Quick… picture an image of a Jew. Don’t read on until you’ve got an image fixed in your mind.
If you’re like most, chances are you imagined a Jewish man, or possibly a Jewish boy. Art and media images of Jews are, almost invariably, images of Jewish men. There are several reasons for this. Men, especially religious men, with their beards, payos (sidelocks), yarmulkes, hats and tzitzits look so obviously Jewish. And we live in a culture that is swayed by appearances.
There is also a traditional concern with safeguarding the privacy of Jewish women. I understand this, but the net effect is that Jewish women become, to the untrained eye, nearly invisible. To demonstrate my point, try looking at a display of Sukkah decorations and notice how hard it is to spot a woman in any of the posters.
This paucity of images of Jewish women doing Jewish things has always bothered me, especially since we have only daughters, which is why most of the Jewish art in our home features Jewish women. We also make a special effort to include images of Jewish women as we decorate our Sukkah. This unconscious overlooking of women as Jews is also incredibly common in books and speeches, where Jews are often equated with Jewish men, as in the expression, “the Jews and their wives”.
Happily, there is a Sukkot custom that gives us an opportunity to invite Jewish women back into the picture, literally. The Zohar, a classic Kabbalistic work, introduces us to the idea that the Patriarch Abraham, along with six other Biblical figures, joins us when we sit in our Sukkah. On a metaphysical level, the souls of seven men who looked after the Nation of Israel -- Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and King David -- actually leave their eternal home in the upper realms to join us in our celebration of Sukkot in this world.
The custom, known as Ushpizin (an Aramaic word meaning male guests), developed to formally invite Abraham to join us in our Sukkah in the first night of Sukkot and to do the same for each of the other Biblical guests on subsequent nights. It is common practice to decorate the Sukkah with a poster that bears the names of the Ushpizin. Some have the additional custom of setting aside a particularly fancy chair in the Sukkah, sometimes covered with sacred books, for the Ushpizin. Others light a candle to welcome them.
There is a parallel, through far less known tradition, recorded in the 17th century by an Italian kabbalist, that the seven prophetesses should also be invited into the Sukkah as Ushpizot. Who are these seven prophetesses? By name, they are Sarah (Genesis), Miriam (Exodus), Deborah (Judges), Hannah (I Samuel), Avigail (I Samuel), Huldah (II Kings), and Queen Esther (Book of Esther).
These are the seven women who were gifted with prophecy that was significant enough to be recorded in our tradition for all time. Their stories are largely unknown to us. Even some of their names are entirely unfamiliar. Open a T’Nach (the Jewish Bible) and look up their stories. It will enrich your Sukkot this year.
We find another feminine resonance embedded in the holiday of Sukkot. As the children’s song goes, there are mitzvahs for your nose and mitzvahs for your toes, but there are only a handful of mitzvahs for your whole body at once.
The inside of a Sukkah is a sacred space in which one is totally enveloped by the presence and protection of G-d. Similarly, the mikveh, one of the three mitzvahs to which women have a unique relationship, is also a sacred space in which one is totally enveloped by the presence and protection of G-d.
So this year, decorate your Sukkah with images of Jewish women or the work of Jewish women artists. The Internet is the single best source for these images. Do a little homework and learn about the seven women prophetesses. Discuss them over the Sukkot holiday, especially the much-neglected Huldah, after whom one of the gates to the Old City of Jerusalem was named. As you sit in a Sukkah, think about how the experience parallels the experience of mikveh. And take a moment to invite Ushpizin and the Ushpizot into your Sukkah this year.