It might be Halloween, but a Jewitch — yes, a Jewitch — has need for neither pointy hat nor broom. In fact, this year, Jewitches across America are likely to welcome the Sabbath before they consider cavorting with their covens.
Take Carly Lesser. Lesser has been known to spend Pagan Pride Day marching in Washington, D.C., with her pagan worship group. When it’s her turn, Lesser stands apart and beseeches the God of her ancestors, reciting the Hebrew words of the Shehecheyanu.
But on Friday evenings, Lesser engages in a solitary ritual in the Washington home she shares with her husband. She lights Sabbath candles, blesses the challah and wine and then swings open her front door to welcome in “the shekhina, the feminine aspect of God,” she told the Forward.
“Jewitches” like Lesser, 30, and Melissa Oringer — the 35-year-old Web designer and creator of Jewitchery.com — admit that they are part of an eclectic group. Be they “witchy Jews” or “Jewish witches,” Jewitches have a strong sense of Jewish identity but also practice magic, cast spells and tend to identify with “goddess-directed” worship. Their beliefs run the gamut from strict monotheists to those who worship a pantheon of goddesses. “Jewitch,” Oringer said, “means different things to different people.”
When it comes down to it, though, there are two main schools of Jewitchery. On one end are “Jewish witches,” Jewish women who practice Wicca or another form of neo-pagan religion, combining their identity and spirituality practice with “Jewishness,” if not actual Judaism. On the other end of the continuum are “witchy Jews,” Jewish women who practice a form of normative Judaism — be it Reform, Renewal, Conservative or Orthodox — and infuse it with a magical perspective gleaned from the pagan world.
The number of Jewitches is on the rise, Lesser said, attributing the trend to a heightened awareness of the “mystical side” of Judaism, in part due to the recent popularity of kabbala.
Their numbers could be in the hundreds. In September, Oringer’s Jewitchery.com site received 2,210 visits, 580 from distinct Internet addresses, and her e-mail listserv boasts 135 members. “I also know that mine is not the only one out there,” she said of her Web site.
Popular culture, too, plays a role, with Harry Potter and the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” television series putting a positive spin on the magical world. Willow Rosenberg, a Jewish witch character on “Buffy,” had a bat mitzvah ceremony and made references to being Jewish.
Jennifer Hunter, a Jewitch in Somerville, Mass., pointed to several high-profile Jewish women writers in the pagan world: Starhawk, Margot Adler and Marion Weinstein.
Most rabbis, however, are quick to point out that spell casting and polytheism are not compatible with traditional Judaism.
“Witchcraft and magic are the antithesis of what the Torah teaches,” said Rabbi Manuel Gold, who was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary and now serves as dean of Jewish learning at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a large Reform congregation in New York City. “The Torah’s main teaching is about monotheism and the elimination of witchcraft.”
“The sympathetic part of me says, look people are going to do what they’re going to do,” Gold said. “But this isn’t Judaism.”
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism, said that Judaism clearly prohibits witchcraft and that worshiping multiple deities violates the idea of one unified God.
But Hunter sees no such contradiction. The 32-year-old author of “21st-Century Wicca” keeps a statue of a pregnant goddess on an altar. She said she doesn’t worship the statue, but looks to it as a reminder of “divinity in the world.”
“The goddess,” Hunter said with tongue in cheek, “is just Yahweh in drag.”
For Hunter, at work on a book tentatively titled “Jewitchery,” “the goddess is the shekhina.” She sends her 3-year-old daughter, Ilana, to both tot Shabbat and pagan festivals.
“Witchcraft in general means you do things to force God’s hand. And according to Jewish tradition no human being can force God to do anything,” Dorff said. “We can pray to God for something; we can beseech God; we can even argue with God. But we cannot ultimately force God to do anything using works that are reputed to be magic.”
But J.H. (Yossi) Chajes, the author of “The Voice of a Woman: A History of Jewish Women’s Spirituality” and “Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists and Early Modern Judaism” and a professor at the University of Haifa and now a fellow at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said that magic and Judaism can be compatible. “Because Judaism is a performative religion, it is fairly compatible with a magical sensibility, which assumes a connection between performing certain rituals and achieving certain results,” he said.
“Magic is the conscious alternation of reality through will,” said Sara, a 25-year-old Jewitch at the University of Pittsburgh who is working on a doctorate in mathematics and philosophy and asked that her last name not be used. “My Jewish worldview colors my magic.” Casting a spell is really a “form of potent wishing” that poses no contradiction to Judaism, she said.
