Interview with Annabel Cohen
Sarah Biskowitz: How were you introduced to the spiritual
traditions of Yiddish-speaking women, trans, and gender
Annabel Cohen: I grew up Reform in the UK, and Judaism
was a big part of my life. I think one of the reasons was that
through my Jewish community I learned about feminism. I
had a female rabbi for my bat mitzvah. My mother had
converted, and she really wanted [my sister and I] to have
an equal Jewish education. But something that struck me
more and more as I grew up was everything I was learning about women and gender non-conforming people in Judaism, everything was people who were not men stepping into male roles.
And I noticed this also in the rest of my life. I went to posh British all-girls school and we were supposed to become lawyers and doctors and prove we were just as good as men. Often I found that I was being taught to behave in what was considered a “masculine” way. In 2018, I started studying with the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, and by this time I had already done a history degree. Uncovering stories from the past is my thing, and a big part of Kohenet is about finding the forgotten story of the non-men in Judaism and showing how important they were and are and have always been, even if they’re not the people who we usually remember.
At the same time as I started doing the Kohenet program I also started studying Yiddish full-time, and moved to Paris to do an intensive Yiddish language and literature program at the Paris Yiddish Center. I was just reading Yiddish books all day long, and I noticed these women doing witchy stuff or religious stuff or leading ritual, popping up in stories in times of crisis or when someone’s sick. These women have titles. They are not the rabbi or the talmud khakhomim [scholars]. This gets called folk religion, but I don’t think the people who lived with it would have considered it that. It was just religion, it was part of Judaism. At Kohenet, everybody has to do a Priestess Project and I decided that that would be mine, uncovering and translating as many stories about these women in, let’s call it, shtetl folk religion as I could.
SB: Did anything in this tradition especially speak to you, and if so, why?
AC: The thing that got me really excited at first was just simply the existence of these folk ritualists. There was a clear sign that people who had spiritual skills, who were not part of the small educated male elite, were recognized and were considered really important by their communities. There were stories of midwives who, when they died, all of the people in the town that they helped to deliver walked after their coffin holding candles, and the idea that they remained connected to all the souls that they brought into the world.
I also read a story about a midwife who was considered so skilled that even when she was in her late 90s and she couldn’t walk, they would bring her to watch over a childbirth just because she was believed to have some kind of ability or power. They needed her to be there even though she couldn’t even walk, she was carried there on someone’s shoulders.
The other thing that I found immediately exciting was the fact that a lot of these roles that I read about in Yiddish texts mapped onto the Priestess pathways that Rabbi Jill Hammer has excavated from biblical and other texts. These are archetypes of female leadership, or traditions of religious leadership in Judaism that were not male-dominated, or not part of that patriarchal elite.
SB: Did these experiences illuminate any surprising discoveries or conclusions for you?
AC: One of the Priestess pathways that we study at Kohenet is the mourning woman. We read about them in the Bible in Jeremiah. They existed in the shtetl and they were called klogmuters in Yiddish. The practices that move me the most and that I’ve most wanted to recreate are practices around death, and the way to have a continued relationship with the dead.
I guess it’s pretty obvious to me why that spoke to me: my mother died when I was very young. I had PTSD from her death, and I did not really mourn properly until I was much, much older. One of the things I was instructed to do in therapy was to talk to my mum. No one had ever suggested that I do that before. These ritualists in Eastern Europe–they used to do that all the time. They didn’t just talk to the dead, they asked them for stuff, they called them in. They really lived in relationship with the spiritual world, including with those who have passed. Whatever you may believe about spirits and the afterlife, I just think it’s actually very healthy.
And they really called on Jewish ancestry as well. They really had these deep connections with ancestors who they used in all kinds of ways, for healing, for protection, and just simply to respect and honor them, because for them, they were present.
I think when I was growing up, and I actually lost quite a few people in my family quite young, the narrative was always just keep going on, they’re in a better place, don’t cry. Raw grief is often treated as a scary, crazy thing. But klogmuters would just be hysterical on people’s behalf at the gravesite and they would say everything: What am I going to do without you? How am I going to survive? They even say the most mundane things, everything you could miss about a person. They really encouraged the mourner to let out all the rage and the sadness, and I think that’s also really important and something that we’re not always encouraged to do today.
