Thursday, February 24, 2011

Poland -- Danny Ghitis' photos of Oswiecim

A cozy cafe in Oswiecim. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Danny Ghitis is a talented young photographer who has taken a great series of pictures about Oswiecim -- the living town in southern Poland outside of which is the infamous Auschwitz death camp. I'm delighted to see that a selection of them is featured on NPR. Before World War II, most of the residents of Oswiecim were Jewish.
Many tourists come in buses to Auschwitz for the day and may not notice the people who live in the surrounding towns. "Those who do notice," Danny Ghitis writes on his website, "a nearby shopping mall, high school sweethearts holding hands, nicely dressed families are headed to church — are faced with an impossible question: How can life exist in the aftermath of such overwhelming evil?"

Ghitis, Brooklyn-based photographer and grandson of a holocaust survivor, was plagued by that question, and spent some time in 2010 exploring the psyche of Oswiecim — as well as his own. "I was aware of my own strong biases," he writes in an e-mail, "but as a journalist I knew the reality of this town had to be more complex than is often painted."

Years ago, I wrote a long, long essay about being snowbound for three days iat Auschwitz and exploring the town of Oswiecim and how the looming shadow of the death camp affected the town -- it formed the final chapter of my book Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today. The book is out of print -- but it's still a good read!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Poland -- Changes and modernization coming at Auschwitz Museum

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The New York Times runs a long story on plans for change at the main exhibit at the Auschwitz memorial museum, from memorializing to teaching. These changes are long overdue. For teenagers, the Holocaust is ancient history: as the article point out, there are kids today visiting Auschwitz whose grandparents were born after WW2. Visitors need to learn from what they see as well as learn about what happened.
Now those in charge of passing along the legacy of this camp insist that Auschwitz needs an update. Its story needs to be retold, in a different way for a different age.
Partly the change has to do with the simple passage of time, refurbishing an aging display. Partly it’s about the pressures of tourism, and partly about the changing of generations. What is the most visited site and the biggest cemetery in Poland for Jews and non-Jews alike, needs to explain itself better, officials here contend.
A proposed new exhibition at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum here, occupying some of the same barracks or blocks, will retain the piled hair and other remains, which by now have become icons, as inextricable from Auschwitz as the crematoria and railway tracks. But the display will start with an explanatory section on how the camp worked, as a German Nazi bureaucratic institution, a topic now largely absent from the present exhibition, which was devised by survivors during the 1950s.

The Auschwitz museum/memorial was founded in 1947, and throughout the communist period made scant note of the fact that the overwhelming majority of victims there were Jewish -- I can't remember, but I doubt if homosexuals or Roma were even mentioned. Changes came of course after the fall of communism: information panels were added, misleading captions and other information was rectified, a new official guidebook was published, and the "pavilions" dedicated to individual countries were thoroughly revamped. But the exhibition itself remained largely the same.

It is important to point out, too (the New York Times story omits this) that for the past 10 year the Auschwitz Jewish Center has functioned in the city of Oswiecim (outside of which the Auschwitz camp was built). It is located in the sole surviving synagogue in the town -- which before WW2 had a majority Jewish population. The synagogue is a functioning house of worship, and the complex includes a study and research center as well as a permanent exhibit about pre-war Jewish life in Oswiecim.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Candlesticks on Stone - another cross post: a stone-carver reflects 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 Library, 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 by a Ukrainian art critic and ethnographer named  Taranoshchenko 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 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

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)

Vienna -- controversy over destroyed Holograms during renovations
Aftermath of the destruction of the Vienna Jewish Museum holograms. Picture taken from

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Wow. I'm just catching up with the controversy in Vienna over the destruction of the the Jewish Museum's acclaimed signature permanent exhibition of Holograms during renovation of the building and creation of a new exhibit. As JTA (and German-language media) reported,  directors of European Jewish museums and other educational institutes wrote an open letter to Vienna Museum Director Danielle Spera condemning the destruction of the 21-Hologram display, which had been installed in 1994 as the museum's main permanent historical exhibit.

