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Singing in the Cemeteries

Rokhl’s Golden City: Remembering the choir boys who worked in Jewish graveyards

Rokhl Kafrissen
October 29, 2021
Tablet Magazine; original photo; Johan Neven/Flickr
Tablet Magazine; original photo; Johan Neven/Flickr
Tablet Magazine; original photo; Johan Neven/Flickr
Tablet Magazine; original photo; Johan Neven/Flickr

There’s something so satisfying about Halloween, even aside from the joys of unlimited candy and babies in pumpkin costumes. By the end of October, the air has finally cooled down, even in our global-warming age. The lengthening nights may creep up quietly, but by the end of October, the disappearance of daylight is undeniable.

You don’t have to know anything about yearly harvest rhythms to be able to smell the crispness in the air. Summer is over but winter is not yet here. Nisht ahin un nisht aher (neither here nor there), the special pleasure of Halloween lies in that feeling of momentary residence in the magical in-between.

On the solar calendar, Halloween lies halfway between the autumn equinox and winter solstice. It has its origins as Samhain, one of the festive Celtic “quarter days.” On Samhain, this mortal world was “most susceptible to divine and supernatural interference.”

Of course, the Jewish calendar, and the Jewish year, is lunar in nature, and has little use for equinoxes or solstices. (Interestingly, though, both the Jewish and Celtic “day” starts at night.) The Jewish calendar, however, does have its autumnal inflection point. This is the month of Elul, when summer is officially over and we prepare ourselves for the heavenly judging of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is also when the dead return to hear our prayers, and, hopefully, intercede on our behalf.

In his fascinating new book, A Frog Under the Tongue: Jewish Folk Medicine in Eastern Europe, historian Marek Tuszewicki notes that festivals were a time of “divine favor,” when a Jew could make heavenly requests that could not be made at ordinary times of the year. When it came to health and the body, Elul and the High Holidays were the most important, and offered the greatest opportunities for magical-spiritual intervention. And during that time, the Jewish cemetery, the besoylem, a nexus of earth and spirit, was a magical place rivaling the synagogue in importance.

Which is not to say that the cemetery wasn’t a source of magical healing during the rest of the year. Indeed, Tuszewicki tells us that grass growing on the graves of ancestors or pious men, for example, could be used for healing. Wood from the grave of a tsadik could cure infertility, and a woman giving birth might be given a drink made of water and dust gathered from the grave of someone who was important to her. Grave dust in general was considered to have properties that could repel the evil eye. But those practices were downright quotidian compared to the drama that began in Elul.

The cemetery would be abuzz with the activity of kayver-ovesnikes, that is, Jews making ritual visits to the graves of ancestors and holy men in order to ask for their divine intercession. (Kayver-oves is a Yiddish phrase literally meaning “graves of the fathers.”) “According to folklore,” Tuszewicki writes, “the souls of the dead awaited these annual visits impatiently. In the month of Elul and on the eve of Yom Kippur … they would come back to earth to hear out their loved ones and take their pleas back with them directly before the throne of the Almighty.”

Elul was the busy season for everyone connected with the cemetery: those who inscribed gravestones, the shames who guided people to graves, and the singers who performed El moley rakhamim for visitors. “It was also,” Tuszewicki writes, “the beginning of the ‘high season’ for beggars and professional mourners.” During Elul, “the faithful were especially keen to give tzedakah as a form of spiritual expiation.”

The recitation of El moley rakhamim was a key part of the kayver-oves ritual. The singer asked God to assure a place in paradise for the deceased. In return, the mourner pledged tsedoke (a charitable money gift) in the name of the deceased. But there wasn’t necessarily a bright line dividing those who did the holy work of singing for the mourners and those who worked the cemetery, looking for charitable receiving opportunities. Indeed, the boy singers called meshoyrerim were emblematic of this merging of categories.

In his highly readable and often delightful memoir, Fun meshoyrerim lebn (From the Lives of Meshoyrerim) (1942), composer Mikhl Gelbart describes his childhood as a meshoyrer, a child member of a cantorial choir, in Kutno, Poland. The khazn (cantor) who employed the boys wasn’t obligated to pay or feed them. That meant they kept a busy schedule of weddings and brisses, at which they would sing the misheberekh blessing in return for what Gelbart calls “misheberekh gelt.” They also depended on things like collecting khanike gelt, as well as meals provided by various community members on various days.

