Midwives, Exorcists, and Shamanesses: Female Ritual Leaders of the Shtetl

Tuesday, October 24, 2023    
1:00 pm EDT - 2:15 pm EDT


Six Tuesdays: October 24, 31; November 7, 14, 21, 28
1:00-2:15 p.m. ET  


In stereotypical portrayals of Jewish life in the Eastern European shtetl, religion and spirituality are understood as being men’s domain, while women looked after the home and business so their husbands and sons could dedicate themselves to Torah. Although the extent to which women were excluded from patriarchal religious life should not be downplayed, scholars have revealed the “intensely lived religious lives” of traditional Ashkenazi women, some of whom even performed important ritual leadership roles.

This course will look at some of these forgotten female ritualists of the shtetl: the bobes (midwives and healers), shprekherins (exorcists), klogerins (professional mourners), feldmesterins (cemetery and grave measurers), and zogerins (a title used to refer both to prayer leaders or shamanesses). We will also highlight the cemetery as an often-overlooked site of spiritual activity. We will discuss how these roles challenge the dominant narratives of Jewish history and “tradition,” and also consider their relevance for Jewish practice today. 



$180 for six sessions.

An image of Annabel Cohen

Annabel Cohen is curator of the JTS Library’s “Living Yiddish in New York” exhibit and a doctoral candidate in Jewish History at JTS.