SB: Are you interested in reclaiming and reviving any of these practices? If so, how?
AC: I got particularly interested in the practice of cemetery measuring because I did it. It was completely spontaneous, I was visiting the shtetl that my family came from in Lithuania, and the only remaining Jewish place was the Jewish cemetery which was really run-down. Most of the grave stones were broken and fallen down and I wasn’t able to find family members, and there were monuments to the women of town. The only person I know in my family who remained there during WWII was a woman called Golda, who I think was my great-great aunt or my great aunt, and she was murdered with the women of the town in the cemetery. There was a monument to the murdered women.
I had just done a full summer of intensive Yiddish courses, first in New York and then in Berlin, and I was really dedicated to living this culture. Then traveling around Eastern Europe, I encountered so many monuments to destruction. It was a very emotional trip.I felt kind of overwhelmed and I didn’t know what else to do. I had just read this incredible fictional account of two feldmesterins measuring a cemetery during the Russian Revolution, and I decided to buy some string and I just did it. I didn’t do it right - I had not actually planned to do this, I kind of saw this as some research that I was going to do for other people who are more skilled ritualists and ritual leaders than I am. But it felt freeing.
It’s difficult to describe but the act of moving around the cemetery and drawing this string around it, it felt like this connection that I couldn’t have done otherwise, that I couldn’t have achieved. The fact that it looked so crazy also felt good. It felt right as well to do this kind of practice that has been forgotten, in this place where so many people have been buried and forgotten in mass graves. I’ve since led the practice with other people in lots of different scenarios. Every single time I’ve thought that people aren’t going to come to this, or they’re not going to want to do it, it’s too weird, and every time people have been really enthusiastic, especially with the process of making the candles. You don’t just memorialize your dead, you really talk to them and you call them in and you ask them for things. Usually this is done just before Yom Kippur, and you ask them to help protect you on the day of judgment, to advocate with God on your behalf, to help you in the new year. That was something people really engaged with in a way that I wasn’t expecting.
SB: How can this legacy be incorporated into the contemporary progressive neo-Hasidic movement, and Jewish practices and communities at large?
AC: [Tkhines] require a kind of spontaneity and a willingness to get in touch with emotion that is often really hard for us, and it’s really hard for me. I often feel very out of place in Kohenet for that reason, and whenever we're doing something that requires us to be really embodied and in touch with emotions I always feel like I’m doing it wrong. These things can be difficult. Wailing in particular that’s something I just find really difficult. It’s something I’ve been taught my whole life not to do, so I think there is a kind of barrier there, but I think that’s where we need to look at these things and break them down for people. There are a lot of people doing that work.
Whenever I’ve managed to find evidence of something that was written about a real feldmestern, or a real zogerke who spoke to the dead, or a klogerin, a mourning woman, they all had their own ways of practicing. This was a tradition, it was something that was passed down, but these were things that were done quite spontaneously and they adapted to different situations, so we can do that too. In order to bring these practices to communities now we need to feel into them by trying them out and recreating them or looking at the texts, and trying to figure out what the intention was behind them. There are loads of people doing amazing work, Rabbi Noam [Lerman], Kohenet Sarah Chandler. My feeling is that when you bring this stuff to people, they want it and so I think it’s definitely something that can be brought to communities today.
Annabel Gottfried Cohen is a PhD Student in Modern Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She has a Research Masters in History with distinction from the University of London. She teaches Yiddish with YIVO and the New York Workers' Circle, and in the coming academic year will be teaching Yiddish language, literature and culture at the Sorbonne University, Paris. Annabel is one of this year's Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellows, for which she is translating the memoirs of Communist journalist and activist Gina Medem. Annabel also researches and translates materials relating to Jewish women’s religiosity in Eastern Europe, publishing some of her work on the blog www.pullingatthreads.com. Her essay on feldmesterins – cemetery measuring women – was published in the anthology Strange Fire: Jewish Voices from the Pandemic, Ben Yehuda Press 2021.