In the middle of Sukkot, eight Jerusalem-based women’s organizations gathered to celebrate a feminist re-interpretation of the practice of ushpizin, meaning guests in Aramaic. The ritual, originally based in the Zohar, involves the invitation of seven Biblical men as “exalted guests” into the sukkah to teach a lesson: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David. The new custom, ushpizot, now includes the invitation of exalted Biblical women. The list of names is still fluid, but the invitation is usually extended to seven from among Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Hannah, Miriam, Deborah, Esther, Ruth, Tamar, Abigail, or Hulda.

Saturday night, the visitors to Jerusalem’s Old Train Station were of a different sort, but in the same spirit: The Hartman Institute, Kolech (Your Voice), El Halev (To The Heart), Women of the Wall, Mavoi Satum (Organization for the Rights of Abandoned Women), Bodyworks, The Gan’et Organization (Body, Spirit, Consciousness), and The Eden Center. Under the cover of a tent –a fortuitous replacement for the more permeable schach (covering) of a sukkah on the occasion of the first rain of the season—each organization presented its work to an assembled crowd, ringed by tables where people could collect printed information and ask questions. For a holiday commemorating temporary dwellings, transitions, and the yearly harvest, and for an event celebrating new movements, women’s rights, and cooperation, the site of the Old Train Station spoke volumes. Surrounded by the old tracks, now with grasses peaking through, and eclectic eateries and shops, the tone was set for the audience to think about Jerusalem’s history, and where it is going.

While the movement of trains whispered in the memory of the place, the voices of women resounded on the central stage. Like the exalted guests invited in each year, each organization had its own message to teach. These lessons, however, were not only spiritual but also touched on the bodies, minds, spirits, rights and voices of women.

I was struck by the convergence of the messages of Sukkot, feminist ritual practice, and mikveh immersion represented by the Eden Center, whose mission is to provide a positive, safe and enjoyable spiritual and physical space to reinvigorate mikveh ritual. The Eden Center’s Director Naomi Marmon Grumet’s presentation showed how Eden strives to carry out the spirit of ushpizot and of Sukkot in its year-long mission. Like Sukkot, originally a harvest festival, Eden seeks to reconstitute mikveh as a celebration of Jewish family continuity and the woman’s reproductive body. When we shake the lulav and etrog, we celebrate Jewish diversity; in Eden’s vision of mikveh, there is a celebration of women’s bodies in a variety of stages and conditions, and with a variety of life experiences, both joyous and painful. In our celebration of Sukkot today, we cultivate relationships around a table, while Eden does so through workshops on communication, as well as in intimate moments between women and mikveh attendants. The educational mission of ushpizin and ushpizot are reflected in Eden’s educational programming, with public lectures, classes for mikveh attendants, and workshops on sexual communication and intimacy for couples.

And perhaps, most basic of all, there is water. In Psalm 42, recited on the second day of Sukkot, the author evokes his longing for a bygone era, pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and for God through the metaphor of water: “Like a hind crying for water, my soul cries for You, O God; my soul thirsts for God, the living God; O when will I come to appear before God! My tears have been my food day and night; I am ever taunted with, ‘Where is your God?’” (JPS 1999, 42:2-4). And the psalmist continues: “O my God, my soul is downcast; therefore I think of You in this land of Jordan and Hermon, in Mount Mizar, where deep calls to deep in the roar of Your cataracts; all your breakers and billows have swept over me” (42:7-8). In Jerusalem, in a very different era, you can hear echoes of the psalmist’s longing as women work to find ways to sustain and reinvent their connection to Jewish life. The mikveh is one crucial site where feminists see the potential to bring God’s waters to women, to collect their tears if need be, and to sustain their bodies and souls.


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About the Author
Cara Rock-Singer is a PhD Candidate in the Religion Department at Columbia University in New York City. She is spending the year in Jerusalem doing dissertation research and studying at The Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.