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Soul Candles

During the month of Elul, keeping alive a women’s folk tradition around the dead

Rokhl Kafrissen
August 25, 2023

Pudelek/Wikimedia Commons

Pudelek/Wikimedia Commons

There’s a revival of the dead in the cemetery—not of bodies, but of ritual. This is a revival of an old Ashkenazi custom of measuring graves, one that creates a hotline between the worlds of the living and the dead. As we enter Elul and the season of heavenly judgment, it feels especially pressing to ask for the intervention of those a bit closer to the courtroom.

This month, three Jewish leaders and artists will guide participants through the ritual of feldmestn, measuring of graves with thread to make dedicated candles. The event will be co-led by Annie Cohen, Eleonore Weill, and ritualist Sarah Chandler. Chandler is a Brooklyn-based educator and practitioner of earth-based Jewishness, as well as being an ordained kohenet, or Hebrew priestess.

As she told me recently, Chandler sees feldmestn as fitting right in with her understanding of “earth-based spiritual practices.” Her ritual work is connected to the earth, takes place outdoors, and is about being embodied, a perspective quite at odds with the Judaism she, and I, grew up with.

Chandler stressed the importance of having a musician as a co-leader of the ritual, the wonderful multi-instrumentalist Eleonore Weill. Her role is not to merely be an accompanist, but by playing old Ashkenazi tunes, she helps participants make an embodied-aesthetic connection to the world of our ancestors. For many Americans, being in a cemetery can feel uncomfortable or unnatural. As Chandler explained to me, when the three women led a similar event last March, they found that having a musical component to the ritual helped participants stay present in the moment and focused on their connection with the cemetery and the work being done.

The texts at the heart of this new-old ritual are a product of the hard work of co-leader Annie Cohen. Cohen is an academic (she’s working on her doctorate at JTS), a religious leader (she just received ordination from the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute), and a very busy Yiddishist, teaching classes on Yiddish language and Ashkenazi women’s rituals in classrooms across the world.

In 2019, as part of her work as a kohenet in training, Cohen began researching the history of women’s “shtetl folk religion,” especially, though not exclusively, practices relating to death and dying. For the last few years, she’s been documenting that research on her most excellent blog, Pulling at Threads.

Feldmestn involves measuring individual graves, or an entire cemetery, with thread, which is then cut and used for wicks for special candles. Dos feld is a common Yiddish euphemism for cemetery and mestn is the act of surveying land. Women called feldmesterin offered their measuring services, especially during the Jewish month of Elul. But you didn’t have to be a feldmesterin to practice feldmestn, and many women measured their own wicks for candles. During Elul, two different candles might be made: lebedike likht lit for the living, and neshome likht, soul candles, lit for the dead. Feldmestn might also be practiced throughout the year, for example, to make a candle for someone experiencing a serious illness. Nonetheless, as a women’s practice, without a basis in traditional Jewish texts, and based outdoors, in the cemetery, away from the bes medresh and shul, feldmestn was on the margins of the marginal in traditional Ashkenaz.

Grave-measuring is one of those practices that did not make the transition to the new world. American Jews are much more mobile than they were in Eastern Europe and less likely to live near a cemetery where their family members are buried. Candle making became industrialized and less likely to be done at home. And women’s folk ritual practices, including feldmestn, were far less likely to be considered valuable enough to be preserved and transmitted between generations, especially as Jews became modern and urbanized, and more likely to abandon low prestige “superstitions.”

Developments in Yiddish studies and research have made once-marginal practices like feldmestn much more accessible as an object of study. Perhaps it took someone like Annie Cohen, though, to really bring feldmestn back to the mainstream. Cohen combines an academic approach to Yiddish history, as well as training in woman-oriented Jewish ritual, via the Kohenet Institute. Cohen’s interest in the subject had been percolating for a while, but it truly tapped into the zeitgeist once the pandemic hit. If there ever was a moment to reconceptualize and reinvent these cemetery-centered rituals of death and mourning, it began in March 2020, with the arrival of COVID-19.

