What medicines, precautions, and other means are employed in order to have clever children?
Do you know of the custom to seat the bride on a kneading trough, a noodle board with a pillow, etc.? Does this custom still exist today?
These are just two of the 2087 questions put together by Shloyme Zanvil Rapoport, more commonly known as An-sky, in 1912. He wrote these questions to gather ethnographic data of the Jews living in the Pale of Settlement – the area between the Black and Baltic Seas. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Pale of Settlement was home to five million Jews and was dripping with Jewish folk culture and traditions.
From 1912 to 1914, An-sky took a team of “musicologists, photographers, and fieldworkers” and traveled to over 60 towns to collect data. An-sky and his team put together a questionnaire and called it “The Jewish Ethnographic Program.”
In his book, The Jewish Dark Continent: Life and Death in the Russian Pale of Settlement, Nathaniel Deutsch explains how An-sky believed that his ethnographic research would be immediately relevant to both Jews and Non-Jews:
“Non-Jews would learn that Jews were a legitimate people – not an atavistic survival or a parasitic economic class – possessing a rich folk culture that was both uniquely Jewish and deeply embedded within the local environment. Jews, especially the growing ranks of the assimilated, would gain a deeper knowledge and appreciation of their own folk traditions and, just as important, would now be able to redeploy these traditions as the raw material for a wide range of new and, as An-sky envisioned it, authentically Jewish cultural creations, including museum exhibitions, theatrical performances, musical compositions, fine art, and literature. The result, An-sky hoped, would be a veritable renaissance of Jewish culture, one deeply rooted in tradition yet cutting edge in sensibility.” (11-12)
The encyclopedic questionnaire was published in 1914 in Saint Petersburg. Unfortunately, due to the outbreak of WWI, the questionnaire was never distributed. (14) We non-Yiddish speakers are blessed to have Mr. Deutsch’s careful translation of the questions. He lists them by number in his book and includes notes detailing his extensive research. These questions provide a glimpse into the life of Eastern European Jewry that, thirty years later, was destroyed by the Holocaust.
The Jewish Ethnographic Program was divided into five main sections: (1) the Child; (2) from the Kheyder to the Wedding; (3) the Wedding; (4) Family Life; and (5) Death. Below I list some of my favorite questions and provide some of the notations that Mr. Deutsch includes.
Put on your seat belt and enjoy the ride:
- What medicines, precautions, and other means are employed in order to have clever children? (110)
- Is it a common belief that in most cases the children will resemble the mother’s brother? (Id.)
- Is it a common belief that the appearance and resemblance of children depends on what the mother sees during the time that she is leaving the mikve [ritual bath, here taken by women after menstruation] and during her pregnancy? Therefore, a pregnant woman should not look at impure animals and fowl, on crippled, ugly, sinful, or evil people, or at ugly pictures? (Id.)
- What protective amulets, charms, and precautions are there to protect a woman from the Evil Eye? (111)
- Is it a custom for all the students from the kheyder [lit. a room, more broadly a religious elementary school . . .] in town or for students from just one kheyder to come over and to recite the verses beginning “Hear o Israel [see above, no. 95]? (125)
- Note to 125: “Students from the kheyder that was nearest the newborn would visit. . . . On the seventh day of life, the behelfer (teacher’s assistant) would lead the kheyder children after learning to the house of the woman who had given birth and there would recite the Shema with them. . . . Morris Goldstein informed the author that boys from the town beys yesomim (orphanage) would come to recite the Shema a day before the bris. . . . [In another account – ] When a boy was born, the melamed would write out a Shir Hamayles. The behelfer (also belfer), or teacher’s assistant, would then lead the students to the house of the woman who had given birth. The behelfer would attach the Shir Hamayles to the cradle rope and then lead the students in the Shema. Upon leaving, . . . the local Jewish midwife, would reach into her apron full of nuts and candies and give some to each boy, declaring ‘God grant that you should be fruitful and multiply.’” (125-26)
- What do people say when a child sneezes?
Note on 277: “a lebn ssu dir (life to you); zolstu zayn gezunt (may you be healthy) and the most popular – tsu gezunt (to your health) Jewish sources operate on the principle that “sneezing carries the danger of breathing out the soul.” (140)
- What do people say when a child yawns? (Id.)
Note to 278: “[Y]awning could be a sign of the Evil Eye and therefore required protective measures, such as incantations and spitting.” (Id.)
