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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.

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By Ruth Ellen Gruber

People sometimes ask me how the Jewish tombstones (those of men as well as women) that I’ve documented in eastern Europe differ from the Christian ones. I’m no expert in this, but I thought I would post a couple pictures of carved tombstone crosses from northern Romania. Indeed, here as elsewhere mainstream carving styles, as well as folk and other motifs had an influence on Jewish tombstone imagery — particularly the decorative elements, but also some symbolic imagery. The tree of life was common, and the representations of the hand of God chopping down the Tree of Life (or cutting or breaking a branch from it) were found on Jewish as well as non-Jewish  tombs (even in Puritan New England.)

These two tombs are in the yard of the painted church in the village of Arbore, near Radauti in northern Romania. The images on the crosses include grape vines (very similar to those on Jewish tombstones) as well as a bird, the sun and moon, a skull and crossbones (a common image, actually, on Sephardic tombs) — and a six-pointed star, looking like a rather out of place star of David.

Arbore. The carved imagery includes grave vines, flowers, and a wine chalice. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber)

Arbore. The carved imagery includes grave vines, flowers, and a wine chalice. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber)

 

 

Tombstone/cross in Arbore. Images include a skull and crossbones and -- at the top -- what looks like a star of David!

 

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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.


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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.”

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