiddish writer An-Sky  in 1912-14 to document the rapidly disappearing Jewish cultural life of the shtetl.  This would mean that it was taken by Yudovin, who was a photographer on that expedition. It’s a very dramatic shot and to me looks staged!

I have tried to figure out what the design he is carving is — but I can’t make it out….

Here below is a wood cut by Yudevin that shows a funeral at a shtetl’s  Jewish cemetery — including the gravestone of a woman that bears the typical candlestick motif.

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)