Huh?  What is that?

in 1996, my husband and I met up with my cousin and her husband, and drove across Slovakia to reach the town of Kezmarok, where my cousins’s father and my father (i.e.  the brothers) once lived. In the local Jewish Cemetery, miraculously, we discovered burial site and tombstone of our common great-grandmother, Roza (Rachel, in Hebrew) Steiner-Goldman. This discovery was perhaps the initial motivator that led me to the work I’ll describe below. Because of this, as a tribute to her, I use a version of her tombstone on my business cards and now as the icon for this blog.

Rachel's tombstone
Our Great-grandmother Rachel’s Tombstone

Since starting in 2004, I have been immersed in reading the inscriptions on Jewish tombstones, known as matzevot (מצבות) and extracting the vital information found there. Mostly, I focused on people who had once lived in the Spis Region of Slovakia, starting on the self-same cemetery.

People in the Spis Region included Jews who had migrated from various places including Bohemia, Moravia, parts of Galicia, in Malopolska (“Lower Poland”) and who had migrated somewhat south into what is now Slovakia.

Jewish people didn’t have family names until the early 1800s after laws were enacted by Napoleon for places he conquered and by Emperor Joseph II of the Hapsburg Empire, who on November 12, 1787, decreed that Jews must have family names. So tombstones in the early 1800s, in that part of the world, seldom have family names.

After extracting data from a few thousand tombstones from collectively 25 cemeteries in the Spis Region, I wondered how many people did this sort of thing. I wondered if there was a descriptive word to explain what I was doing. There are a few words, such as an epigrapher, indicating a person who is archaeologically and historically inclined to research the inscriptions beyond just tombstones.  But I am not such a researcher.  Instead, I took three Greek roots and created this word, stelaeglyphologist:

  • stelae: (plural of stele) pronounced or STEE-lee, means a, “standing block”. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stele, “… It’s a stone or wooden slab, generally taller than it is wide, … erected for funerary or commemorative purposes, … usually decorated with the names and titles of the deceased inscribed, carved in relief or painted onto the slab.”
  • glyph: is carving of symbols or characters
  • ologist: one who studies

So pronounce it as stee-lee-gliff-ologist, and I’ll still have to explain what that is!