Painted gravestones in the Jewish cemetary in Radauti, Romania.(Ruth Ellen Gruber)

It was the first week in September, and in cowboy boots and jeans, camera slung over my shoulder, I crunched through the springy thick tangle of undergrowth that carpets the old Jewish cemetery in Radauti, a market town in the far north of Romania, near the Ukrainian border. Around me stretched the crowded, ragged rows of tilted tombstones: gray and mossy green, some still bearing remnants of the blue and black and red painted decoration that once adorned the exquisite, ornate carving on their faces.

Radauti is the town from which my father’s parents emigrated to the United States before World War I, but this, for me, was not supposed to be a roots trip. Nor was I consciously fulfilling the tradition of visiting the tombs of my ancestors around the time of the High Holidays.

I was here this time to work on a project called (Candle)sticks on Stone, an exploration of the varied and evocative ways that women are represented in Jewish tombstone art through depictions of Shabbat candles, which I hope eventually to turn into a book.

The project, which is supported in part by a Jewish women’s studies grant from the Hadassah Brandeis Institute, includes making a photographic documentation of Jewish women’s tombstones in Radauti and in several other nearby towns, including Siret, Botosani, and Gura Humorului. The older tombstones in these and other Jewish cemeteries in parts of today’s Romania, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, and Poland form an astonishing collection of ornate sculptural design. Many cemeteries have disappeared; in many others the stones are eroded and crumbling. But those that remain comprise wonderful examples of vivid local stone-carving that fuse local folk art and Jewish iconography.

The wide range of carved symbols represent names, professions, personal attributes, or family lineage. There are lions, birds, stags, bears, snakes, and imaginary beasts; there are flowers, grapevines, garlands, and geometric patterns; there are the pitchers of the Levites, the crown of the Torah, and the hands of the Cohanim raised in blessing; and there are powerful symbols of death: the hand of God plucking a flower or breaking off a branch from the Tree of Life.

Here and elsewhere, candles and candlesticks are common symbols on Jewish women’s tombs, because lighting the Sabbath candles is one of the three so-called “women’s commandments” carried out by female Jews—and the only one easily represented in visual terms. (The others include observing the laws of menstrual purity, or Niddah, and that of Challah, or burning a piece of dough when making bread.)

Many are simple, schematic silhouettes, but here in the heart of Eastern Europe they also take on extravagant, elegant forms: carved candlesticks braided like loaves of challah; candlesticks that look like leafy plants, candlesticks flanked by grapevines and griffins, candlesticks that look like flowers, candles that are broken to symbolize death. Above them, on many of the tombstones, are the carved hands of women, held up in a pious gesture to bless the flames.

A primary aim of my (Candle)sticks on Stone project is simply to present these carvings as examples of art. The older stones, from the 18th and early 19th century in particular, are unique examples of sculptural skill and imaginative design: it is often possible to discern the hand of individual, if now anonymous, Jewish stone masons or their workshops. And while later stones, often carved according to stenciled templates, present a more uniform appearance, their style and format still varies greatly from town to town.

Another aim is more reflective. As a Jewish woman who has almost never lit the Shabbat candles in my home, I also cannot fail to consider what this representation means. Candlesticks on stone are a formalized shorthand for “Jewishness” and “gender.” But they also spell tradition.