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Episode 82: When Jewish Women Talked to the Dead

Jen: Hi, it’s Jen Richler, here with another episode of Can We Talk? But first, a word from our sponsor, KOL Foods, the kosher grass-fed meat company. 100-percent woman owned! Whether it’s a turkey, a brisket, or your weekday chicken dinner, KOL Foods delivers the tastiest, healthiest kosher meat you can find. Order at kolfoods.com; that's K-O-L-Foods.com. Use the coupon code canwetalk for a discount. Order your Thanksgiving Turkey now! OK, onto the show.

[Theme music plays]

Jen: Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet.

[Music fades]

Jen: March 31, 1848. Sisters Kate and Margaret Fox, ages 12 and 14, claim to hear mysterious knocking sounds, or rappings, as they were called, coming from the cellar of their farmhouse in Hydesville, New York.

[Knocking sound]

Sam: And they established that the rappings were being produced by a spirit that was haunting their basement. It was the spirit of a man who had previously been murdered and his body unceremoniously buried in the basement.

Jen: This is Sam Glauber-Zimra. He’s getting his PhD in Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. The so-called “Hydesville rappings,” he says, were just the beginning. Word soon got out, and the residents of Hydesville started crowding into the Fox home to hear the spirits. They were impressed with what they heard. The spirits could answer questions—they correctly guessed the ages and numbers of children people had by producing the correct number of knocks.

The Fox sisters capitalized on their skills and, as Sam puts it, became media sensations. But eventually, the family got tired of the constant intrusions. They moved out of the house to get some peace from the spirits that were haunting them. But by then, the sisters had sparked a movement.

[Music fades in]

Sam: Across New York State initially, and then across the US, and then into England and Europe, people were claiming to be able to communicate with spirits.

Jen: The modern Spiritualist movement was born. Spiritualism is the belief that when people die, they survive as spirits, and that the living can communicate with these spirits—often with the help of a medium. 

In this season of ghosts and haunted houses, we’re taking you back to a time when communicating with the dead at séances was a popular way to spend an evening. I’ll speak with Sam about why Spiritualism had such appeal, including for many Jews. We’ll also talk about why Jewish women were leaders in the movement, as proponents of spiritualist practices and especially as mediums.

[Music fades]

Jen: For Spiritualists, séances were the main event. These started as pretty simple affairs. People would sit around a table with the medium, their hands flat on the table or holding the hand of the person next to them. That’s when the rapping sounds [two knocks] would often start.

Sam: The medium would use these rappings as a sort of code—you know, two raps mean “yes,” one rap means “no,” something like that—in order to receive communication from the spirit who was believed to be present at the séance.

Jen: As the movement progressed, increasingly sophisticated tools were invented to help the medium communicate with spirits, like the planchette...

Sam: …which is sort of a little wooden board on wheels that you attach a pencil to. And you place the planchette on top of a large sheet of paper, and you lay your hands on top of the planchette, on top of this little board that's on wheels. And you sort of allow your hands to move in this stream of conscious way with a pencil attached. And that was believed to enable the spirit to communicate via writing.

The planchette later develops into what some people might be familiar with today, which is a Ouija board, which is a board that has these letters already laid out that you can then, sort of, let your hand subconsciously select.

Jen: Another popular tool was the spirit trumpet...

Sam: ..which is basically this megaphone of sorts that you would…the medium might be emitting very quiet noises and the spirit trumpet would magnify the sound of the spirits.

Jen: Unusual things sometimes happened at séances.

Sam: The séance table would lift up in the air or the medium, it was claimed, would begin to levitate. There was also what were called materializations—the producing of some sort of material form that was often seen as sort of emitting from the medium's body. The term that Spiritualists used for this was ectoplasm.

Jen: Some mediums were also so-called “spirit photographers.”

Sam: Spirit photographers would take a photograph of a subject and then upon developing the photo, there would appear all these blotchy or blurred figures—they were called spirit extras. The Spiritualists claimed that these were the spirits who were present in the room at the time, and the photo technology was able to capture that which the naked eye was not.

Jen: You might be thinking that these séances sound pretty…out there. But they became popular for an understandable reason: people wanted to communicate with dead loved ones. Spiritualism was especially big in the US after the Civil War, and again after World War I—especially in Great Britain, where so many soldiers had died.

