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.

Painted Tombstones

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This is a cross-post from my Jewish Heritage blog

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

During my recent trip visiting Jewish heritage sites in Slovakia, I came across some artwork that demonstrated the way Jewish gravestones were often painted in various colors to emphasize the carved ornamentation. (I have posted on this in the past, and have also posted pictures showing gravestones in Romania, Poland and Ukraine where you can still see traces of such polychrome decoration.)

The watercolor pictured above is a view of the  Jewish cemetery in Ungvar (today Uzhorod, Ukraine) painted in 1930, apparently by Eugen Barkany, who assembled the wonderful collection of Judaica and other objects that formed the basis of the Jewish museum founded in Presov, in eastern Slovakia, in 1928. (At the time both Uzhorod and Presov were part of Czechoslovakia — to see old postcards of Uzhorod, click HERE.) The painting clearly shows the polychrome decoration.

The Barkany collection is now displayed in the women’s gallery of the marvelously ornate Orthodox synagogue in Presov, a stop of the Slovak Jewish Heritage route (scroll down for previous posts on this route).

Here are some other paintings of cemeteries and stones by Barkany, from 1930, on display:

Can’t read it well — but, Humenne? (near Presov)
Lwow/L’viv — tomb of the “Golden Rose” (cemetery has been destroyed)

For comparison — Christian tombstones in Romania

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!


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)

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).

Different Tombstone Art

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Though the focus of this site and project is the representation of women in Jewish tombstone art, and particularly the use of candlesticks, it is interesting to see how women (and men) are portrayed artistically in other tombstone carving.

New England — where I currently am, on a fellowship at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA — is famous for its colonial period old cemeteries. In the past, I have visited one or two of them — and when I was in college at Oberlin, I had a friend from Connecticut, Charles Bergengren, who had made rubbings of many New England tombstones (and eventually wrote about folklore in New England gravestone imagery in the journal of the Association for Gravestone Studies).

From gravematter.com, a web site on cemeteries in Massachusetts and Maine, I discovered that there is a historic cemetery in Waltham dating back to the early 18th century — so I will plan to visit it in the next few days. Meanwhile, I’ve looked at the pictures from it posted on line — interesting to see that there is essentially no differentiation (at least in that cemetery) in the decoration or iconography used on the tombstones of men and women. Most seem to feature a winged skull (or occasionally a winged head) above the epitaph, with some decorative carving at the sides.