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.”

Braided Candlesticks on a Great-Great-Grandmother’s Stone

At the tomb of my great-great grandmother (my Grandma Becky’s grandmother) Chaya Dvoira Herer Halpern, in the Radauti Jewish cemetery. She died Feb. 22, 1905 at the age of 69)

(This is a duplicate of a post to my Jewish Heritage blog)

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Sept. 8, 2009

My cousins all left, but I have stayed in Radauti for a couple more days, continuing my photo documentation for my (Candle)sticks on Stone project — and also carrying out some more family history research — and making discoveries, some of them even rather surprising: the grave of my great-great grandmother; the house where she lived; questions about my grandmother’s birth date and circumstances; even the date of my great-grandfather Anschel’s death.

I’m not obsessive about genealogy by any means, and in fact — despite the fact that I have visited my great-grandmother Ettel’s grave on several occasions over the year (click HERE to see the progression) — I have never really looked into our family history in a serious way.

But our session at the town hall with Dorin Frankel last week, and our subsequent trip to Vicovu de Sus and discovery of what we believe was the house where our great-grandfather Anschel lived in 1880, left some loose ends that needed tidying, or at least some questions that I wanted to try to answer. I couldn’t leave town without at least trying to resolve them.

One of these was a street address in Radauti — strada Larionescu 20 — that my second cousin, Rae Barent, who has made a serious effort a tracing family history, sent — and which was confirmed by the records I looked at during a second session with Dorin at City Hall yesterday. This was the address where my great-great grandmother, Chaya Dvoira Herer Halpern, lived.

I also found out, by correlating the information found in the archives (and some sent by Rae) with info at the Radauti Jewish heritage web site (lots of cheers to the people who put together the amazing documentation material on the cemetery) that Chaya Dvoira, the daughter of Moshe (Moses) Mortko and Ruchel Hörer, died Feb. 22 1905 at the age of 69 — the registry gave her cause of death as “old age” — was buried in the Radauti Jewish cemetery. It also described her as single, not a widow (which probably means that her marriage, like that of her daugher Celia — Zirl — and David Rosenberg, my grandmother’s parents, had not been formally registered with the city officials. From the registry, I could see that this was a fairly common practice.)

This morning, armed with the plot and row numbers I found on the Radauti cemetery web site for a “Chaya Dvoira daughter of Moshe Morko” who died in 1905, I returned to the Jewish cemetery. Mr. Popescu showed me the row — and I entered the tilting forest of stones, again crunching through the undergrowth in my boots. I had to scrutinize the Hebrew epitaphs on each one, testing my basic Hebrew to its limits. After half an hour or so, there it was: I could read the name. The stone is smaller than some of the others, but it has the typical braided candlesticks and hands raised blessing the flames, beautifully carved. And there are still traces of red and green paint. I pulled away a strand of stray vines: not sure what, if anything, I actually felt. Glad to be there; cognizant of distance, time, realms; the passing of time and history. Wishing the others could have been there too. Wondering what she looked like!

Amid the forest of stones, a piece of my distant past. The small stone on the left. Photo: Ruth Ellen Gruber

My cousins and I had tried to find Larionescu street, but in today’s city there is no record of it. Dorin Frankel, however, knew where it was — near the synagogue — and he walked with me there after our session yesterday morning at City Hall. The street name has been changed, but the house is still there — nicely maintained and modernized inside.

Looking into courtyard of house at Larionescu 20.
At Chaya Dvoira’s pump. Strada Larionescu 20.

Other information I came across in the City Hall registry books, during a couple of hours there with Dorin Frankel:

— my great-grandfather Anschel Gruber (the one who lived in the house we found in Vicovu de Sus) died in 1914, possibly in September of that year. But his death wasn’t recorded in the registry until 1920. The book says he is buried in the Radauti cemetery.

— There is no birth record for my grandmother, Rebecca Rosenberg, who I thought was born in about 1895…. BUT there is a record of the birth to Rebecca’s parents, Zirl (later Anglicized to Celia) Halpern and David Rosenberg (not officially registered as married at the time), in Oberwikow, or Vicovu de Sus of TWINS on Sept. 25, 1899 — including a daughter Rifka (Rebecca in Yiddish) and a son, Jüdel, whose bris was on Oct. 2. The family left for the States in about 1906, but Jüdel’s death is included in the Radauti City Hall registry (though added in 1920), indicating he must have died very young.

