Eastern Europe -- (Candlesticks) on Stone

My great-great grandmother's tombstone (center) in Radauti. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I arrived at Brandeis University, near Boston, this week to take up a Scholar in Residence fellowship at the Hadassah Brandeis Insitute. For almost the next two months, I will be working on my (Candle)sticks on Stone project about the representation of women in Jewish tombstone art.

It is a multi-faceted project based on the photographic work I have carried out in the Jewish cemeteries of northern Romania, Ukraine, Poland and elsewhere, where the decorative carving on Jewish tombstones is often highly elaborate and scuptural.

I have long been fascinated by the iconography and purely decorative carving on the tombs -- my Candlesticks project focuses on the artistry and symbolism used on women's tombstones. Candlesticks often mark the graves of women, as lighting the Sabbath candles is the only one of the "three women's commandments" that can easily be represented in physical artistic form (the others have to do with 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.)

In addition to organizing and adding more photos to the web site, I will also be researching tombstones and symbolism -- and I will also be investigating the transmission of tradition. The main cemetery I have documented, in Radauti, Romania, is where at least two of my female ancestors are buried, each a pious woman who observed traditions and whose gravestone bears the carving of candlesticks. But, in my generation,  few if any of the descendants of these women regularly light the candles.