The Struggle of Finding Shelter as an Orthodox Woman
Sukkot is supposed to be the holiday of rejoicing.
And yet for me, a particularly difficult time, as a single woman.
Usually, it’s the week before Sukkot that I put a call out to ask the internet to help me build a sukkah or find one – and then, sometime during the actual week of the holiday I spill my guts and explain why the week brings about so much heartbreak.
I even wrote a poem about it once.
Every year it’s another journey, another layer of delving into the life I was raised with, the agony and the ecstasy of ultra-Orthodox Judaism and the beauty of the songs, the dances, the passion and the joy. And also – the exclusion, the segregation, the search for my place within all of it, and now, outside of it.
This year, I thought maybe some advance awareness can actually help.
As we sit in the midst of a global pandemic, I’m not the only one who has it rough.
I know that parents have it tough now, I know the elderly have it tough now, I know couples in rough relationships have it tough now, and I won’t minimize any of that.
But always, every year, for women who are without families or partners, this holiday is a rough one.
For some of us, it’s hard to put up the physical structure of the sukkah; for others, it’s hard to justify a need to do so if you are in a primarily Orthodox milieu where the need to eat in a sukkah is dismissed based on gender. For some of us, we live in small apartments without the space or option to put one up; and for many, we’ve dissociated ourselves enough from all of these family-centric rituals of Jewish life enough that we pretend we just don’t care.
I know there are many fabulous, empowered people of all genders in the progressive, liberal Jewish space who put up Sukkahs and do ritual and create all kinds of magical spaces. But I’m speaking of my experience – I seek the energy that I was raised with, that I miss with all my heart and soul.
Then there’s going out. In a usual year, the streets ring with celebrations – many are segregated, or begin open but women are quickly relegated inside once the parties really kick-off. I’ve been invited to sukkahs then asked to sit elsewhere to make space for men; had to leave once the meal is over and the all-night singing kicks off; and been laughed at for carrying my own four kinds. I have stories from Sukkos that I tell over and over each year, starting from the year a man waved his hands in front of my seven-year-old body and told me no women are allowed on the other side of the street during the all-night dancing of Simchas Beis Hashoeva, to last year when I had to sneak through the market for a Lulav and Esrog in a black hoodie so I wouldn’t be spotted as a woman in a men’s only space.
This holiday has my heart in its hands. Every year I cry, tear open, break, and come back together a little stronger. This year is harder than ever. What does it mean, to not be allowed to go anywhere, to sip in some of the joy of a holiday that’s about gathering and going out and rejoicing.
I’ve been numb, sad, depleted the last few days wondering what will be… And I know when it is, it will be wonderful, but still. The pain resonates.
So today, I invite you to check in with your local fabulous independent women who are still living embedded in a society that favors family and couples. Invite them to your sukkah (if you can, and sure, do distance). Be extra compassionate. Find ways to help them have a magical chag despite every obstacle in their way. Let them experience it even if they say they’re over it and don’t care.
Trust me. I make magic of most situations and I’ve been sitting in tears all week. This is not an easy time. If you have some joy and abundance to share, do it.
I’m reposting this on Lilith five days into the holiday, and have been blessed to find the Sukkah of my dreams in Jerusalem. An open space; with plenty of room for socially-distanced prayer, song and rejoicing. In truth, being limited without the incessant running around, partying, FOMO-inducing craziness of the usual holiday spirit has gifted me this year with a sense of sweet presence. Of the ability to be nowhere but one space, sitting and singing softly under the s’chach and the starlit sky. For those who heeded this post, all 180 Facebook respondents, I thank you for your interest, resonance and awareness of the challenges of Jewish tradition for those without the traditional family structure. May we all be blessed to find the meaning we seek in our rituals and traditions, and may they hold us as we hold them.