By Ruth Ellen Gruber
I’m in Budapest this weekend, getting ready to head off to Radauti, Romania (the ancestral village on my father's side of the family) on Sept. 1 to carry out the photographic documentation for my (Candle)sticks on Stone project on representing the woman in Jewish tombstone art.
The annual Summer Jewish Culture Festival in Budapest starts tomorrow, and I hope I can catch some of the events. There will be celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the Dohany St. synagogue on Sept. 6, but I wont be able to attend because of the Romania trip. (They also are not listed, somehow, as part of the Festival...)
I also just found out that there will be some sort of ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the synagogue on Dozsa Gyorgy avenue -- designed by my hero, Lipot Baumhorn, built in 1908 and long used as a sports/fencing hall. But I so far have not been able to find out details...
A major part of the "Candlesticks" project is a photo documentation of the stones in the Radauti Jewish cemetery. (Alas, my good camera has broken, so I have to scramble to find a replacement...)
As I wrote for the web site I have set up for the project:
In Jewish tradition, Sabbath candles are a common, and potent, symbol on women’s tombs. That is because lighting the Sabbath candles is one of the three so-called “women’s commandments” carried out by female Jews: these also include observing the laws of Niddah separating men from women during their menstrual periods, and that of Challah, or burning a piece of dough when making bread.
The first time I saw a Jewish woman’s tombstone bearing a representation of candles was in 1978, when for the first time I visited Radauti, the small town in the far north of Romania near where my father’s parents were born. The tombstone in question was that of my great-grandmother, Ettel Gruber, who died in 1947 and in whose honor I received my middle name. Her gravestone is a very simple slab, with a five-branched menorah topping an epitaph.
Since then, and particularly over the past 20 years, I have visited scores if not hundreds of Jewish cemeteries in East-Central Europe, documenting them, photographing them, and writing about them in books and articles.
Carvings on Jewish tombstones include a wide range of symbols representing names, professions, personal attributes, or family lineage — as well as folk decoration. In northern Romania and parts of Poland and Ukraine in particular, cemeteries include a variety of wonderfully vivid motifs, and some stones still retain traces of the brightly colored painted decoration that once adorned them.
Candlesticks on women’s tombs are more or less a constant: sometimes they are very simple renditions, yet they can be extraordinarily vivid bas-relief sculptures. In some instances, broken candles represent death. And in some cemeteries, the carving is so distinctive that you can discern the hand of individual, if long forgotten, artists.
I won’t be going alone on the trip, as I had thought — three of my cousins are coming with me: Arthur, and Hugh and his son Asher. (I hope we all fit in the car!) So it will be a combination art trip and roots trip, with some family gossip and tourism thrown in. I look forward to re-visiting some of the painted monasteries in the region and also eating well...
In addition, as part of the trip — and also as part of the annual European Day of Jewish Culture — next weekend I’m to take part in two presentations of Simon Geissbuehler's new guidebook on Jewish cemeteries in the Bucovina region (now divided between Romania and Ukraine). One presentation is i Radauti, and the other, on Sunday, is in Chernivtsi — Czernowitz — Ukraine, just over the border.