The letter's signatories included directors or high-ranking staff members of Jewish museums in  German, Holland, France, Austria and Belgium. They said they expected colleagues to "show dignity and respect for their own institutional history. And the same dignity and respect should be shown to our colleagues and their work." The holograms, they said, "were among the most remarkable presentations of Jewish history in the world of Jewish museums and beyond."

The issue prompted criticism after pictures  showing the shattered glass of the destroyed holograms appeared in museum blogs and elsewhere.

The Vienna Museum, located in the Eskeles Palace in downtown Vienna, closed down in January for a six-month overhaul that will bring it up to building standards and also  install new exhibits throughout.

Writing on the web site of the Vienna Jewish Museum, Peter Menasse, director of the financial and organizational department, said that the team had wanted to preserve the holograms which had "become almost a trademark of our house." He said the Technical Museum was going to take some of them and the rest were to have been stored and conserved.
However, suddenly the steelwork and glazing experts we assigned found they had an unsolvable problem. The more than 100 kilo heavy glass shields were not only screwed to the floor with steel cross braces, but were also glued in place. The shields could not simply be taken out, as that would require the use of heavy machinery. The glass shields in question are made of safety glass similar to the glass used in car windshields. Even the smallest damage to any part of the glass would result in the complete destruction of the entire shield.
Preserving the shields, as we had originally intended, proved impossible. The pictures of the broken glass shields have upset us, as well as many museum experts. The one drop of comfort we have is that we have two smaller series of holograms, meaning the technology will not be lost forever.
The shocking destruction of the Holograms (an exhibit designed by Felicitas Heiman Jelinek and Martin Kohlbauer) and the polemics in its wake seem part of a general series of disputes and politics on various levels at the Museum. (Politics that have been exacerbated with the total renovation of the institution and also the nomination of Danielle Spera as museum director last summer). Critics accuse the new administration of failing to recognize the value of the older exhibit. According to
Hannah Holtschneider, of the University of Edinburgh, writing in Museologien, an Austrian Museology blog:
There is no recognition on the part of the Museum of the critical acclaim of the exhibition. This is astonishing as the international community has commented favourably on the innovative design and critical features of the exhibition which had the holograms as a centrepiece. Among the critics and international commentators on the exhibition, the holograms were appreciated both as a significant medium of display and as artefacts on display which were able to involve the visitor physically in the discovery of approaches to Jewish history in a post-1945 exhibition in Europe. Thus the holograms were not simply a display technology, such as a glass case or television screen, but part of the collections of the Jewish Museum Vienna. Critics point to the principles of ICOM which explicitly state that such artefacts need to be preserved and cared for.

I must say, I loved the hologram exhibit, and the entire museum -- though it was clearly time for an update and overhaul.

It was really cutting-edge when it opened, perhaps the European Jewish museum where the questions, theories and dilemmas embodied in Jewish representation and the Jewish museum experience had most consciously and to such a degree been translated into the actual practice of exhibition. I looked at the museum closely in my book Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, (which BTW is now available on Kindle) and also at that time -- in 1997, so not long after it was opened -- interviewed Felicitas. This is what I wrote:

Visitors to the Museum’s permanent historic exhibition [...] are confronted not by traditional display cases presenting documents, torah scrolls, Holocaust memorabilia or Jewish ritual objects, nor do they find dioramas or didactic installations. Missing, too, is a commemorative section or memorial dedicated specifically to the Holocaust. Instead, they step within a bare room housing 21 holograms: ghostly three-dimensional images of ritual objects, paintings, photographs, documents, and architectural models, rather than the real thing.

