“Reception History Meets History: The Case of the Zabludowsky Epitaphs from Bialystok”
presented at Konferencji Naukowej
„Żydzi Europy Środkowej i Wschodniej”
University of Białystok 12-13 June 2017
“What counts [in the overall history of memory] are not objects,
mere signs and traces,
but the nature of the relationship to the past,
and the ways that the present uses and reconstructs the past.”
Pierre Nora, Realms of Memory, 1993.
The Jewish epitaph is static. Unlike biblical texts or other literary texts, it is not translated over place or time. Composed in near proximity to a person’s passing, the Jewish epitaph offers a reflection on the deceased’s life, aligned with individual preferences, family values and/or community preconceptions. Its formulaic structure and general language are part of the Jewish epitaphic tradition, dating back to the 13th century in Eastern Europe. In these components, the epitaph can contribute meaning beyond that of individual remembrance to community ideals, for example. When combined, however, with language composed for the individual, the epitaph offers the potential to remember and create a more precise history of the individual set against his or her milieu. That the Jewish epitaph holds meaning that can contribute to remembering and (re)creating history is not uniformly held but more recently its potential as a source for writing history is under discussion.
The current paper seeks to explore the Jewish epitaph as a product of reception history (what is chosen to be remembered) as well as its potential value for writing a history of Bialystok’s Jewish community (what did happen) from approximately 1865 to 1939. This time frame marks the limits of the extant Zabludowsky epitaphs from Bialystok, the specific focus of this paper. These epitaphs are recorded in two sources. The first, Abraham Samuel Herszberg’s Pinkos Bialystok, a record book of the Jewish community of Bialystok from its inception in the 16th century until just before World War II, contains epitaphs once preserved on the Old Rabbinic Cemetery in Bialystok, dating from c. 1780-1900 as well as epitaphs that may still be extant on Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery, dating from 1892-1969. The other source is the extant epitaphs on Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery in Bialystok. Today about 3000 of this cemetery’s original 30,000-35,000 tombstones, dating from 1892-1952 remain. The Bagnowka corpus of epitaphs, with reference to the inscriptions preserved by Herszberg, was recently taken up in my book, Bagnowka: A Modern Jewish Cemetery on the Russian Pale. Drawing on the epigraphic approach in that volume, the current paper will more narrowly examine the potential historical value of the Zabludowsky inscriptions in Bialystok. The choice of the Zabludowsky epitaphs derives from the prominence of this family in Bialystok beginning at the turn of the 19th century. This research will demonstrate that regardless of what is remembered, such recollection respects the mithnagdic (traditional) nature of Jewish Bialystok. Full Text Zabludowsky (The Polish translation is forthcoming in the conference proceedings volume.)
“Jewish Heritage in the Baltics”
A report delivered to the Dept. of Philosophy & Religious Studies, Central Washington University. Winter 2013.
This past summer, partly in preparation for courses I teach on Judaism and the Holocaust and partly to continue research on Jewish material culture, especially Jewish epitaphs, my travels took me back to Poland and Lithuania but then northwards for my first visit to Latvia and Estonia. In the northernmost Baltic state of Estonia, located beside the Baltic Sea, is the city of Tallinn, a city established in the 11th century. A panoramic view of this city from the Baltic Sea or moving eastward along its shores reveals the old city walls, and within these red stone walls rise the spires of Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Churches, the oldest – St. John’s Lutheran Church dates to the early 13th century. Just outside the old city is the only extant synagogue in Estonia – Beit Bella Synagogue, beside which stands a Jewish Community Center. Within this center, the third floor houses a small but detailed Estonia Museum of Jewish Life, including the newly dedicated memorial to the 947 Estonian Jews murdered in the Holocaust. While statistically the number of Estonian Jews who perished in the Holocaust may seem small, it is significant to note that Jewish settlement in Estonia was always small and did not begin until the early 19th century and then with restrictions that those Jews who did settle were once Cantonist conscripts to the Tsarist army or select merchant or guildsmen. Full Text: Jewish Heritage in the Baltics
“The Jewish Epitaphs Reconsidered: Reversing a Century of Condemnation.”
Presidential Address. Pacific Northwest Society of Biblical Literature/American Academy of Religion. Concordia College-Oregon. May 2012.
“On the Influence of Job on Jewish Epitaphs”
(better: “The Use and Significance of Job in the Development of the Jewish Epitaph”)
Pacific Northwest Society of Biblical Literature
Gonzaga University Spokane, Washington
13-15 May 2011
From the small shtetl cemetery of Drohiczyn to the largest urban cemetery of Bagnowka in Bialystok in northeastern Poland, throughout Eastern Europe and beyond, Jewish epitaphs frequently extol men as “perfect and upright, God-fearing” paralleling Job 1:1,8; and 2:3. Also, not uncommon is the epithet “he takes and gives in surety,” echoing Job 2:20: “The Lord gives and the Lord takes. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” In the lengthy acrostic epitaph of a Bezalel Nota son of Meyer (d. 1852) of Szydlowiec in central Poland, the lines building on the Yodh and Resh of his father’s name Meyer offer:
[I] The equity of his truth is in his mouth; in his lips, no wrongdoing is found.
