I Receive HBI Research Award

Images of Candles being Blessed, on Tombstones in Radauti, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I have been awarded the Michael Hammer Tribute Research Grant by the Hadassah Brandeis Institute for a project called “(Candle)sticks on Stone: Representing the Woman in Jewish Tombstone Art”.

Each year the HBI awards 20 to 30 grants to support academic and artistic projects about Jews and gender. Debby Olins, the program director, told me that my project was selected by the HBI board as "an exceptional research award" to be dedicated to the memory of Michael Hammer, the husband of one of the board members, who died last year.

It centers around the richly decorated tombstones of women in the Jewish cemetery in Radauti, Romania, where my own great-grandmother, Ettel Gruber, is buried.

Radauti, 2006

The aim of my project is to provide a photographic documentation of the often elaborate tombstones of women Radauti and (probably) several other nearby towns in northern Romania (such as Siret, Botosani, Gura Humorului, Suceava), focusing on the representation of candlesticks.

I then want to integrate these photographs with research, personal reflections and memoir to create an on-line gallery/exhibition, which will also include anecdotes, literary references, personal stories, etc. I also hope to write a broader photographic and literary essay (and/or other articles) for publication. And I plan to set up a separate blog -- linked to this blog -- on which I will report my progress and reflections during the research and writing process.

Sabbath candles are a common symbol on the tombstones of Jewish women. This 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 I visited Radauti for the first time and found the tombstone of my great-grandmother, who died in 1946 and in whose honor I received my middle name.

Radauti, 1991

I have been back to Radauti twice since then, and in the meantime I've also visited hundreds of other Jewish cemeteries as part of my documentation, research and writing for my book National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe, and other publications.