Each hologram represents a specific stage, facet or theme associated with Austrian Jewish history and the relationship between Jews and Austrian society: "Out of the Ghetto," for example. "Houses of God," "Zionism," "Anti-Semitism," "Loyalty and Patriotism," "From Historism to Modernism," "Shoah," "Vienna Today …" Most of the images are holographic still lives that combine groupings of various source material, some of which are easily understood objects in themselves, while others are defined by context or elaborate back stories recounted in the ample information notes that accompany each piece. The hologram entitled "Banishments," for example, shows what is described as a seventeenth century Torah curtain that a Viennese couple took with them to Prague when they were expelled from Vienna in 1670, along with a pile of film canisters described as containing a copy of the classic movie Some Like It Hot, which was directed by Vienna-born Billy Wilder, who fled Berlin after the Nazis took power in 1933. The hologram representing "Fin de Siecle" includes images of an array of artifacts owned, used or associated with turn-of-the-century Jewish cultural figures: writer Karl Kraus' glasses, a candlestick from a music stand used by Gustav Mahler, a book by Arthur Schnitzler with a flyleaf dedication to Theodore Herzl, Sigmund Freud's bookplate, playing cards designed and used by Arnold Schönberg.

Eerily glowing red and green and yellow, the images are captured on sheets of plexiglass that look totally transparent until the visitor stands directly before them; unless the panels are approached, the room, indeed, looks empty: even in the museum catalogue, the photograph captioned "The Historical Exhibition" shows a room with seemingly nothing in it but windows, lights, a parquet floor and scattered, three-meter-tall transparent sheets. The hologram images appear, move and shift with changed angles of vision; the objects seen are virtual objects; the scenes are glimpses of a virtual reality -- one even includes a holographic film clip; they are seemingly three-dimensional images that exist but don't exist: a "real" virtual Jewish world.

"Holography could prosper only in America, a country obsessed with realism, where, if a reconstruction is to be credible, it must be absolutely iconic, a perfect likeness, a 'real' copy of the reality being represented," wrote Umberto Eco in the mid-1970s.[1] Yet the curators of the Vienna exhibit had the opposite in mind. Their aim was precisely to reject any attempt to present a "real" real image of Austrian Jewish history and experience through the conventional use of the objects, documents and displays typical of museum exhibits. The use of the incorporeal holograms attempts to show the imprecise nature of memory and the role played by imagination and interpretation in viewing and presenting the past. History is not an absolute; physical objects represent the historical meaning that we ourselves assign to them. Even what is "carved in stone" is subject to interpretation. The use of holographic objects and scenes that are "there" but "not there" at the same time is also, obviously, a striking means of elaborating a sense of Jewish absence and the continuing impact of the Jewish past on the present. The exhibit, which opened in 1996, is called a "place of remembering." We see the objects, but we see through them, too. The holograms are nothing -- but many things altogether, "mnemonic devices" or "memory aids in the form of abbreviations". [2]

"A historical exhibition cannot show or explain everything," the museum's then chief curator Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek, who designed the Hologram installation, told me in 1997. "So why not say from the beginning that, in principle, we cannot do it. Perhaps it makes more sense to think about the relativity of history and historical presentations than to say this object means this, and this year was that, and this event meant such and such, and so on – because it's not true. We cannot reconstruct history; we should openly say that we are only its interpreters, and nothing else." The Jewish Museum of Vienna thus offers a radical and highly sophisticated approach to the problem of dealing with history, memory and absence. For Heimann-Jelinek, the function of the exhibit is to force its audience think and reflect about the Jewish experience and the impact of the Holocaust on the present. "This installation gives people the opportunity to think about what would have been possible, what could have happened, what could be different today," she told me. "The hologram room is a very peaceful surrounding; it is a bit like a prayer room because on the one hand it is so spacious and on the other hand it is very calm. People don't talk loudly; they read the information panels and look at the holograms. There is a very contemplative atmosphere."

[1] Eco, Travels in Hyperreality, pg 4
[2] Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek, "On the Historical Exhibition at the Jewish Museum of the City of Vienna," in Jewish Museum Vienna, Vienna (catalogue of the museum), pg 62. See also her article "On the Re-Organization of the Jewish Museum of the City of Vienna," in Jewish Museum Vienna Newsletter, No. 8/9, March 1996, pg 2.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Candlesticks on Stone - Typology...another cross post from the blog

Here's a cross post of my latest entry on the (Candle)sticksonstone web site

More thoughts on candlestick typology

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.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Exhibitions -- More on Mark Epstein show in Kiev

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I posted recently about retrospective show of the work of Ukrainian (Jewish) avant garde  artist Mark Epstein -- the Forward has a nice piece going into detail about the artist and his work.

