Jewish Journal

Candlesticks on Stone

by Ruth Ellen Gruber

August 28, 2012 | 1:51 am

Women's gravestones in Radauti, Romania showing candlesticks -- with hands blessing them. The small reddish stone in the middle is that of my great-great-grandmother. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

In my last post I took note of the candlesticks motif that is often used to mark the gravestones of Jewish women—it is very widespread in parts of Eastern Europe but also found elsewhere.

I have an ongoing project about the Candlesticks motif, which I have been working on for several years—and which has its own website: candlesticksonstone.wordpress.com

I have photo galleries and individual pictures from Jewish cemeteries in Romania, Ukraine, Poland—and even the United States—showing the wide variety of ways that the candles have been portrayed by stonemasons who, in some cases, created real works of sculpture that combined religious tradition and folk art. Some, especially in parts of northern Romania, show hands raised to bless the candles.  I encourage readers to go to the site and take a look at some of the many, many remarkable images!

I worked on the project with the help of a research grant from the Hadassah Brandeis Institute (HBI) and as a Scholar in Residence at the HBI last year. I have supplemented the pictures on the web site with a blog, links to resources and other material.

From the web site:

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 1946 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.



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The award-winning American writer Ruth Ellen Gruber has chronicled contemporary Jewish developments in Europe for more than two decades. As the author of National Geographic...

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