Monday, February 15, 2010

Poland -- Women's lives and history in Bialystok Jewish Cemetery

 Tombstone of Esther, daughter of R. Alperik,  in the Bialystok cemetery. The epitaph (trans. by Heidi M.Szpek) reads: "Here lies a proper, God-fearing and upright woman, [in] secrecy she performed her many righteous deeds. Our beloved and precious mother, Esther daughter of R. Aperdik. She died Tuesday 11th Tishri 5669. May her soul be bound in the bond of everlasting life. [In Russian] Estera Wolkomirskaya.. She died 24 October 1908." Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Just in time for Purim (which falls this year on Feb. 28), the scholar Heidi M. Szpek has published another fascinating article in the online Jewish Magazine on the Jewish cemetery in Bialystok.  It focuses on the women named Esther whose tombstones are found there, and what we can learn about their lives from the epitaphs and carvings.
She was important, upright, modest, and extraordinary in the performance of good deeds. She was kindhearted, pleasant, precious, and God-fearing. She was a girl, a young woman, not yet a mother, a mother, and an elderly woman. She was a martyr, a Rabbi's wife, the descendant of a prominent rabbinic lineage, the crown of her children's head, and an Eshet Hayil – a "woman of valor". Such are the virtues and character of not one Esther but of the 38 women named Esther as remembered in the extant Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian and Polish inscriptions on the Jewish tombstones in the Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery in Bialystok, Poland.
Of the over 2000 extant inscriptions, nearly half remember women (including girls). Among these women, the name Esther is rivaled only by that of Chayya and Sarah. Each time I translate the inscription of an Esther I contemplate whether Bialystok's Esthers emulate their namesake, the biblical Esther, or the rich legends of Esther preserved in rabbinic literature. ( Read full article in the online Jewish Magazine. )
 Szpek is a Professor of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Central Washington University (Ellensburg, Washington) who is currently writing a book on the Jewish epitaphs from Bialystok (I linked to another of her articles HERE). She has worked with Tomasz Wisniewski (who has posted photos and translations of the epitaphs on Bialystok Jewish tombstones on his web site

In her Esther article, Szpek illustrates how the imagery and inscriptions tell how women died in childbirth, or how young girls died before marriage. (For more on imagery on Jewish women's tombstones see my (Candle)sticks on Stone project.) But she also notes that women in 19th and early 20th century Bialystok fulfilled roles that went far beyond the home life of wife, mother, sister and daughter:
 Women were also nurses, social workers, administrators for Linas Hatzedek, which gave aid to the poor and sick, and for the Bialystok Relief Society. Women were students and teachers; they served in the administration of the Bialystoker Youth Society, one organized and served as 'mother' of the Bialystoker Orphans. Women were youth athletes, founders of the Maccabi Sport Club, and actresses in the Habimah Players. Women were needleworkers at the "Ort" workshops in Bialystok, active Zionists in Poale Zion and embraced the socialist ideals of the Bundists. They sat on strike committees as early as 1901, and continued to march against unfair labor practices in the 1930s. Women managed their late husbands' estates, served as leaders in the Bund, even dying in the tragic Sabbath Nahamu in July 1905 when the Tsarist Army rose up against the protesting Jewish Bundist workers.
Read full article in the online Jewish Magazine

Purim is Judaism's most joyful holiday, and Esther, of course, is its heroine. The Jewish bride of the ancient Persian King Ahasuerus, she (with her uncle Mordechai) foiled the plans of Ahasuerus' wicked advisor Haman to to annihiate the Jewish people. The story is told in the biblical book of Esther. The  scroll -- the Megillah of Esther -- is often kept in a decorative contained and is read out in the synagogue, in full, on the holiday (giving rise to the Jewish expression "the whole megillah" meaning a long and detailed account, i.e. chapter and verse.)

Another Esther figures in Polish legend -- in the 14th century King Kazimierz the Great was believed to have a Jewish mistress named Esther (or Esterka). There is an Esterka street in Krakow's old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, and her name is associated with castles and other sites.

1 comment:

  1. I left a long comment about cowboys and "Crazy Heart" but have had trouble posting it. I live in the wild, woolly west. Love your site and we have so much in common! I have an award-winning novel based on my Polish family history and have visited Warsaw and Krakow. Would like to communicate with you!
    Marcia Fine