The JeWitch Collective is exactly what it sounds like: a group of people who are connected to Jewish spirituality, magic-based practices or both. They traffic in terms like pagan, neo-pagan, feminist, queer, Earth-based Judaism and “reclaiming” (as in the belief that they are reclaiming magical Jewish feminine practices proscribed by Jewish authorities long, long ago).
Last month I attended the group’s “Song of Songs Seder Celebrating Queer Sexuality” at Urban Adamah, the Jewish urban farm in Berkeley. Song of Songs makes sense for a seder celebrating any kind of sexuality; this book of the Bible is a lengthy, sensual, explicit love poem.
Why this time of year, though?
The seder was held on Pesach Sheni (literally, Second Passover), an ancient observance instituted to give people who were unable to go to the Temple during the holiday a second chance to make their obligatory Passover offerings. Those welcomed back into the Temple included people who were ritually unclean during Passover. That element of Pesach Sheni makes it a clever, compelling choice for a seder geared toward bringing queerness and magic into (or back into) Jewish ritual practice.
“Some queer religious Jews have adopted it as their own, deeming it Religious Tolerance Day” I was told by Susala Kay, a co-founder of JeWitch and an author of the seder.
Before the seder, attendees meandered the farm engaging in a variety of ecstatic stations. Urban Adamah is a beautiful (dare I say, magical?) enough place any day — but that day it was transformed into a “magical garden.”
Upon entering, one passed immediately through an area where a singer and percussionist played. This first station was “Sound Cleansing: Clearing Toxic Patriarchy.” (What a relief!)
Another station was called the “G-Spot of Abundant Blessings,” where individuals could come forward to “receive a magical blessing dance,” as explained in a handout with a list of suggested blessings. A trio of blessers would call one out from the handout — among them “May your lips and tongue explore petals and stalks until love pleases,” “May you live among your lover’s lilies, and immerse yourself in their fragrance” and “May the schmutz of your life be washed away.” After calling out the blessing with gusto, the trio would dance around the blessee and embrace the person with a tallit.
There were people of all genders, sexualities and ages (no children, though). On the paths of the farm, older Berkeley Earth mothers with long hair danced around with younger shorthaired Oakland radicals in denim jackets. I was so busy taking in the scene that I didn’t make it to all the stations.
After a while, we all proceeded (at length, with dancing) into the yurt where the seder would take place. It was cramped inside. Several leaders sat at a low table at the front. Most of us sat on the floor.
A lot of things happened inside, too many to recount. There was singing throughout, led by the always soulful and engaging musician Jewlia Eisenberg. The master of ceremonies was Rabbi Eli Cohen, a Renewal rabbi who lives in Santa Cruz.
A pair of dancers morphed into Hebrew letterforms. They were a bet, symbolizing a “strong foundation and shelter,” and then a mem, symbolizing mayim (water) and the prophetess Miriam.
To sanctify the space, maggid Jonathan Furst, a co-founder of JeWitch and a fixture in the Bay Area’s lefty Jewish spiritual scene, led us in “acknowledging the elements, the directions, and calling in the sacred Hebrew animals that go with each of the directions.” Furst had us call out: “Hamizrach! The East!” The East goes with the element of air, he said, imploring us to “breathe in a big gust of air.” The sacred animal of the East, evidently, is the lion: “Let out a lion roar!” Everyone complied with gusto.
“Hanegev! The South! Eish! The fire! Feel the warm, passionate fire in your body. Make yourself hot.” People moved around, gyrated, jumped, rubbed their hands together. “The sacred animal of the South is the human — we are the fire animals!” Furst exclaimed. “So make your most essential human sound.” “Oy!” someone cried out, to a good deal of laughter. It was a playful yet earnest event from start to finish.
At one point, while saying the blessing over bread, we were told that we would be reciting it in the feminine form, rather then the traditional masculine. “If you’d rather use masculine, you can,” the leader said. “Or just go someplace else!” someone called out. There were laughs and some mild gasps.
Much of the seder was taken up with explanations of the items on the seder plate.
Local writer and poet Andrew Ramer led an explication of the three pieces of matzah. He likened the unleavened bread to people who don’t receive the care and acceptance they need to flourish: “Rushed, neglected, not kneaded by caring hands, we grow up afraid that any touch might cause a break … As we celebrate queer sexuality, let us bless our cracked surfaces and sharp edges. May we bravely see our brittleness and lovingly see our beauty.”
The reading about the egg on the seder plate was led by singer-songwriter Anna Cone. It symbolizes “the Divine Feminine” and the “Cosmic Vulva.” She cited Songs of Songs 5:4-5: “My beloved thrust his hand through the latch-opening. My heart beat wild. I rose to open to my love …”
Things proceeded more or less in that vein for the duration of the seder. I’m sure it is easy for many Jews to dismiss this all as made-up, New Age nonsense thought up by a bunch of apikorsim. But take a closer look: The subversive use of biblical text, the clever use of Pesach Sheni and the commitment to community tell me that these people are deeply knowledgeable and serious about their Judaism.
It isn’t quite the Judaism for me, but I’m glad it exists.
We could use a little more sex and sensuality in mainstream Judaism. We could use a little more playfulness and queerness. My hope is that, as has happened with other fringe Jewish spiritual movements, elements will creep into mainstream Judaism, breathing new life and texture into our religion.