The cemetery was an important source of income for the choir members, where they sang El moley rakhamim. Summers were a slack time for the choir members, as no weddings were permitted in the sefira period. This left the boys waiting impatiently for Elul, when the “koynim” (customers) returned to the cemetery. The rich paid more, and the poor paid less. Of course, Gelbart complains, “dos feld” (“the field,” one of the many Yiddish euphemisms for cemetery) was full of too many poor folks and too few big shots.

Gelbart depicts the cemetery as a place in which the choir boys felt quite at home. If they were in the cemetery and no “customers” were to be found, they were not above climbing into some tsadik’s ohel (tomb), opening the tsedoke pushkes (charity collection boxes) therein, and divvying up the proceeds. Sighs Gelbart happily: “az di toyte shvaygn, hobn mir oykh geshvign.” (The dead kept silent, and we did, too.)

Gelbart and his friends used the cemetery as their own personal playground, and occasional bank account, with no regrets. “Der besoylem iz far undz meshoyrerim geven take a ‘gut ort.’” (The cemetery was, for us choir boys, truly a “good place.”) Here, Gelbart makes a pun on another Yiddish euphemism for cemetery, gut ort, or good place. But it really was a good place, at least for him and his pals. The cemetery was where they held their own banquets and played cards and told jokes. But we shouldn’t forget, Gelbart writes, that more than one lively composition was written by a choir boy in the cemetery, “at the knee of the dead.”

Reading Gelbart’s reminiscences of his choir days, I’m reminded that something is necessarily missing from a scholarly work like A Frog Under the Tongue (which I’m enjoying tremendously).The roles and the work of those who made their living from tsedoke are important parts of the story of Ashkenazi folk healing. But it’s unusual to read anything written from their own point of view. Those who depended on “begging” rarely had the resources or education to write their own stories. Gelbart’s account stands out in that regard.

Remember, the reason the boys had to depend on charity was that the khazn who employed them didn’t have to feed or pay them. The boys were, in large part, left to their own devices. Their self-sufficiency, and wide range of experiences around the community, led them to develop an irreverent attitude toward Jewish life, even as they were being trained for the serious role of kley-koydesh, religious functionary.

It’s ironic that though the boys of the choir were prized for their voices as a collective, their status as individual human beings was indeed low. In the introduction, Gelbart recalls how the boys depended on the system of “eating days,” where on certain days they would have meals at certain homes. If no family was assigned for a certain day, the boy simply went hungry. No one was interested in the complaints of a choir boy. That is until one of them took matters into his own hands.

It was during the period of slikhes, during Elul, when women were in the cemetery for kayver-oves. There was a certain meshoyrer, Gelbart tells us, who would hide behind graves. When a woman began her plea to the dead for intercession, the hidden boy would answer her in a strangled voice, as though speaking from the other world: “If you want I should have peace, that I should go into paradise, and plead another year of life for you, then you should take in the meshoyrer named Fayvl and feed him on Mondays and Fridays.”

Gelbart doesn’t say if Fayvl’s ploy worked. But perhaps that’s not the point. The story tells us something just as important. The besoylem was a place that reflected shtetl norms and hierarchies. But it also held the power to disturb them. It was an in-between place, where the disenfranchised and marginalized (whether due to death or age) could talk back, and even just momentarily, make others listen.

ALSO: Jeremiah Lockwood will present “Golden Ages: Chassidic Singers and Cantorial Revival in the Digital Era,” the Salo Baron New Voices in Jewish Studies lecture. Learn how these cantorial revivalists use “sounds of the Jewish sonic past as a means of aesthetic self-cultivation.” Nov. 10, at noon. Register hereThe Vigil is a 2019 horror movie set in modern day Hasidic Brooklyn. A young man has left his Yiddish-speaking Hasidic community, but goes back reluctantly to take a job watching over a dead body the night before burial. Creepiness ensues. The Vigil is now streaming on Hulu and can be rented on Amazon. On Nov. 14, Vigil actress Malky Goldman will talk about the movie, in English and Yiddish. Register here … I know it’s a weird thing to get excited about, but we are in the middle of a golden age of scholarship on pogroms. Tune in on Nov. 30 to hear the esteemed historian Jeffrey Veidlinger in conversation with Steven Zipperstein. They’ll be talking about Veidlinger’s new book, In the Midst of Civilized Europe: The Pogroms of 1918-1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust. Register here … And if it’s not already on your calendar, you need to put Yiddish New York (Dec. 25-30) on there immediately!

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