Born Moyshe Epshtein in Bobruisk, White Russia, Epshtein moved at a young age to Kiev with his family, where he entered art school. According to one story, when Epshtein was barely 10 years old, his mother sent him to bring water from the well. When he didn’t return his mother went looking for him, and found him building a sculpture of Leo Tolstoy out of snow. A neighboring photographer took a picture of the boy with his sculpture, and the picture was later was given to the Tolstoy Museum.
The story illustrates not only Epshtein’s talent and love of art, but also the tragic fate of his work. Like his childhood snowman, almost all of Epshtein’s sculptures have been lost or destroyed, with only a photographic record of them remaining. Moreover, because of his overt Jewishness Epshtein was never included in official versions of Soviet art history. Neither has he been much appreciated by Jewish art historians, presumably because his artistic vision didn’t accord with their own ideas about Jewish art.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Jewish Museums -- New article on Casablanca

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I have posted in the past about the Jewish Museum in Casablanca, Morocco -- to date the only Jewish museum in the Arab world. (For web sites on Jewish Morocco, click HERE and  HERE)

There is a new article now on AFP/European Jewish Press.

Founded in 1997, the Jewish museum assembles a hodgepodge of objects -- clothes, tools, even a jeweller's studio -- that attest to the rich history of the country's 2,000-year-old Jewish community.

"It's the only Jewish museum in the Arab world," said museum curator Zhor Rehihil, a Moroccan civil servant who is Muslim.

Some 5,000 Jews live in Morocco today -- including 2,000 in Casablanca, according to Rehihil's estimates.

The school visits "show to Moroccans that there are other Moroccans with other religious beliefs," she said.

And the museum's philosophy?

"That the Jews of Morocco did not disappear without a trace," says
76-year-old Simon Levy, who has directed the museum since its creation.

He wants Morocco to acknowledge its Jewish heritage in other ways -- namely in history textbooks, which he says is not currently the case.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Candlesticks on Stone - another cross post from the blog

Tombstone carver at work, 1916 (image from Bildarchiv, National Library, Vienna)

Stone-carver picture: a master at work

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I’m posting this wonderful picture that Sergey Kravstov sent me of a tombstone carver in his shop in the town of Volodymyr-Volyn’skyi, Ukraine (known in Yiddish as Ludmir), in the Autumn of 1916 (the date is known from the date on the tombstone in the picture, which is assumed to have been carved — and painted — within the month after the funeral). The photo is from a glass negative held in the Bildarchiv (picture archive) of the National Library in Vienna.

The town is just inside today’s Ukraine near the Polish border, between Zamosc in Poland and Lutsk, Ukraine. At the time the picture was taken, about 6,000 Jews lived in the town.

If the finished stone show in any indication, this carver’s work was very simple — uh, minimalist? — and in no way approached the splendid sculptural style of past centuries. But — the picture clearly shows how the tombstone was painted. As seen below, this practice is still alive in Ukraine — in this picture, in the village of Sharhorod. (See comments to this post at the Candlesticks on Stone blog for a discussion of the methodology of painting and tombstones.)

Sharhorod, Ukraine -- sketched candlesticks and painted color.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Middle East -- Synagogue being restored in Damascus

This is off geographical topic, but Bloomberg runs a piece by Massoud A. Derhally noting a project begun in December to restore synagogues in Damascus, Syria.
Albert Cameo, leader of what remains of the Jewish community in Syria, says he’s trying to fulfill an obligation to his religious heritage. The 70-year-old is organizing the restoration of a synagogue called Al-Raqi in the old Jewish quarter of Damascus built during the Ottoman Empire about 400 years ago. The project, which began in December, will be completed this month as part of a plan to restore 10 synagogues with the backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and funding from Syrian Jews.