Sam: There was great demand for consolation. People talk about the lost generation, that there is this sense of being unmoored by the violence of World War I that gave birth to a lot of different spiritual movements.

Jen: So, the Fox sisters weren’t Jewish, but Jews were early adopters of Spiritualism. When do Jews first start practicing Spiritualism?

Sam: More or less immediately, uh, with the advent of the movement. In Eastern Europe, Jews were holding séances already in the 1860s, across a wide range of social classes. Maskilim—more enlightened or intellectual Jews who were more likely to be in communication with Western European culture—but also Hasidic young men were holding seances already in the 1870s.

By the early twentieth century, there are Jewish Spiritualist societies in England, Jews holding séances in Egypt, in Palestine—the land of Israel—in South Africa…really wherever there are Jews living, uh, Jews begin to hold séances in some capacity.

Jen: But because the movement was so often practiced by Christians and in Christian settings, Jews felt alienated. Some decided to put their own spin on séances.

Sam: The Jewish Society for Psychical Research that was active in England in the 1920s and 30s, they incorporated certain Jewish rituals into their meetings. For example, they would open the meeting by reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, or conclude by reciting the Shema.

Jen: You mentioned that Spiritualism was popular across social classes. Why did it have such broad appeal?

Sam: Spiritualism was highly accessible and egalitarian. Anyone could hold a séance. And even if not every person necessarily had the talent or the abilities to be a medium, it was within every person's ability to have some sort of contact with the spirit realm. And I think that made it highly appealing for people. I think also the fact that Spiritualism, or that séances, were often held in domestic settings also has something to do with its spread and that it became just another sort of parlor game or home entertainment that were so popular, um, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There's a great description in a Yiddish newspaper printed in Eastern Europe in the 1930s that describes how everyone in the shtetl on a cold winter's night—it would be dark so early, and there'd be these long nights with nothing to do. And all these bored Jews in the shtetl would start holding séances.

Jen: I imagine that the domestic setting and accessibility of Spiritualism help explain why women became prominent in the movement. What are some other reasons?

Sam: Spiritualism, from the very beginning, originates in upstate New York, in an area that is also the place of origin of first-wave feminism. And many of the early fighters for women's suffrage in the nineteenth century were also early Spiritualists. And Spiritualism, in a certain sense, because there is this belief that women were by their nature more able to be in touch with the spirit realm, that therefore afforded them a voice. And that might have attracted women to Spiritualism. Many religious or spiritual movements that developed outside of mainstream religious frameworks gave more opportunity for women leadership.

For Jewish women, Spiritualism provided an opportunity to serve as teachers and as communal leaders in a way that they were not afforded within mainstream congregations at the time. I think also because Spiritualism was something that was new…I think with a lot of new technologies, there isn't necessarily an established precedent of not allowing women to do it, so therefore, they were able also to capitalize on that.

Of course, I should also mention that from the beginning of the movement, there were mediums who had male managers, who were very closely controlling their appearances and their finances. And that we shouldn't have this sort of romantic vision of Spiritualism as this feminist paradise of sorts, but it definitely did give women an opportunity to have a more public voice than they would've otherwise.

Jen: One of the first Jewish women Spiritualists was an American named Cora Wilburn. She was recently rediscovered by Jonathan Sarna, a professor at Brandeis. Cora was a prolific writer and social justice advocate who spoke out against slavery before and during the Civil War. In her twenties, she became drawn to Spiritualism because of its progressive ideas and practices. For nearly twenty years, Cora was a devoted follower of the movement and often wrote for Spiritualist magazines. But in 1869, Cora announced in one of those magazines, Banner of Light, that she was leaving Spiritualism behind and returning to her Jewish roots. She lived the rest of her life in New England as a Reform Jew.

But many other women practiced Spiritualism alongside Judaism. Like Regina M. Bloch, who started the Jewish Society for Psychical Research in London with Dora E. Blumenthal in 1929. Bloch was an accomplished writer and poet, and a passionate advocate of Jewish Spiritualism.

Sam: She had a certain sense of mission. Um, part of what led her to create this Jewish Spiritualist center was as a service to the Jewish people. And in the 1920s, she writes about how Judaism has become dry and moribund, and it's lost all of its spiritual fervor.

