Romania/Hungary -- Getting Ready to Go to Radauti

Dohany St. Synagogue. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I’m in Budapest this weekend, getting ready to head off to Radauti, Romania (the ancestral village on my father's side of the family) on Sept. 1 to carry out the photographic documentation for my (Candle)sticks on Stone project on representing the woman in Jewish tombstone art.

The annual Summer Jewish Culture Festival in Budapest starts tomorrow, and I hope I can catch some of the events. There will be celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the Dohany St. synagogue on Sept. 6, but I wont be able to attend because of the Romania trip. (They also are not listed, somehow, as part of the Festival...)

I also just found out that there will be some sort of ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the synagogue on Dozsa Gyorgy avenue -- designed by my hero, Lipot Baumhorn, built in 1908 and long used as a sports/fencing hall. But I so far have not been able to find out details...

A major part of the "Candlesticks" project is a photo documentation of the stones in the Radauti Jewish cemetery. (Alas, my good camera has broken, so I have to scramble to find a replacement...)

As I wrote for the web site I have set up for the project:

In Jewish tradition, Sabbath candles are a common, and potent, symbol on women’s tombs. That 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 for the first time I visited Radauti, the small town in the far north of Romania near where my father’s parents were born. The tombstone in question was that of my great-grandmother, Ettel Gruber, who died in 1947 and in whose honor I received my middle name. Her gravestone is a very simple slab, with a five-branched menorah topping an epitaph.

Since then, and particularly over the past 20 years, I have visited scores if not hundreds of Jewish cemeteries in East-Central Europe, documenting them, photographing them, and writing about them in books and articles.

Carvings on Jewish tombstones include a wide range of symbols representing names, professions, personal attributes, or family lineage — as well as folk decoration. In northern Romania and parts of Poland and Ukraine in particular, cemeteries include a variety of wonderfully vivid motifs, and some stones still retain traces of the brightly colored painted decoration that once adorned them.

Candlesticks on women’s tombs are more or less a constant: sometimes they are very simple renditions, yet they can be extraordinarily vivid bas-relief sculptures. In some instances, broken candles represent death. And in some cemeteries, the carving is so distinctive that you can discern the hand of individual, if long forgotten, artists.

I won’t be going alone on the trip, as I had thought — three of my cousins are coming with me: Arthur, and Hugh and his son Asher. (I hope we all fit in the car!) So it will be a combination art trip and roots trip, with some family gossip and tourism thrown in. I look forward to re-visiting some of the painted monasteries in the region and also eating well...

In addition, as part of the trip — and also as part of the annual European Day of Jewish Culture — next weekend I’m to take part in two presentations of Simon Geissbuehler's new guidebook on Jewish cemeteries in the Bucovina region (now divided between Romania and Ukraine). One presentation is i Radauti, and the other, on Sunday, is in Chernivtsi — Czernowitz — Ukraine, just over the border.