[R] The hungry as well as the thirsty – the pleasantness of his conversation has satiated.
With these lines parallel is drawn to Job 1:22 (and Malachi 2:6) and Job 5:5. The obvious as well as subtle use of Job in Jewish epitaphs is striking. The current paper seeks (1) to demonstrate this varying use of Joban parallels; and (2) to acknowledge that a distinct use of Joban language from Job’s discourse with his friends and the Whirlwind Speeches suggests another source of provenance exists for the Jewish epitaph, in addition to medieval piyyutim and the ideology and literature of the Haskalah. ( Full Text Epitaphs Job )
Earlier works on Job:
Translation Technique in the Peshitta to Job: A Model for Evaluating a Text with Documentation from the Peshitta to Job. Journal of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series. Scholars Press, 1992. (Available at university libraries and online )
“On the Influence of Job on Jewish Hellenistic Literature.” In Seeking out the Wisdom of the Ancient. Essays Offered to Honor Michael V. Fox on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday. (Eisenbrauns, 2005): 357-370.
“On the Influence of the Septuagint on the Peshitta to Job.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 60/2 (April 1999): 251-266.
“On the Influence of the Targum on the Peshitta to Job.” In Targum Studies Vol. II: Targum and Peshitta. Paul V. Flescher, ed., USF Studies in the History of Judaism. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1998.
“An Observation of the Peshitta’s Translation of ‘Shaddai’ in Job.”
Vetus Testamentum XLVII/4 (Oct. 1997): 550-553.
“The Peshitta on Job 7:6: ‘My Days are Swifter than an ‘arg.'”
Journal of Biblical Literature 113.2 (1994): 287-290.
“Here Lies a Perfect and Upright Man”:
Jewish Epitaphs from Drohiczyn, Poland
Western Jewish Studies Association Conference
Portland State University
The present paper challenges the trivializing assertions of Early Polish historians and seeks to advance the generalizing tendencies of recent (1980s) scholarship, while not denying the linguistic and artistic value of Jewish tombstones. Drawing on the presupposition of one trend of literary criticism that a text preserves both “the social and historical conditions of the text’s production,” the present examination of the Drohiczyn epitaphs, in conjunction with the characterization of Job as found in the Talmud, the Midrash, medieval commentators and select Post-Modern to contemporary Jewish thinkers, and the frequent use of Joban language in epithets on Pre-WWII Jewish epitaphs throughout Europe, will demonstrate the esteem accorded the biblical Job among European Jewry and just as significantly, that tombstone epithets function as a ‘mirror’ of the spiritual community of Drohiczyn, Poland. Full Text: Job at Drohiczyn
“He Walked Upon a Wooden Leg: Epitaphs and Acrostic Poems on Jewish Tombstones”
Legacy of the Holocaust Conference 2007
Jagiellonian University. Krakow, Poland 24-26 May 2007
This paper offers a preliminary examination of select epitaphs from the Grodno Gubernya in Poland as a means of demonstrating the potential and significance of these epitaphs. By necessity, this examination will also be briefly review the state of tombstone and epitaph research in order to better situate this study.
Available through major university libraries.
Grodno Gubernya Imaging Project
A resource providing photos of, directions to, and condition of 26 Jewish Cemeteries in the Bialystok region. Available at: http://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/BialyGen/GGPIP.htm#TOC
“The Lions of Bagnowka: Folk Art on a Jewish Cemetery in Poland.” The Jewish Magazine. January 2015.
“The Tombstone Engraver.” The Jewish Magazine. September 2011 No. 158
“What a Thunderous Voice: Remembering Pesach Kaplan.” The Jewish Magazine. August 2011 No. 15
“I Will Never Forget You”: Letters from Jasionowka – 1887.” The Jewish Magazine. December 2010 No. 149
“August with Chaim.” The Jewish Magazine. August 2010 No. 146
“Can Ants Say Kaddish?” The Jewish Magazine. July 2010 No. 145
“The Mikveh Beside the Nurzec River: A Place of Remembrance.”
The Jewish Magazine. April-May 2010 No. 144
“In Whispers, He Spread Torah.” The Jewish Magazine. April-May 2010 No. 143
“Esther of Bialystok.” The Jewish Magazine. February 2010 No. 141
“In the Bloodshed of Their Days.” The Jewish Magazine. January 2010 No. 140
“Wooden Matzevoth” with Tomasz Wiśniewski. The Jewish Magazine. November 2008 No. 129
Articles (related to Jewish epitaphs and tombstones)
“Filial Piety in Jewish Epitaphs.” The International Journal of the Humanities. Volume 8.4 (2010): 183-202. Available on most university databases and online
“Oh Earth, Do Not Cover My Blood!”: Eastern European Jewish Identity and the Material Culture.” The International Journal of the Humanities. Volume 4.4 (2006): 7-18. Available on most university databases and online
Additional articles have been developed in my recent book: Bagnowka: A Modern Jewish Cemetery on the Russian Pale (iUniverse Press, 2017).