A few days ago, I posted this picture of a tombstone-carver, taken in Ukraine in 1916.
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
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)