The “Women’s Commandments” in Epitaphs

In the “articles” section of the sidebar, I have posted a link to a fascinating article by Evyatar Marienberg from Tel Aviv University called “A Mystery on the Tombstones: ‘Women’s Commandments’ in Early-Modern Ashkenazi Culture.” It focuses on the inscriptions on women’s tombstones in the Jewish cemetery in Rosenwiller, in Alsace in eastern France. The article appears in  Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal, vol. 3, No. 2, Winter 2003

The abstract states:

In a cemetery in Alsace, many of the women’s tombstones bear the inscription that the deceased kept the so-called “Women’s Commandments.” The article argues that two reasons may, among other reasons, account for this custom: one is for the sake of the deceased, proclaiming that she has atoned for the sin of Eve, and the other is for the sake of her descendants, arming that they are not “Bnei ha-Niddah,” descendants of a woman who ignored the Jewish laws regarding menstruation.

As I noted on the home page, these “Women’s Commandments” include lighting the Sabbath candles, observing the laws of Niddah separating men from women during their menstrual periods, and observing that of Challah, or burning a piece of dough when making bread.

In the article, the author notes the tombstone of a woman who died June 22, 1837, on which the epitaph details her adherence to all three — it’s the only epitaph to be so explicit that he found. The stone does not seem to bear any decorative carving. The inscription reads:

Here is buried a

woman, Mrs. Breinel,

the wife of the

respected Yehudah,

known as Leib from

Kolbsheim, her hands

were open for the

poor, the candle of

Sabbath she lit on

time, the bloods of

her Niddah she

properly distanced,

from the kneaded

dough she separated

Hallah, she is the

wise woman, on

Thursday, the 19th of

Sivan, (5)597, may

her soul be in the

sack of [those

designated to] life,


Rosa Susnitsky — No Candles

Tombstones of Rosa and Pesach Susnitsky, Brenham, Texas

Tombstones of Rosa and Pesach Susnitsky, Brenham, Texas, 1992

Rosa Susnitsky, my step-great-grandmother, was the daughter-in-law of Celia Susnetzky. Born in 1872, she was the second wife of Pesach Susnitsky and died in 1948. (Pesach’s first wife, Gillie, was my grandmother’s mother.) I think I was given my name, Ruth, in Rosa’s honor.

I uploaded a photo of Celia’s tombstone showing that it bore the traditional candlesticks.

Rosa is buried, next to Pesach (Philip), Celia’s son, in the Jewish cemetery in Brenham, Texas — but her headstone does not bear this emblem.

Shirley Moskowitz web site

piazzaMy latest “Ruthless Cosmopolitan” column for is about the web site we have set up to honor my mother, the artist Shirley Moskowitz Gruber, who died two years ago.

Mom is buried in a municipal cemetery shaded by palm trees. Like most of the other grave markers there, a simple, flat plaque rather than a standing tombstone denotes her resting place.

All that is written about her is her name and the years of her birth and death. And there’s a menorah, following the tradition of marking Jewish women’s graves with depictions of candlesticks.

But there is no epitaph. Nothing that tells about who she was, where she came from, how she lived or the way she was regarded.

The fifth commandment enjoins us to honor our fathers and mothers.

This year, as the second anniversary of Mom’s death approached, my brothers and I joined the growing ranks of children who now choose to honor their parents online, creating a Web site to celebrate our mother’s life and commemorate her. Also, since my mother was an artist, we wanted to share images and information about her work.

Essentially what we did with the Web site was to etch an epitaph for Mom in cyberspace, picking up on an age-old tradition of personifying the deceased through words chiseled into solid stone.

Read Full Article

Candlesticks on my great-great-grandmother’s tombstone

On this web site and blog, I am focusing on the representation of women in the Jewish cemetery in Radauti, Romania — where my paternal great-grandmother, Ettel Gruber, the mother of my father’s father, is buried. She died in 1947, well into her 90s, and having survived deportation to Shargorod, in Transnistria during World War II. I was given my middle name, Ellen, in her honor.

But — I want to post here the photograph of the gravestone of one of my materal great-great-grandmothers, Celia Aronson Sustnitsky (spelled here Susnetzky), showing that it, too, represents the woman with a depiction of candlesticks. Celia was the mother of my great-grandfather, Pesach (Philip) Susnitsky, who was the father of my mother’s mother, Flora Susnitsky Moskowitz.

Tombstone of Celia Susnitsky, from Terri Meeks (2004)

Celia, born in — I think — what is now Lithuania, died at the age of 80 in New York on Sept. 24, 1911; she died, the epitaph says, on Rosh Hashanah. Along with her husband, Samuel, she is buried in the Union Field Cemetery. (He died in 1903.)

Here is the epitaph, as translated by my friend Lucia Apostol, in Bucharest, who has kindly offered to help with some of the translation for this project:

A modest woman, known for her warmth, integrity and and kindness , she has dedicated her entire life to the well being of her husband and she has been irreplaceable for him, and (she) gave best care and guidance to her children.
Daughter of Slava and Shmil (Shmuel?) Ari Susnetzky
She died on Rosh Ha-Shanah at the age of 80 .

The photograph was sent to me in 2004 by Terri Meeks, a great-granddaughter of Celia and Samuel (and avid family historian), who found the graves.