Field School on Jewish Ethnography and Epigraphies in Transnistria 
(July, 4-16 2017)

A field school expedition to Transnistria was organized and held by "Sefer" Center on July 4-16. It became a continuation of the work that “SEFER” conducted in this region earlier: expeditions in Podolia (Ukraine) and Moldova in 2005-2012.

The school was organized with the support of Genesis Philanthropy Group, UJA Federation of NY and other sponsors.

The expedition brought together 30 participants from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and Latvia. After the general meeting in Chisinau and the introductory lecture by Valeriy Dymshits "Jews of Moldova and Transdniestria in the historical and ethnographic perspective," the expedition was divided into two teams: ethnographic team (led by Svetlana Amosova and Maria Kaspina) and epigraphic one (led by Mikhail Vasilev and Alexandra Fishel). In addition to the main work performed within each of the teams, the school participants had the opportunity to listen to the lectures on topics related to the research work and participate in workshops of leading specialists in the area of Ethnography and Epigraphies.

Program of the School-Expedition

Ethnographic team
worked in three cities of Transnistria - Tiraspol, Bendery, Rybnitsa. These are the cities where large Jewish communities exist and various Jewish organizations (Sokhnut, Hesed, etc.) are active, there are functioning Jewish cemeteries there as well. Several interviews were recorded in Kamenka. During the expedition ethnographers worked not only with Jews, but also with the non-Jewish population of Rashkov and record memories about the Jews living there and various stereotypes about them. A separate group worked with the Old Believers in Tiraspol, the main goal of this group was to record memories of Jewish life in the city and the relationship of the two ethno-confessional communities. 

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130 interviews in Russian and Yiddish were collected during the field work, researchers participated in the Saturday services in the synagogue of Tiraspol and in the community "Jews for Jesus" in the same city, met with representatives of the religious community of Bendery and with the caretakers of Jewish cemeteries in Tiraspol and Bendery. In many ways, the work of the team was continued by earlier studies of the Jews of Podolia, Bukovina and Bessarabia, which were conducted during the schools-expeditions of the "Sefer" Center from 2005 to 2012.
The main topics of the interview were: the forms of traditional religious Jewish life in cities (the functioning of synagogues and minyan in the Soviet era, the existence of shoyhets, baking matzah, etc.); informal Jewish economy in Soviet times; Jewish folklore (songs, games, sayings in Yiddish were recorded); rites of the life cycle (omens and prescriptions associated with pregnant women, descriptions of hupas and local variants of funeral rites, interesting regional differences were recorded in Bendery); ceremonies of the calendar cycle; cooking recipes; folk medicine and others.

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One more successful finding was a set of interviews recorded with the residents of Rybnitsa about the famous Rybnitsky rabbi, who lived in the city from 1941 to 1972. Some Jewish families still keep items that were received from him as amulets. In Bendery the researchers managed to talk to Arkady Petrovich Golyanovsky, the former physics teacher and the collector of a unique archive of proverbs, sayings, various small genres of folklore in Yiddish. He began to collect his materials in the late 1950s. in Podolia, Bessarabia and Volhynia. His archive consist of several thousand units of storage at the moment. 


As part of the evening workshops, the daily results of the group's work were discussed, the work of the next day was planned, and several reports were heard and discussed.

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The work of the epigraphic team 
of the expedition was held in Rashkov, the place of one of the most important Jewish communities of Podolia in the XVIII century. Within a week, members of the expedition (with the active assistance of local residents) carried out the clearing of the old Jewish cemetery in Rashkov, and also conducted an inventory of the discovered tombstones.

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Fieldwork of this part of the school-expedition included photographing headstones, determining their size and decor features, fixing them and drawing up a detailed cemetery map showing the location of individual stelae. During this expedition the researchers documented more than 950 monuments of the early XVIII - mid XIX centuries. The earliest of them date back to 1700s - 1720s., i.e. to the beginning of the flourishing of the Rashkov Jewish community. In this case, not only the texts of the epitaphs are of special interest, but also the rich carved decor in the form of an ornament or images with traditional Jewish symbols adorning most of the tombstones.


In addition, as part of the excursion program, the participants of the epigraphic team examined two more Jewish cemeteries located near Rashkov (a modern cemetery) and Vadul-Rashkov (on the other side of the Dniester). The conducted reconnaissance made it possible to estimate the size and condition of both necropolises, to establish an approximate number and dating of the survived tombstones, and draw conclusions about the desirability of their full description during further expeditions.


The participants of the epigraphic team also organized systematic evening seminars, where the results of the current work were discussed, and the lectures of the leaders of the team - Mikhail Vasiliev and Alexandra Fishel, as well as Mikhail Karanayev - were listened to.

Based on the results of the expedition, it is planned to compile a full electronic catalogue of the Rashkov cemetery, which will be placed on the open site of the field archive of the “Sefer" Center together with ethnographic materials.

"Sefer" Center expresses gratitude for assistance in the preparation and organization of the expedition to the local communities of the region.