A mighty hand reaches out and, forming a tight fist, grasps the bough of a tree and breaks it sharply off. The image is extraordinary, even surreal. It is so vivid that you can almost hear the crack of the wood.
The tree is the Tree of Life and the hand is the hand of God -- or maybe that of the Angel of Death. The portrayal, found repeated over and over in the Jewish cemetery in Radauti, in northern Romania, is one of the remarkable sculpted images found on Jewish tombstones in several counties in East-Central Europe.
In a recent trip to gather material for a new edition of my book Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe (to be published in March 2007 by National Geolgraphic) I marveled at Jewish cemeteries in northern Romania and western Ukraine whose decorated tombstones represent striking and sometimes startling examples of artistry, design and virtuoso stone-carving worthy of a museum collection or sculpture garden.
Baroque tombstones from the 18th and 19th centuries in particular employ a richness of texture and imagery that approaches that found in the rococo decoration in some churches. The liveliness and fantasy employed by the stone-masons adds a new dimension to how we may regard the spiritual, intellectual and artistic lives of Jews who lived in traditional East European shtetls. In some places carving styles are so distinctive that you can discern the work of individual, now anonymous, artists.
Jewish tombstone decoration combines religious and folk motifs that in many cases refer to the name, lineage, profession or personal attributes of the deceased. Among the more common carved symbols are two hands in the spread-fingered gesture of priestly blessing on the gravestones of a Cohen (priest), that is, a descendant of the biblical High Priest Aaron. Another common symbol is a pitcher, or ewer, marking tombs of Levites, or descendants of the ancient tribe of Levi, priestly assistants who traditionally washed the hands of the priests.
Books mark the graves of particularly learned people; hands placing coins into charity boxes denote those who were particularly generous. Candlesticks often mark the tombstones of women, since in Jewish ritual women bless the candles on the Sabbath. The candlesticks are sometimes simple representations; others show ornate, almost braided candelabras, and some carvings include hands blessing the flames. Numerous gravestones bear symbols referring to death, such as broken candles and broken flowers as well as broken trees.
The images of a variety of animals also frequently appear. Lions may symbolize the tribe of Judah or personal names, such as Lev or Leib. Carved stags indicate names such as Zvi or Hirsch. Birds often appear, and mythical beasts, such as the winged griffin, are also common. There is often, too, a wealth of other decorative carving such as flowers, vines, grapes, and geometric forms.
Following are brief descriptions of several Jewish cemeteries that contain especially vivid examples of tombstone ornamentation. Unfortunately, due to lack of care, many of the carvings are eroding.
The most elaborate Jewish tombstone carving in Romania is found in the far northeast of the country, just south of the Ukrainian border. This is the same area where many of Romania's famous painted monasteries are located. To me, the elaborate sculpted gravestones in the Jewish cemeteries here are just as important manifestations of faith through art as are the marvelous frescoed churches - yet few people know of their existence, and even fewer ever visit.
My favorite Jewish cemeteries are in Siret, on the border with Ukraine, which has three well maintained Jewish graveyards. The Old Cemetery, dating back to the 18 th century or earlier, is in a small, walled, and very hilly enclosure and has wonderfully intricate, if weathered, stones. The two later cemeteries, a few hundred meters away, are endless expanses of tall stones that feature especially strong renditions of lions, griffins and other real or imaginary animals, as well as hands extended in blessing or placing money into charity boxes.
Radauti, the town where my own grandparents came from, is just south of Siret and has a vast old Jewish cemetery. There are many powerful examples here of the Hand of God breaking the Tree of Life - and it is easy to distinguish the handiwork of individual artists.
One part of the Jewish cemetery in Botosani is like an enchanted grove of animals. The carvings of lions, stags, snakes and birds are particularly vigorous and distinctive - quite different from renditions of these animals in other places. In the cemetery in Gura Humorului, some of the carved lions have a wonderfully primitive look, as if sculpted by a naïve artist.
The old Jewish cemetery in Suceava has some of the most elaborately carved tombstones in Romania - rich swags of sculpted floral motifs, braided candlesticks and a wealth of lacey stonework. The first time I saw it, the cemetery reminded me of Prague's Old Jewish Cemetery - except that the tombstones in Suceava were much more elaborate. Lately, the cemetery has become quite overgrown with vegetation.
Most Jewish cemeteries in western Ukraine were devastated during and after World War II, and few of those that survive are cared for properly. Some are vast areas with hundreds or even thousands of tombstones, but they are generally overgrown - or else the grass and weeds are kept down by grazing farm animals. Often the tombstones bristle in clumps, or are sunken and tilted in crazy angles. Nonetheless, The tombstones that remain in cemeteries in towns such as Busk, Kremenets, Sadhora, Sharhorod and Bolechiv include astonishing and important works of Jewish sculptural art. The cemetery in Sataniv, in particular, includes some of the rarest and most mysterious examples of Jewish tombstone carving. Three stones here bear a rendition of the so-called "Three Hares" motif - three hares shown chasing each other around a circle, each connect to the others by their ears. In an optical illusion, it looks as if each hare has two ears, but if you count them, a total of only three ears are really there. This motif has been found everywhere from China to the British Isles, but this is one of the very few cases in which it has been found in a Jewish context.
Two Jewish cemeteries in Western Ukraine that have been restored and cared for in recent years include that in Brody and Stary Sambir, where fine examples of carving can be seen. More than 2,000 trees were cut down in the Brody cemetery to reveal a forest of tall tombstones.