For Rosh Hashana, Sara created a kabbalistic service. For Yom Kippur she fasted in the forest. She attends services at Reform and Orthodox synagogues. She grew up in Lancaster, Pa., in what she described as an “interfaithless” family. The maternal side of the family was her sole contact with the Jewish community.
Sara said that the tools she uses aren’t inherently magical, but merely help her to focus. Recently, for example, she gave her boyfriend a handcrafted orange-braided talisman, which he brought with him to the Graduate Record Exam. “He did very well,” she said.
Dorff said that ultimately what makes an act prohibited in the context of Jewish theology depends on “how the practitioner perceives the relationship between what they are doing and the expected outcome.” If the practitioner uses a charm to focus or motivate, that poses no contradiction. But the practitioner crosses a theological line when she believes she has ultimate control rather than God.
Some Jewitches say magic is an inherent part of Judaism. “If you think of what people do in prayer, it’s the same energy,” Oringer said. She pointed to the mezuza, which she described as “an excellent example of a talisman.”
Seymour Rossel, a Reform rabbi who conducts workshops on “Jewish magic and mysticism” and is the author of “Bible Dreams: The Spiritual Quest” (SPI Books, 2003), sees Judaism as inherently magical. “I believe absolutely in the ability of religion to move and change us, and magic is part of that,” he said. “When it stops being magic, people stop coming to synagogue.”
This is a point that Oringer’s synagogue experiences underscore. Oringer, who grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, said that her experiences in synagogue were positive but uninspiring. This, she clarified, was not because the “rabbi wasn’t wonderful or that other people there weren’t moved.”
Still, despite happy memories of a bat mitzvah and Jewish holiday celebrations, she said she “never felt anything other than stuck on a bench waiting for it to be over.”
Lesser’s and Oringer’s spiritual searches led both of them to Wicca, a neo-pagan, earth-centered religion that traces its roots to pre-Christian, northern European pagan beliefs and focuses on ferreting out one’s own spiritual path. Wicca was resurrected as an organized movement in 1950s England and soon made its way to the United States.
After stumbling upon some books about Wicca, Oringer developed her own “concept of deity” and set of rituals, a process she likened to “knitting your own quilt.” Since moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1991, she has become the high priestess in the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn, a witches group founded in 1969 by San Francisco State University students.
Yet relocating from Michigan with its tight-knit Jewish community to the Bay Area, with its more dispersed, less conspicuous Jewish population had an unintended effect. It strengthened Oringer’s Jewish identity, which, she said, is “not something you can simply shed.”
On her Web site, Oringer writes, “I find it not just difficult, but impossible to divide myself from my Jewish identity. So I embrace it — as a witch.”
After majoring in theater at the University of Miami, Lesser moved to Washington, where she began exploring her spirituality. Soon thereafter, she joined a pagan worship group called Magic Belly #9, whose members encouraged her to “return to her own gods.”
And so, Lesser, a Web marketing manager, “began exploring what Judaism had to offer me,” she said. She now attends Capital Kehillah, which “encourages personal growth through the teachings of Judaism,” and the Yedid D.C., a self-described “Happy Hour for the Jewish Soul.”
But Lesser has found herself a home in the pagan world, serving on the board of a D.C.-area pagan community and worshiping with a “sacred gathering” called Becoming.
Although she described herself as “kind of a witchy Jew,” Lesser stressed that “first and foremost I am Jewish.”
While all of the witchy Jews and Jewish witches in this article were happy to speak about their religious beliefs, they like to keep their brooms in the closets. “The only thing I use my broom for,” said Phyllis Kress, 38, a self-described Jewitch living in Milwaukee, “is cleaning.”
More common Jewitch activities — as demonstrated by Lesser’s “Jewitch Rosh Hashana” earlier this month — include candle-lighting, “welcoming the shekhina,” circle casting (a magical act believed to transform space from profane to sacred) and even the sounding of the shofar. The blessings found in Marcia Falk’s “The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival” are particularly popular among the Jewitch set.
Halloween falls on the Sabbath this year. To mark the convergence between the Jewish and pagan worlds, some Jewitches will light special Halloween Shabbat candles. Other Jewitches will make a special Halloween cholent or light a yahrzeit candle in honor of the dead the pagan holiday commemorates.
For Halloween this year, Lesser plans to conduct her Sabbath ritual, pausing to read the Torah portion and selections from “The Book of Blessings.” But then she’ll be up, out and away.
After all, each Halloween the pagan community holds a drumming circle at the Jefferson Memorial. As a nice Jewitch girl, Lesser certainly doesn’t want to miss it.
Jill Suzanne Jacobs, author of “Hebrew for Dummies” (Wiley & Sons, 2003), is a freelance writer and Jewish educator in the Boston area.