“Lasting through stone”

The archive and archeological investigations initiated about two decades ago are starting to yield. Generous scholars – supported by then-Chief Rabbi dr. Moses Rosen – became involved in consistent research campaigns in order to unveil the rich Jewish spiritual heritage that blossomed on the Romanian territories in close connection with the local sources of culture and civilization. The very first data that were communicated and interpreted already anticipated the spectacular results that were to come. The first who set an example was Paul Petrescu, in his study, “History and symbolism”, published in “The 20th Century”, 282-283 (number 6-7/1984). His work had a strong ethnographic component, but was illustrated with reproductions – genuinely sensational for those times – of tomb stones from old Jewish cemeteries located mainly in upper Moldavia (Husi, Bacau, Siret).

Today, the mediaeval Jewish cemetery in Siret is the subject of a monumental volume (“Lasting through Stone”) written by historian Silviu Sanie and edited by “Hasefer” Publishing House. The current state of the town (a very modest one) cannot diminish its fame for having been a princely residence for a short while, at the middle of the 14th century. Even after the Moldavian princes moved their residence to Suceava, important trade routes continued to pass through Siret, which also implied an intensified traffic of people. Along with the Polish expansion towards Galicia came not only all sorts of merchants, but also numerous pilgrims, many of whom were Jews. The proofs of the solid community they formed in Siret remained carved in the tomb stones to speak to the future generations. Some of the stones survived the inclement weather for almost three centuries. Carefully cleaned of the time’s sediments, freed from the bushes, thoroughly inventoried, they fully reward the researcher’s efforts, while their extraordinary expressiveness astonishes those who see the reproductions. After hundreds of years, the language of the lapidary inscriptions still evokes a way of life, beliefs and homogenous rituals, a high degree of self-respect, admirably crystallized in the artistic cut of every letter and motif; it is as though the stone let itself to be modeled, persuaded, fascinated by the substance of the tradition meant to bind generations together. The enumeration of the stereotypical formulas, the transcriptions of the epitaphs (almost 350), may seem useless; but the fact that the same words (“let his soul be absorbed in the tie of the eternal life”) are repeated in 1761, 1801 and 1831, betrays a sense of continuity, transmitted from father to son, the equivalent of those deep, unified convictions obtained through education in the spirit of the Torah and the Talmud. Hence the respect for learning and for those who carry on the cult of the book: “Here lies the master of the Torah, the special, pious benefactor, our sage, Mr. Beniamin, a friend, the one who will always keep his place of honor in our hearts…”. Judging after the frequency of the inscriptions of this kind, one may deduce that Siret used to shelter an intense spiritual life, in observance of moral precepts, meant to be the pride of the community, and to guarantee the keeping alive of the memory of the deceased. Most of the epithets used have ethical meanings (“an honest and righteous man”, “the wonderful, pious, blessed father”, “the important and modest woman”). The names that were used are very interesting too. What strikes is their variety. There are names used obsessively (i.e. Abraham, David, Dov, Mose, Leib, Meir, Ithac, Josef), but also unique names (Gad, Dvora, Kiva), proving great inventiveness. One might speculate a lot on the names chosen, especially if they are associated with the figurative representations that accompany the inscriptions. This matter is still to be explored. There is a sacred side to them, but also a mundane one, bearing heterogeneous elements, due to the influence of the environment or even of those who made the works, who were often Christian craftsmen who did not hesitate to add elements of Romanian folk art (a fact that was noticed by Paul Petrescu).

The field of the reflections is worth extending. Silviu Sanie made up a map of 60 notable Jewish cemeteries, covering the entire Moldavia, from Darabani to Focsani. The record begins at the places of Fundoianu’s childhood, passes Dorohoi (the native town of Calugaru and Sasa Pana), Piatra Neamt (where Victor Brauner was born), and reaches Tristan Tzara’s Moinesti. These places were imbued with debates on Hassidism and, at the same time, had a beneficial effect on the birth of the artistic avantgarde. The meetings of the “Licht” circle in Iasi would often put tradition and its challenge face to face. The encounter proved fertile, and its consequences spread until today.

Geo Serban