Bagnowka cemetery. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
By Ruth Ellen Gruber
The online Jewish Magazine runs another fascinating article by the scholar Heidi Szpek about the lives evoked by the epitaphs on Jewish tombstones, specifically those in the Bagnowka Jewish cemetery in Bialystok, where she has been doing research.
This time Szpek focuses on the reality behind the flowery and cliches language oftern used. Such epitaphs, she writes, led Jewish tombstone epitaphs to be described as
In particular, she writes of two epitaphs that "burst" her complacency. One is that on the tomb of is that of R. Aaron Lewin, who died in 1936. It reads: "Here lies a man dedicated in charitable deeds, compassionate and engaged in Torah of God, prominent in Fear [of God] and wisdom, intelligent regarding truthful words and [one] who spread Torah with whispers all his days amidst the need, R. Aaron son of R. Meir Lewin. He died in a good name 11 Kislev 5697 [25 November 1936]. May his soul be bound in the bond of everlasting life."“exaggerated clichés that have nothing to do with the dead person”, “a Baroque ornament composed from a wreath of words and phrases”, “pompous”, and “overloaded thus hard to understand.” [...] More recently, in defense of the sincerity of these attributes, Monika Krajewska commented that these words offered “the system of values accepted by the Jewish community” – values that would include the centrality of Torah to Jewish life.The repetition of such phrases can indeed lull those who engage Jewish epitaphs – be they later ancestors of the deceased, the traveler who chances upon these Jewish epitaphs, or a translator such as myself, into not pausing to contemplate the sincerity and value of these words. As a translator of Jewish epitaphs, I am at times guilty of bypassing contemplation, assuming that the next inscription will offer yet another example of these stock phrases. Yet amidst this lull of expected repetition, unexpected phrases surreptitiously burst my complacency, offering words so precious and tender in tone to awaken in me a sense of the immense love of Torah that prevailed within the Jewish community of Bialystok [...]
R. Aaron’s attributes of charitable, compassionate, scholarliness and reverence are repeated in inscriptions of other men still extant in the Bagnowka Beth-Olam in Bialystok, Poland. But that R. Aaron “spread Torah with whispers” is unparalleled. Such words give me cause to pause and contemplate: What does it mean “to spread Torah with whispers”? Did R. Aaron literally whisper words of Torah into the ears of his students, fellow scholars or family? Was the ‘need’ (ha-dahaq) which compelled him to spread Torah in whispers due to religious laxity or personal proclivities? Or was R. Aaron simply soft-spoken?