Regina: Judaism is a living religion teeming with mysticism. In caring for the materialistic side of life, the Jew has lost traditions that were once his. The time has come to clear away the smoke from the altar fire. The Jewish people are flocking back to Zion. Would that they would flock to the Zion of the spirit!

Jen: Some Jewish women got interested in Spiritualism for more personal reasons.

Sam: There was an American Jewish woman Spiritualist whose name was Matilda L. Levy. And she was the president of a Jewish Spiritualist center in Flatbush, Brooklyn that existed for several years in the early 1930s. She was a Reform Jew, I believe. And, her daughter, who was 18 years old, died very suddenly and tragically of an illness. And upon her rabbi’s suggestion, she, uh, turns to spiritualism for consolation, and eventually discovers that she herself has some talent as a medium, and sets up the Annette Levy Memorial Spiritual Center in Brooklyn.

Jen: Matilda published a booklet of spirit sermons, poetic messages that were conveyed to her by different spirits. Here’s a bit of one message she said she received from her daughter using a planchette.

Annette: Tho’ the earth crumbles and stars fail to shine/ Remember, mother dear, we will be together in time/ Let your heart stop aching, stop looking forlorn/ There’s always a dawning with every new morn.

Jen: B’nai B’rith Magazine ran a feature story about Matilda in 1931. In the story, she explains that she’s not interested in converting Jews to Spiritualism…

Sam: …but rather she knows that there's a significant number of Jews out there who want to know more about Spiritualism, but are uncomfortable with the predominant Christian setting in which it is practiced and discussed in America. And therefore she wants to create a space in which Jews can practice, or at least learn more about, Spiritualism in a setting that is comfortable for them as Jews.

And according to B’nai B’rith Magazine, under her guidance, there are several hundred Jewish followers who come out to hear lectures and engage more with Spiritualism. And I think in that sense, Matilda Levy deserves to be remembered as one of the very first Jewish women to lead some sort of community or congregation. She is socially bringing together Jews for this spiritual pursuit.

Jen: What kind of needs do you think Spiritualism might have fulfilled for some Jews that maybe weren't satisfied by more traditional rituals and practices?

Sam: There's quite a few accounts of—whether Jewish immigrants or the children of Jewish immigrants—who describe being raised in an Orthodox home, but it never really meaning much to them. And having some sort of break with Judaism, and then looking for answers. There could be someone who suffers a tragic loss of a loved one and they want to have some sort of assurance that they're still present in the afterlife.

But I should also mention that Spiritualism as a concept appears all over rabbinic writings from the early twentieth century. And it's not necessarily what you would think, that it’s just rabbis expressing their concern about Jews practicing Spiritualism. There are quite a few rabbis who make mention of Spiritualism as part of arguments that they put forward in defense of traditional Jewish belief.

Over the course of several generations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jews sort of en masse stop living traditional lifestyles. There's a process of secularization and modernization. Rabbis are greatly concerned and publish a large number of books, putting forth new arguments for traditional beliefs, meaning new arguments for why you should believe in the soul, new arguments for why there's an afterlife. And of course if there's an afterlife, then there must be punishment; and if there's punishment, then obviously you have to observe Jewish law. And Spiritualism, in this context, is very useful for rabbis, because Spiritualism is an empirical demonstration that is popular among modern people that seems to show that the traditional Jewish belief that people have a soul and that the soul lives on after death is, in fact, true.

Jen: So you just said you’d expect some rabbis to be concerned about Spiritualism. Why? 

Sam: There's a prohibition in the Torah against seeking out communication with the dead, which would ostensibly include Spiritualism. Although later rabbinic commentators go to great lengths to limit that particular prohibition to very particular modes of spirit communications. So there are some rabbis who say that's permitted, and there are some rabbis that will say, “Obviously this is prohibited to practice, but just from observing other people doing it, we can learn from it.” There are some rabbis who are very ambivalent, and they say, “It's not for me to weigh in on whether it's permitted or not, and I don't practice it—but it's very interesting.”

Jen: Do you think there was a tension whereby Jewish tradition, and sort of upholding Jewish ritual and values, was the province of men, and that Spiritualism had become the province of women?

