Tonight I visited the Ohel, the gravesite of my Rebbe. I say ‘my Rebbe’ though I knew he was the Rebbe for all, a holy man who cared in the depths of his heart for every human being, and welcomed them all with a smile on his face. Yesterday afternoon, I reread the piece of paper touched by his holy hands almost 34 years ago, written to my father on the occasion of my birth. He blessed my parents that I should grow up to study Torah, to build a home, and to bring goodness into the world through my actions, and I’m certainly trying my best. On the verge of a journey, tapping back into that blessing was something I am seeking.
And tonight is the eve of the 15th of Av, a powerful day of celebration in our tradition, a day of realigning the relationship between masculine and feminine through the ancient traditions of young maidens who frolicked in the vineyards, dancing in circles as young lads chased after them; and a day of recognizing the power of the moon in her fullness, even as the post-solstice sun weakens in distance.
Arriving at the center that houses the site, at the entrance to the cemetery, there was a sense that this was a special visit, and it took only moments to find out why. An incredible young woman approached my friend and showed her a large bag of challah dough she had prepared, which she had brought to share with other women to make the blessing of “taking Challah”, an ancient ritual of donating a portion of our abundance to the priesthood, aka those who hold sacred space and recognizing that in our lives. It’s a hugely powerful ritual that has become increasingly important to me over the years, and holds particular significance to the embodied nature of the women’s practices over the millennia. It is a rising DivineFeminine type action that has seen a recent resurgence and fills me with joy whenever I have the opportunity to perform it. My friend blessed the dough, we recited the names of our dear ones who seek healing, partnership and success in their lives, and even did a little dance. Magic was in the air.
So it was with gratitude and empowerment that I walked into the sacred gravesite well past midnight, excited to share my prayers for my upcoming journey to spend the year studying in Jerusalem. I love the wee hours at the Ohel. The silence, the emptiness, the spaciousness for a personalized prayer. Yet this evening, we were not alone. When I entered, I found the entire area had been surrounded by men – including the areas traditionally reserved for women. In atypical fashion from the ultra-Orthodox governed gravesites in Israel; this gravesite in Queens New York is actually quite egalitarian. Men and women have separate entrances from the same shared antechamber, the separation is a thin metal hanging curtain, and on the opposite side, there is no official mechitzah (separation), just an unseen line. That is often where I choose to stand and pray. (I find it more spacious and open than the clustered area near the women’s entrance).
So tonight when I entered and found men standing in “my” spot, I wasn’t too happy. I approached, waiting for them to move over, but it didn’t happen. I looked behind me at another woman who shrugged, and stepped back to stand near my friend on the “official” womens side near the mechitzah barrier. Looking up at the open skies, I noticed the full moon opposite me and smiled with joy that I was given an opportunity to pray opposite the glorious site of the moon in her fullness. It reminded me of the stage of feminine rising consciousness we are experiencing, of the mystical teachings of these very Rabbis that speak to this fullness as a time period of women’s empowerment, and it resonated with the moment of Tu B’av. In joy, I began to pray, expressing myself clearly and consciously.
Then I noticed that the men who had surrounded the area weren’t just spread throughout the area – they were all part of some sort of ritual, a custom that I wasn’t familiar with, of Sephardic origin. As I began to recite the prayers traditional to this gravesite, I heard them chant and respond somewhat audibly, before they began circling the entire grave area.
Looking up at the open skies, I noticed the full moon opposite me and smiled with joy that I was given an opportunity to pray opposite the glorious site of the moon in her fullness. It reminded me of the stage of feminine rising consciousness we are experiencing, of the mystical teachings of these very Rabbis that speak to this fullness as a time period of women’s empowerment, and it resonated with the moment of Tu B’av. In joy, I began to pray, expressing myself clearly and consciously.
My body sensed a shift, and based on generations of programming, began to tense. Here we go again. A moment of being asked to move, pushed and shoved, sent away from the scene of the action, my play to pray, my place to be who I am. Segregation has been a theme of my life, and I have done the best I can over the last half-decade of healing to minimize those scenarios that trigger me the most, while also holding my ground to heal the traumas when they are presented to me.
I looked towards the headstones, at my Rebbes, the Rebbes who guided my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and said, “Hineni. I am here.”
So I took a deep breath, and instead of turning around, shifting my body in any direction, or even flinching at all, I continued to pray. I looked towards the headstones, at my Rebbes, the Rebbes who guided my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and said, “Hineni. I am here.” As the ones who guided me here, who brought me to this way of life with all its challenges and still guide me through this way of being as I carve my own way through the tradition, please hold me. I know I am in the place I am meant to be. I know I am here, in a space that is designated for women, in the space where I belong. I am here, in this prayer. And I will stand my ground.
And just as I’ve experienced in other spaces outside ultra-Orthodoxy, where the Divine masculine is being couched in a way that highlights the importance of protection and holding sacred space; I focused on imagining that these men circling our bodies were creating a sacred container, the inverse of the imagery of “nekeva tesovev gever”, “feminine encircling masculine”, of collaborative co-creation and non-hierarchy that I pray for constantly. I held my space, and I allowed them to hold me. I didn’t turn around, I didn’t look and I refused to flinch or allow the ancient feelings of shame, smallness, fear, patriarchy arise. I just prayed.
I know I am in the place I am meant to be. I know I am here, in a space that is designated for women, in the space where I belong. I am here, in this prayer. And I will stand my ground.
As the men completed their circling for the seventh time, a gentleman recited the Priestly blessing in every direction. I closed my eyes and held my hands out, ready to receive. As I completed my prayer, I went to stand behind the two headstones of my Rebbes, and held my hand on each side of the stones. I heard the recitation of Kaddish, and I said Amen loudly. They blew the shofar blasts, and I allowed it to vibrate throughout my body. I responded audibly and returned to my original spot, continuing the completion of my prayers as each man called out his name. Tempted to add my own name to the mix, I drew the line there and decided I’d done my part. They completed their rituals and left the room, and I finished the last few lines of my prayers.
Blessed is the name of Divine glorious Queendom, forever and ever.
I turned to my Rebbes and thanked them. I wondered when it will ever be enough, when it would end. When walking as women would be okay.
I looked at the full moon. I watched her disappear behind a shadow, and thought it had finally set. I said another prayer, then saw her reappear. Ah, that’s how it is.
I visited my great-grandmothers, in the same burial area. I sang their songs and asked for their help, in walking their walk even as the path twists and turns.
And I continue onward. Circling, spiralling, ebbing and flowing. Dancing in the fields draped in white, as my ancestors did on this day for centuries.
Rishe Groner is founder of The Gene-Sis, an embodied, experiential approach to personal growth and Jewish spirituality. She creates sacred spaces for people to experience Judaism that is real, accessible and inspiring, bringing Jewish ritual where people seek meaning. Her eighteen years of Jewish educational leadership includes IsraeLinks, Birthright, Limmud NY, Isabella Freedman, Brooklyn spiritual startups, and festivals such as Burning Man.
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