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Magical Thinking

Rokhl’s Golden City: Mourning in a time of unfathomable loss

Rokhl Kafrissen
March 12, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

It’s almost Pesakh. Who wants to talk about Yom Kippur?

Exactly one year ago I was here, on my couch at home, channeling my “novel coronavirus” anxiety into research on a newly relevant historical footnote called the Yiddish plague wedding.

I had been looking forward to interviewing historian Natan Meir about his (then) forthcoming book, Stepchildren of the Shtetl, since we met at the December 2019 Association for Jewish Studies conference. I didn’t imagine then that my hand would be forced just a few months later, as I urgently tracked him down at his university office and forced him to talk to me about this macabre bit of Ashkenazi folk magic.

The plague wedding (also known as the shvartse khupe, shvartse khasene, and mageyfe khasene) soon became a hot topic in Jewish and mainstream media. My single Yiddishist friends made nervous half-jokes about offering themselves as potential participants in a real-life plague wedding. Some Yiddishists went further, quickly turning history into theater.

Like everyone else, I found myself facing a life-threatening danger, one that had previously been unimaginable in modern America. I’ve spent almost my entire life thinking about catastrophic anti-Jewish violence and what I might do if I was in their place. This was different. I was facing the same (or very similar) enemy my ancestors had, just not the one I had always expected. What the hell do we do now?

I think many of us were so drawn to the idea of a plague wedding because it presented a ready-made Jewish response to a new danger. And when the world is turned upside down, and when science (and the government) fails in the face of complex challenges, magical thinking can provide a firm place to find one’s footing, if even just for a moment.

I’m well aware that for much of the Jewish world, studying Yiddish is synonymous with the Holocaust, and death. But for me, Yiddish was a passport to the land of Ashkenazi folk magic, an exotic, pre-modern territory. Yiddishland was the antithesis of the sterile, well-lit places where I first learned how to be a Jew. In Yiddishland, spirits and devils were the cause of illness and the residents protected themselves with amulets and strange rituals. Where Long Island was charmless, Yiddishland was enchanted, home to all the magic I grew up believing Judaism simply didn’t have.

Intellectually, I know this is a rather silly and childish point of view, one that romanticizes and distorts the Jewish past. But it took the terrifying events of this past year to fundamentally change my relationship to Yiddishland. In the past, reading that a handful of graveyard dirt was considered a cure for helish fayer or kadokhes (i.e., terrible fever) would have secretly delighted my inner Goth kid. But now, delving into the complex world of Eastern European folk medicine, as I did for a column this fall, I found it intolerably upsetting. Indeed, even as I accumulated pages of notes on the subject, I ended up not addressing the customs of folk medicine at all in my column on minhagim. By October 2020, that handful of graveyard dirt appeared not at all deliciously macabre, but the desperate resort of scared and vulnerable human beings. With my whole body, I now knew what it felt like to watch helplessly as a plague swept through my community, with modern medicine offering little in the way of prevention or cure. That’s not enchanted, it’s f’ing terrifying.

It all seems too perfectly on the nose, but here I am, exactly one year later, writing this the night before I am scheduled to receive the first dose of that miraculous COVID-19 vaccine. In March 2020, I was all-in on the magical virus anti-marriage. In March 2021, imyirtseshem, I’m filing the scientifically based divorce papers. So why am I already zooming ahead to Yom Kippur? Why can’t I just enjoy this blessed moment?

To stay with the marriage metaphor for a moment, a divorce is a lot more complicated than a marriage. Tens of millions of people still need to be vaccinated. And after that, those people, who have seen unfathomable loss, need to start picking up the pieces of their lives. Over 500,000 lives have been taken so far by the pandemic in the United States alone. It’s a staggering collective loss, compounded by our inability to gather for our most basic mourning rituals, including bedside and graveside goodbyes. But there’s still a tremendous role to be played by the old magic; if not in inoculating us against the plague, then in the process of healing our mental and spiritual wounds.