Sam: That's certainly evident in one case that I've written about: two Jewish women from Cairo who practiced Spiritualism. And we only know about their story because the rabbi of their community cites and relates their story, um, without really giving much thought to these women's identities or interests or motivations. He says, “There are men in my community, whose wives practice Spiritualism, and these men told him about what their wives did.” And it concludes by saying that Spiritualism is sinful and, in fact, these particular women made a break with Spiritualism following the sudden death of one of their daughters, which they believe is caused by the spirits. And the rabbi says, “No, your daughter died because of your sins, because you're practicing Spiritualism.” And therefore he's at once sort of telling their story, but also, in telling their story, controlling and limiting their story.

[Music fades in and out]

Jen: What happened to Spiritualism, and why did it eventually start to die down?

Sam: So Spiritualism, after experiencing this new wave of popularity in the interwar period in the wake of all the death of World War I… interestingly, this sort of, uh, rebound of interest following tragedy does not take place after World War II. Already in the late 1930s, certainly in 1940s, Spiritualism is no longer anywhere near as popular as it was even ten years before.

But I should mention several exceptions. There is a wave of interest in Spiritualism in the first decade of the State of Israel in the 1950s—there's a number of Spiritualist societies in Jerusalem, in Tel Aviv, and in Haifa. And there I see a direct link with Holocaust trauma and Holocaust experience,  leading to a renewed interest in Spiritualism, which, sort of, by the 1960s, gets co-opted by the broader New Age movement that is particularly strong in Israel from the 1960s up to this day.

Also, Spiritualism continues to be practiced to this day in Brazil, where it has been blended with a number of other spiritual practices. And to this day in Brazil, you can find quite a few Spiritualists, and you can also find Jewish Spiritualists.

Jen: Do you see any chance of a resurgence of Spiritualist practices?

Sam: I think that the Spiritualist heyday in the late nineteenth century/early twentieth century really owed a lot to the general culture of societies and clubs that doesn't exist to the same degree. With the internet, people can have access to everything, sort of, from the comfort of their own home. Um, so I don't foresee an immediate return of an organized movement. But I think many of the beliefs and practices continue to exist, whether in the Ouija board you experimented with when you were younger, or people today will still often go to a psychic medium, a practice that directly derives from Spiritualism. For however long there are people in the world practicing Spiritualism, there will also be Jews practicing Spiritualism.

Jen: Jews like Regina M. Bloch; nearly a hundred years ago, she made this case for the compatibility of Judaism and Spiritualism.

Regina: No religion could be more spiritual than ours. No book is fuller of visions, voices from heaven, angels, raising from the dead apparitions of the departed, than our Bible…Let me add that no inquirer has a right to be prejudiced against Spiritualism as a science, because a few media happen to be poor. Let us remember Rider Haggard’s dictum that, “A miracle is only a scientific phenomenon as yet beyond our comprehension.” Understanding comes with time and, thank God, our people now desire that vision without which they perish.

[Theme music plays]

Jen: Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive.

To learn more about Jews and Spiritualism, visit Sam’s website at samglauberzimra.com. That’s S-A-M-G-L-A-U-B-E-R-Z-I-M-R-A.com, and follow him on Twitter @SamZimra. Also check out the book Radical Spirits by Ann Braude, and Jonathan Sarna’s entry on Cora Wilburn in the Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women at jwa.org.

Thanks to our sponsor, KOLFoods.

A very special thanks to Sam Glauber-Zimra, who generously shared many resources for this episode. We’d also like to thank Gaby Shine for providing the voice of Regina Bloch and Ma’ayan Rosenbaum for voicing Matilda L. Levy’s spirit sermon.

Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. You also heard Taoudella from Blue Dot Sessions.

I’m Jen Richler. Our team also includes Judith Rosenbaum and Nahanni Rous. Special thanks to Jenny Sartori for help with this episode.

You can find Can We Talk? at jwa.org/canwetalk or wherever you get your podcasts. Subscribe to Can We Talk? in your favorite podcast app, so you never miss an episode. While you’re there, leave us a rating and review to let others know about the podcast.

Thanks for listening…until next time!






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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 82: When Jewish Women Talked to the Dead." (Viewed on December 10, 2023) <https://jwa.org/episode-82-when-jewish-women-talked-dead>.


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