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Succoth in a Feminist Voice

Fittingly enough, it was my experience of exile that goaded me into the most Jewishly creative endeavor of my life. After three and a half intoxicating years in Manhattan, it was hard to move home to Toronto. Exiled from the vivacious Jewish feminist community I had discovered in New York, I recognized for the first time that in Canada I was lonely. I’d always had to park either my Jewishness or my feminism at home. There was no place, event, community, group or institution where I could be both at the same time.

That’s how in 1992 I came to propose, to the New Israel Fund of Canada, a feminist Succoth celebration. I had the complicated aims of creating a spiritual home for myself, galvanizing feminist activism and focusing our philanthropy toward feminist causes in Israel such as rape crisis centers, battered women’s shelters, grass-roots groups like Ethiopian women’s self-help and the Israel Women’s Network.

We knew from the first that we wanted an all-women ceremony. We booked a huge blue-and-white-striped tent beside Toronto’s waterfront for one evening during the middle days of Succoth, named our event “Succah-by-the-Water” and boldly invited women to “Celebrate Succoth in a Feminist Voice.” The succah building committee—under the direction of skilled carpenter Chari Cohen— ventured into the woods to choose dead pine trees for our corner poles. Chari drew up an ingenious plan by which a dozen women, all unskilled and inexperienced, could raise the 12-foot-high corner posts and top them with blue and gold painted beams.

The two succahs were poetically named: “Ingatherer,” through which women would enter the tent, and the main succah, “Season of our Joy,” to stand on the stage. All summer, a group of feminist artists worked mysteriously, led by Rochelle Rubinstein Kaplan, to create huge four-by-eight-foot silk panels for the succah walls.

The first year, we sold our 350 tickets almost as soon as the program was announced. From outside the tent on the night of the ceremony, you could hear the warm voices of two women singing Hebrew songs of welcome. The succah glowed on the stage as women crowded into the dusky tent perfumed with flowery decorations.

In my speech to greet our guests, I tried to explain that we were doing nothing very radical. Far from disrespecting the traditions, we were trying to enact and make them our own, to end a long alienation. I hoped the reticent would feel comfortable enough to participate, “as i f it felt real, to give new feminist rituals a chance to attain authenticity in the observance.

All three of the women rabbis in Canada were part of the ceremony. Orthodox feminist scholar Norma Joseph gave an impassioned welcome to our ushpizin, great Jewish women of our past who were our “guests.” As she rolled off their names and deeds, the audience shivered, not only with the autumn chill, but also with the thrill and astonishment of hearing about our great foremothers, some utterly unknown to us.

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein likened the four species of the lulav to the four species of women: the palm, or spine, as the strong feminists; the willow, or mouth, as the women who speak up for the Jewish community; the myrtle, as the women who watch and wait and rein back the over-eager impetuous ones; the etrog, or heart, as the women who feel deeply and cry out for justice. “In order for our feminist community to be kosher,” she said, “we need to include and embrace all four.”

A sigh of agreement went up from our rapt “congregation.” Looking out from the bimah, I saw Orthodox women, wary but flushed with excitement, lesbian activists, their skepticism melting, and women long estranged from Judaism, their eyes brimming.

Our cantorial soloists sang prayers to the Shekhina, and we chanted a new responsive reading to honor our mothers. When it came time for the waving of the lulavim, we divided into small groups, named ourselves as the daughters of our mothers and grandmothers, and choked up with unexpected emotion as most of us held and waved the lulav for the first time in our lives. After the ceremony, Israeli folk dancing went on and on, the dancers leaping joyfully into the air, unwilling to end the intoxication of the evening.

In our second year women came from distant cities to join us. For Succoth this year, we’re busy rewriting the ceremony to make it new, perhaps reaching out to invite Palestinian women to our Succoth Shalom. We photographed our gorgeous, silken succah and made the pictures into notecards, which we’re selling to raise money for feminist causes in Israel.

In Toronto’s reserved and conservative Jewish community, where men hold all the highest institutional posts, there has been some ill-concealed envy of our feminist dynamism. Let’s face it: even we were astonished by the hunger among Jewish women for just such a ceremony, just such a moment to exult in our own powers.

Succah-by-the-Water cards are $18 for a set of seven from New Israel Fund, 40 Dundas St. W, Box 29, Toronto, Canada M5G 2C2, or fax order with Visa number to (416) 340-0515.