- What do people say when a child farts? (Id.)
- What do people say when a child coughs? (Id.)
- Do people smear the alefbeys tablet with honey so that the child will lick it? What is the reason for this?
- Is the kheyder located in the melamed’s home or in another house?
Note on 389: “Typically the kheder was held in a room in the home of the melamed. . . . ‘Only in about 20 percent of the schools investigated was a separate room specially provided in the house of the teacher. In the remaining 80 percent the schoolroom was the living room of the teacher’s family, which was at the same time the sleeping room, the kitchen, etc.’” (153)
- How do young scholars amuse themselves during the nights of Khanike [Hanukah] and nitl [Christmas]?
Note on 606: “Jews were encouraged to play games on Hanukkah. For some Ashkenazi Jews, especially within Hasidic communities, Christmas Eve, known as nitl, was the only time during the year when Torah study was discouraged or even prohibited. The name nitl almost certainly derives from the phrase Natale Dominus though alternative folk etymologies also exist. Rather than learning Torah, Jews who followed this custom would typically play cards or other games. . . . However, Misnagdim did not accept this practice and continued to learn as on any other day. (169)
- Do they play kvitlekh [special Jewish playing cards] cards?
Note on 607: “Jews did not use popular playing cards because of the crosses and other Christian symbols found on them. Instead, there were special, handmade Yiddish cards called Lamed-alefniks or kvitlekh. The cards were decorated with Hebrew letters (standing for numbers), common objects – such as teapots, feathers, and sometimes portraits of biblical heroes.” (170)
- What do the rebetsins teach girls besides reading and writing Hebrew letters?
Note on 863: “In the girl’s khyeder, the rebetsin would teach the girls how to pray, read and write Yiddish, count, and write out an address in Russian. The text books were the siddur, the tkhine, Tsene-rene and Nakhlas tsvi.” (187)
- Do you know of cases or stories from the past in which a match was made between children before they were born? (195)
- What trades are generally considered vulgar, and what are their degrees? Which of them is considered more vulgar than the others?
Note on 1000: “The water carrier, the vaser-treyger, was one step above the beggar.” Indeed, the water carrier appears as the lowly laborer, par excellence, in many accounts of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.” (201)
- Is it still a custom to dance before the khupe [a canopy under which the marriage must take place] on a broom? Who dances, and what do people say at it? The reason for it?
Note for 1119: “At the wedding of the last child in a family to be married, the mother of the bride would dance with a broom. This dance, known as a mazhinka, signified the sweeping out of the household of marriageable children.” (114)
- Are there men and women in your community who can conjure away an Evil Eye? Who are they in general (religious school teachers, female bathhouse attendants)?
Note on 1600: “Exorcists and folk healers existed in every Jewish community of the Pale of Settlement.”
- Is it a custom to turn over or to cover the mirrors? What is the reason for this?
Note on 1707: “People cover mirrors with a cloth, so that they will not see the image of the Angel of Death with a knife in his hand, and it remains hanging like this for the entire shive week.” (271)
- Do people place forked wooden twigs [gepelekh] between the fingers of the corpse? What is the reason for this?
Note on 1909: “[T]o this very day  among Polish Jews the dead are provided for their long subterranean journey [through underground tunnels following Resurrection, . . . ] with little wooden forks, with which at the sound of the great trumpet, they to dig and burrow their way from where they happen to be buried till they arrive in the Land of Palestine.” (291)
- Do you know any stories in which the soul of a dead person that cannot find rest becomes a dybbuk [lit. ‘something attached’, a malevolent spirit that attached itself to a living person] and enters a living person?
Note on 2034: “The term dibbuk comes from a Hebrew root meaning ‘to cleave,’ and it refers to the malevolent soul of a dead person who inhabits or cleaves to the living person. Dibbuk is the mirror image of the phenomenon known as ibbur, or ‘impregnation’ in Kabbalistic sources in which a righteous soul temporarily inhabits the body of a living person in order to help the latter perform a commandment or to perform a commandment that it was unable to perform itself in a previous incarnation.” (305-06)
Amazing right? An-sky took the information he gained during his study and wrote about it. One of his works is the play The Dibbuk. The play was made into a movie – in Yiddish with English subtitles. You can rent it on amazon prime.
Shlomo and I watched it and loved it!