“Assad sees the rebuilding of Jewish Damascus in the context of preserving the secularism of Syria,” said Josh Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. “This is an effort by the regime to show its seriousness and an olive branch to the Jewish community in America, which they have been wooing.”
While Syria is still officially at war with Israel, the country is trying to portray itself as a more tolerant state to help burnish its image internationally. Syria’s 200 Jews are mirroring the actions of their co-religionists in Lebanon, where restoration work began on Beirut’s Maghen Abraham Synagogue in July 2009.

Candlesticks on Stone -- cross post from the blog

Here's a crosspost from the Candlesticks on Stone blog, considering the question of  when did candlesticks become standard shorthand for denoting a woman.

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Using candlesticks and candelabra to denote women on tombstones was very common by the mid to late 19th century in the parts of Eastern Europe where I have been focusing this study (northern Romania/Ukraine/Poland and surrounding territory). Indeed, by the late 19th century and early 20th century  this imagery was utilized almost across the board (though birds and flowers were also used), and there was even a variety of  pre-fab templates of fanciful candlesticks, including the style that marked the grave of of my great-great-grandmother, Chaya Dwoira, in the Jewish cemetery in Radauti.
These templates are striking but not great examples of stone-carving — though they derived from the wonderfully sculpted and imaginative stones of the 18th and early 19th centuries (and even in the 17th century). But, when massed together in a crowd, as in Radauti, they are very impressive nonetheless, providing a sense of — well — community or communality, in a way. 100 years and more ago they would have presented even a more striking sight, as they would have been painted bright colors.

Amid the forest of stones, the tomb of Chaya Dvoira (small stone in middle, at left)

Some of these “off the shelf” designs are rooted in the earlier designs of braided candelabra branches and bases that formed the mystical “endless knot” motif. Others attach leaves or sprouts to the candelabras, referring, I imagine to the also mystical “candelabra/menorah as tree of life” motif. Some show hands blessing the flames; others do not. What is interesting, too, is that even stones that looks as if they were carved from identical stencils often differ in subtle ways — note, for example, how the hands are carved differently, and how there are other slight differences in the ornamentation.
Radauti -- tremplate design with candles sprouting leaves

                     Radauti -- tremplate designs with candles sprouting leaves

When did the candlesticks imagery become the norm?

In the Old Jewish Cemetery in Siret, Romania,  some of the women’s tombs dating to the very early 19th century bear candle imagery (one has the representation of an antique-looking menorah, others with more fanciful candelabra, in combination with plant motifs).

And some candelabra or candle-bearing stones in Ukraine  date back as early as the mid-18th century. These were documented by the researcher Boris Khaimovich from the Center for Jewish Art, who did his PhD on 17th and 18th century Jewish tombstones in Ukraine. Boris reports that the stone of Esther daughter of Yitzchak, which dates from 1781, is one of the oldest stones in the Jewish cemetery in Kosuv, Ukraine. It shows hands blessing the flames on a seven-branched Menorah and may be one of the earliest stones to bear this image of blessing hands.

Otherwise, the older stones do not seem necessarily to use a specific visual signifier for woman. In the cemetery at Sataniv, for example, the tombstone of Rivkah bat Eliezar Susman, from 1803, bears the mysterious “three hares” carving — three hares joined at the ears an in optical illustion — in a floral medallion flanked by birds and griffons.

Sataniv, Ukraine, 2006 -- woman's tomb with the Three Hares motif

Friday, February 4, 2011

Romania -- Lo-Tishkach publishes a gallery of my photos

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Lo-Tishkach web site has published a gallery of my photos of Jewish cemeteries in Romania. You can view it by clicking HERE

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Candlesticks on Stone -- Tombstone Typology

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I have created a rather cool page on my (Candle)sticks on Stone web site, showing some of the many different types and styles of candlesticks used to decorate the tombstones of women in Eastern Europe.
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).