Annie Cohen is a graduate student in modern Jewish studies at JTS as well as a Kohenet (priestess) in training with the Kohenet Institute. Annie and I bonded when we were both students at the YIVO summer program in 2019. She has an abiding interest in women’s folk magic practices of Ashkenaz, and she comes to it with both an academic and spiritual approach.

Reflecting on the next stage of the pandemic, I gravitated to Pulling at Threads, the blog she has been building for her ongoing research into these folk magic practices, especially women’s roles in mourning and death. She’s posted a number of resources there on feldmestn, measuring of graves and graveyards with threads, and kneytlekh leygn, laying wicks for candles made with the threads used to measure. These practices were largely the domain of women, known as feldmesterin, and focused heavily (though not exclusively) on Yom Kippur and the period immediately leading up to it.

The candles produced with the measured wicks were called neshome likht or soul candles. These are not to be confused with yortsayt likht. A neshome likht is not burned in memory of a specific person, but if the wick is made with a fiber used to measure a particular person’s grave, then the candle could be used to ask that person to intercede for a specific outcome, or maybe even to ask their forgiveness or protection from illness. Also, many of the neshome likht were donated to the local besmedresh or house of study. In this way, women facilitated the holy activity of the men in the study house, even as they themselves were shut out from such spaces.

Significantly, feldmestn was not tied to any specific moment in the traditional Jewish mourning cycle. Being outside the tightly scripted mourning calendar gives feldmestn added appeal for mourners today. As Annie told me recently, “We can never fully understand these practices, but when we recreate them now, we’re doing something new as well as something old.” The flexibility of the practice means it “can be used for mourning or to reestablish connection with someone you didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to or to ask for protection from them. It can also be used to ask the longer deceased to help transition the newer deceased.” Feldmestn “is all about creating the connection between this world and the other.”

My friend Noam Lerman is a rabbi in Massachusetts who recently led an online class about tkhines (women’s Yiddish prayers) and included a section on feldmestn in theory and practice. I chatted with Lerman recently and they described adapting feldmestn to our current moment. Students used candles, wicks, and pictures of their loved ones to lay the wicks at a distance, when cemeteries are not easily accessible.

Lerman mentioned that this can also be used to connect with family members who may be in mass graves. As they said that, I had an involuntary flashback to the summer of 2008, when I was in Lithuania studying Yiddish. Part of the program was a day trip to Ponar, site of the mass murder of over 75,000 Jews. It was one of the most overwhelming moments of my life, and I was not alone in that feeling. We were left to sort of stumble around, crying out in emotional chaos. Looking back, I wonder what it might have felt like to unfurl a giant ball of string around that terrible place, measuring its awfulness in taut fiber to be taken home and snipped into manageable bits of candle wick. Feldmestn feels like the kind of new/old ritual that could have given shape to the unbearable incoherence presented by a mass-murder site.

Sometimes, though, we do indeed need to wail in the face of unbearable loss, or at least be led by someone who can wail on our behalf. Mourning has been associated with Jewish women since biblical times. In the book of Jeremiah, for example, we read that God was going to scatter the Jewish people because they had forsaken his teachings: “Send for the skilled women, let them come. Let them quickly start a wailing for us, that our eyes may run with tears.” The mekonenet, the mourning woman, is one of the archetypes celebrated by the Kohenet Institute. “She brings the gifts of comforting the bereaved, burying the dead, healing the mourners, and facing cataclysmic change.”

Cohen told me that she’s been learning about “how important wailing and crying was to women’s prayer, not just to women, but to the whole community, in order to help them feel connected to the prayer on a different level.” Both the professional mourner, the klogmuter, and the women’s prayer leader, the zogerin, were expected to cry as part of their performance and they had their kind of poetry of set phrases used to praise the dead and lament their loss. That crying and wailing “was necessary and cathartic and … made it easier for other people to feel and express their grief.”

Part of me finds the idea of professional wailers appealing. And part of me would give anything right now for a private, soundproof “wailing booth” in which I could scream the past year away. But there’s also an argument for cultivating silence as a part of healing, too.