Cohen will be co-leading a grave-measuring ritual at the Workers Circle section of the Mount Carmel cemetery on Sunday, Aug. 27, joined by Chandler and Weill. In advance of the event, I caught up with Cohen to find out about her work and how it’s changed, now that it’s in its second year as a public event. The grave-measuring event last year was, in Cohen’s words, “more experimental.” There are some lessons you can only learn by doing, and that’s especially true for candle making.

“The tradition was in Elul to measure the entire cemetery twice, and you would use one string to make one candle wick for the living and the other one to do the same for the candle for the dead,” said Cohen. “We did this, Sarah [Chandler] and I, with Rabbi Noam [Lerman], last year.”

They didn’t anticipate that the resulting flame from such a large wick would be more like an inferno.

“We made these insane flaming torches and we realized we couldn’t light them erev Yom Kippur in our homes,” said Cohen. “Sarah [Chandler] and I were going to be leading at a Sukkot retreat at the Isabella Freedman Center. I was going to teach a class about making soul candles. We decided there’s a fire pit there, we’re going be outside a lot of time, we can light the candles there, at the end of the retreat. That’s less dangerous and this way we can include more people. On the second day of the retreat, before I did my class, Cedric [Cohen’s partner] and I went on one of the group hikes. I heard a guy with a British accent and I asked him where he’s from and he said ‘Israel.’ … I decided to push the point and I said, ‘it’s interesting that you speak English with a British accent.’ He said, ‘I’m actually originally from Sunderland.’ I said, ‘oh, that’s where my grandpa’s family is from.’ Then he said, ‘well, originally, we’re from this town in Lithuania called Kretinga.”

As it turns out, not only is Cohen’s family also from Kretinga, but it’s also the first place she ever practiced feldmestn, in the Jewish cemetery there, in 2019.

“The only Jewish thing left in the town,” she said, “is this decrepit cemetery and there’s a monument there to the women who were shot during the war. I knew my great-aunt was among them and I was just so … overwhelmed with Holocaust trauma, and I’d just been reading about it so much, and I was like, yeah, I’m gonna try it. Because Kaddish didn’t feel like enough. I was feeling like I wanted to do something. And that was also what made me think, actually this is something I want to do, and show people how to do, and not just research from an academic perspective.”

And here, in the United States, at the Isabella Freedman retreat center, of all places, she encountered this Israeli Brit, also with ancestry in Kretinga. Cohen told him she had recently visited.

“And he said, ‘Oh, what’s your surname? … Do you know the name of the ancestor who moved from Kretinga to Sunderland?’ Because loads of people made that move in the late 19th century,” said Cohen. “And I couldn’t remember my great-great-grandfather’s name. He said, ‘well, the really big Cohen family was Chatza,’ and I was like, ‘oh, that’s my great-great-grandfather!’ And he knew them! He knew and had witnessed this split that I only knew in my family between the very Orthodox who remained Hasidic, and my grandpa, who was one of the modernizers. That’s why none of my Yiddish-speaking family speak to me anymore because my dad married a convert.

“It was just incredible,” she continued. “He had been to this cemetery in Kretinga as well, and he showed me the photos, and we talked about it, and he and his children attended this workshop I did on soul candles. So literally, the first time I ever attempted making these big Yom Kippur candles, someone I bump into in America [is there at Isabella Freedman and has this ancestral connection to Kretinga] … I’m literally leading a workshop on ancestral connection and soul candles and then his children and some of his grandchildren come to it, and it was just incredible.”

I asked Cohen: Is the ritual itself still in process? Is it still being shaped or do you have a final idea of what you want it to be?

“Definitely the cemetery part is very clear,” she said. “I have some tkhines [prayers], that I found in yizkor bikher [memorial books] that real feldmesterin used to say, some poems … We’re going to teach people about what the cemetery used to mean to people, as a place that they would go and talk to their ancestors. … This was how I felt in the cemetery in Kretinga [in 2019] … I’d been in Vilnius, Warsaw, studying Yiddish all summer … everything felt really heavy. I’d been seeing a lot of monuments, stone monuments, and it felt like, especially for Holocaust victims, maybe this is one of my woo-ier moments, but it feels like we’re putting these stones on them and weighing them down and their trauma has to stand here for us and people manipulate it in all these different ways.

