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

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