I asked Aliza Einhorn, a New York City-based writer, astrologer, and self-identified Jewish witch, for her insights into healing in a time of overwhelming grief. Einhorn has counseled clients throughout the pandemic, and when I talked to her, she sounded a very different note about our collective reentry into “normal.”

“Healing is wild,” she told me, “it’s spontaneous, mysterious. Sometimes it’s dramatic, sometimes it’s not. But it’s not an endpoint. … That’s not how grief works. And that expectation hampers people, because they expect an ‘oh, I’m better now’ moment.” The difficult work of healing lies perhaps in how quiet it is. “We don’t get to healing without being able to sit with no distraction,” she said. “Not necessarily all day long, but a little, here and there …”

Though the old rituals can provide a powerful feeling of connection and catharsis, ritual doesn’t have to mean ancient practices in foreign languages. As Einhorn said, “The ritual, the bells, the whistles, they’re primal and intense and then we go back to our lives.” I could scream my heart out in my private booth, or even organize a group of klogmuters to lead a procession of wailers down Broadway. But, she cautions, we can’t expect to just scream it out and then go back to the way it was. “We don’t heal without feeling safe, and I don’t think anyone feels safe right now.” Or maybe for the foreseeable future.

The most challenging piece of advice Einhorn had for me was this: Our ability to allow slowness and stillness into our daily lives is far more powerful than any one ritual. We can use our own highly personal rituals and routines to enable that stillness. This is especially relevant for those of us who have been sheltering in place and are now contemplating reentry into the world. What does normal even look like anymore?

In her forthcoming book, A Mystical Practical Guide to Magic: Instructions for Seekers, Witches & Other Spiritual Misfits, Einhorn offers some thoughtful ideas for our moment. Ritual and routine, she writes, lead to expertise. Expertise can involve something as mundane as visiting your favorite café. That routine “could begin or end with a cup of coffee in the same seat in the same place …” In the practice of that routine, “you notice the details of the comings and goings of the establishment, the opening and closing, and thus involve yourself in human nature and adventure. This is your spiritual life because a spiritual life, spiritual path, isn’t just special activities like tarot or astrology or magic”—or, I’d add, wailing or candle-making—“but daily life. You are here.” Welcome back to now.

ALSO: On March 11 I’ll be part of This Song Is Your Song, an online event exploring the rich tradition of translating popular song into Yiddish. With special guest singer-songwriter Daniel Kahn, and presented by the Forward and Forverts newspapers … On March 21 you can tune in for a free, all-star Third Seder. A Yiddish Passover Celebration will be convened by Rabbi Avram Mlotek and will feature lots of music and singing (no prior Yiddish knowledge necessary) … 2021 presents us with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the life and work of the great Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever. On March 24, Queen’s University will present Kissing Through Glass: The Prose Poetry of Avrom Sutzkever as a Constructive Response to Tragedy. Sholem Berger will talk about his new volume of translations of Sutzkever’s prose work and my friend Miryem-Khaye Siegel will perform. Register here … Join Boston’s Ezekiel’s Wheels Klezmer Band for an evening of music, matse, and dancing at their livestream Passover Party. March 25, tickets here … If you’re looking for a Third Seder conducted completely in Yiddish, join the Congress for Jewish Culture and California Institute for Yiddish Culture and Language on March 30 at 2 p.m. Congress Executive Director Shane Baker will be leading the Seder with readings by community members. To get a Zoom invite contact the Congress for Jewish Culture through their website or send an email to [email protected] … On April 3, the UJPO and Winchevsky School in Canada will present their Third Seder with the theme of A Nayer, Frayer Velt. Email them directly ([email protected]) by April 1 to receive a Zoom link. More information here … Just reading about this event gave me (good) heart flutters: On April 25, the Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience at UCLA will present Experiencing Jewish Music in New York: A Virtual Tour, exploring the four corners of New York City and all of its Jewish cultures … If you missed it in February, you can now watch the recording of the book launch event for Michael Rosen and Helen Beer’s new bilingual Yiddish-English storybook, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt … And it’s never to soon to start practicing your Fir Kashes (Four Questions).

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.