“I want them to be free, I want to let them go somehow,” she continued. “Still remember them, but movement, you know? And that felt so good about feldmestn, that you’re moving, you’re encompassing everyone, and you’re communicating with them and I think I was going a little bit crazy. I also brought some bubbles when I did this, because I wanted to see that the air was moving in the cemetery. It’s really cool when you do something that feels weird but it’s instinctual, and you find an academic text to back it up. … actually, based on all the research I’ve done, people really used to see the cemetery as this very busy place. Elul, all of the spirits are coming round, sitting on their graves, waiting for us to talk to them. This is not some still monument … there are souls everywhere, it’s a yarid [fair]; they’re waiting for us to talk to them.”

The ritual last year, and this upcoming year, is in the Workers Circle cemetery, I wondered if there might be a spiritual disconnect when reviving this practice at a place where, presumably, many of the people interred there had rejected traditional Jewish beliefs.

Cohen told me: “I wrote a paper on Leyzer Ran’s diary. They found his diary [in Vilnius] from when he was 15 or 16; he was from a family of Bundists, he was becoming a communist, everyone’s completely secular, and he wrote, ‘just because I don’t believe in god, doesn’t mean I don’t believe in something bigger than humans.’ It was this lovely little ramblings of a 16-year-old kid and I think that’s actually kind of my take on religion … I don’t believe in a god with a beard that I used to think was the situation when I was a kid and confused with Father Christmas ... I don’t believe in an anthropomorphic being, either. I also reject large parts of religion. I found a different spiritual understanding of all of this. I don’t think that puts me too much at odds with the Workers Circle necessarily, it’s just maybe I use different language to talk about it. Maybe some of them disagree.”

Earlier in the conversation, Cohen had described how the candle made with the wick measured around Bundist leader Vladmir Medem’s grave went out immediately after being lit. “I got the impression that Vladimir Medem really did disagree and I’m not going to measure his grave this year,” she said. “That candle did not want to stay lit.”

This summer Cohen received smikha from the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute and led an online ritual for it, inviting the ancestors of those present to come celebrate with them.

“I invited people from my cohort to send me lists of names of people they wanted to invite and a bit about their relationship,” she said. “I wrote invitations for everybody which I read out loud at this ceremony and it was really beautiful. It was a very intense thing to lead and obviously we couldn’t be in a cemetery all together because our ancestors aren’t all buried in the same place and lots of us don’t even have access to where they are. But it felt really needed … I thought we should only invite people who want to be invited but I didn’t go with the [traditional custom of only inviting the spirits of close family relatives] I just made a disclaimer at the beginning, this is an invitation and not a summoning. If you’re waiting for our invitation, you’re invited. If you’re hearing this from somewhere else and you don’t want to come, you’re not invited.

“[With things like] cemetery measuring,” she continued, “the thing I like so much about them is that whatever you believe, they’re still, I think, psychologically and spiritually good things to do. Maybe we’re being polite and inviting these spirits who are waiting for us, and we’re creating this magical connection that’s going to help us survive the next year. Or maybe it’s just really healthy to acknowledge the people we wish were around. And maybe it strengthens us internally to remember them and our relationships with them. Either way, it’s good for us, I think.”

MORE: On Aug. 27, Annie Cohen, Sarah Chandler, and Eleonore Weill will lead a feldmestn ritual at Mount Carmel cemetery. Tickets and more information hereSarah Chandler launched Shtibel Shechinah last April as a WhatsApp group that “announces occasional, in person gatherings focused on ritual weaving for urban eco-spirituality in Brooklyn, NY.” At noon on Sept. 21, Chandler and Eleonore Weill will lead a Zoom Tashlich for My Jewish Learning, called Water Serenade: Releasing Our Crumbs.

ALSO: GLYK is back with more Yiddish theater from the margins. On Aug. 27 they will present Nokhamol di ekhte balebostes: on shmalts un on zalts! or Housewives II … this time without feeling! At CPR-Center for Performance Research in Brooklyn. Tickets here … Sept. 11 and 12 is the New York Kleztival of Brazilian Jewish Music. Events include concerts and a film screening. More information here.

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

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