We arrived at my friend Sandra’s home, a small parade of women, each carrying a hollowed-out squash or pumpkin – in one case, a scooped-out sweet potato. When the first chill of autumn hits, I always think of the ancient Celtic tradition of Samhain, which was celebrated in late October to mark the transition from harvest to winter. A large bonfire burned in every village square. Each family arrived with a hollow winter vegetable, into which they placed an ember from the communal fire, likely the root of our tradition of making jack-o-lanterns. They carried these embers home to light their own hearth fires as winter began to close in. We were carrying on the beautiful ritual in our own style.
We gathered around a fire, poised between looming Samhain and just-finished Sukkot. The late-September Jewish festival recalls the forty years that the Jews spent wandering in the wilderness after being released from slavery in Egypt, when they lived in transitory shelters and ate manna that rained down from heaven. I first learned of Sukkot while I was in seminary in Atlanta in the 1990s, when for a week my Jewish neighbors hosted backyard parties in shelters they had temporarily created out of sheets of plywood and tree branches.
Around the fire that night, I read these words from Rabbi Arthur Waskow: During the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot, we build a sukkah—a fragile hut with a leafy roof, the most vulnerable of houses. Vulnerable in time, since it lasts for only a week each year. Vulnerable in space, since its roof must be not only leafy but leaky enough to let in the starlight and gusts of wind and rain…We are in truth all vulnerable. We all live in a sukkah. Even the widest oceans, the mightiest buildings, the wealthiest balance sheets, the most powerful weapons cannot shield us. There are only wispy walls and leaky roofs between us.
We had no idea then that, less than a month later, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh would be the site of a horrific massacre. That night we were focused on our own vulnerability. We gathered, a circle of sisters, because we needed to be together.
It was four days after the shameful debacle of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, one day before the president publicly mocked the brave testimony of Christine Blasey Ford at a political rally in Mississippi. One in our circle, who works with elders in a retirement center, shared that a woman in her late 80s had confided in her on the day of the hearing, “I’ve never told anyone this, not even my husband”—and then spilled a story of sexual assault that she had suffered six decades before.
It seemed impossible in the days surrounding the hearing not to think about the things that had been done to us; the words used to blame us for our own victimization; the ways we had been dismissed or disbelieved. I thought often of the survivors of domestic violence I knew when I worked as their court advocate: the daily terrors they lived with, the bruises and broken bones they suffered. And of the women who were not survivors, murdered by the partners who claimed to love them.
Those of us in the circle felt our vulnerability as we fed the fire that night. We placed into the flames bundled twigs, flower petals, grains of rice, wisps of rosemary, symbols of things we wanted to release or gestate during the darker, colder days to come. Then each of us set a small votive candle into the hollow winter vegetable we had brought with us. We lit a taper from the fire and passed it around the circle, lighting each of our candles from the communal flame.
In this season of diminishing light, the votive candle that glows in my hollow acorn squash has reminded me of the strength of sisterhood. Like the early observers of Samhain, I cling to the memory of the communal bonfire, which warmed both hearths and hearts. And I pray for the Tree of Life synagogue family and all those in our troubled world who are targeted by hatred and violence. “There are only wispy walls and leaky roofs between us.”