Tradition & Innovation
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Reclaiming Oneself

By Tamara Cohen
women standing with arms stretched up to the sky

When I began to think about creating rituals of healing for survivors of abuse at the hands of loved ones, something about the nature of ritual didn't feel exactly right to me. Lifecycle rituals marked clear and definable moments of transition: birth, death, marriage. Yet, in the lives of many of the women I know who are survivors of some type of long-term abuse, transition is never so neat. While some can define turning points in their journeys out of trauma, for many survivors of domestic violence and childhood abuse, healing is a life-long process of daily struggle and triumph without a clearly definable beginning and end. Many women will leave an abusive relationship several times; others will eventually return or enter other abusive relationships, or in other ways carry that experience of violence and abuse of power with them throughout their lives. These women need rituals that are structured loosely enough to fit their individual realities. They need to know that rituals can mark and indeed facilitate the beginning of the healing processes. No one should feel that she has to wait to be "healed."

The ritual I have designed attempts to meet these goals. It contains two basic sections, one to do alone and one to do with others. The two can be done as part of a continuous whole or they can be done separately. I find myself often using pieces of the first section and can imagine a woman using that piece for years before she wants to do the communal piece. I intentionally don't use the term "domestic violence" in the ritual because I don't come at this as a clinician or an expert but as a peer. One doesn't have to be willing to name her problem as such in order to draw strength from this ritual.

The other key part of this ritual for me is that at once it tries to be deeply connected to tradition as well as fully accessible to any woman regardless of her background. Perhaps because so many of the terms associated with survivors of domestic violence imply a shattering or a brokenness, I found myself drawn to the structure of a Jewish marriage with the union here being between the woman and herself.

I have also discovered that the image of a mirror can be a powerful tool for women to re-experience the covenant. So often used against us, as a symbol of vanity that implies jealousy between women and possession of women by men, the image of mirroring can be about finding beauty in the self and breaking through our isolation by identifying with other women.

Part One: Union of the Self

Take a shower or a bath. Try to feel each part of your body as it sits in itself. Know the way your arms feel, your legs, your back. You may or may not be able to do this the first few times you try. Be easy on yourself and do only what you feel comfortable with. Try just touching your hand to your other hand. If you want, touch other parts of your body in a healing way. Try to dry yourself with as much love and tenderness as you can. Then, using a scented oil or body lotion you like, soothe your body, as if you are anointing yourself. As you do so, if you can-with a mirror to see your body being treated with sensitivity and gentleness-recite lines of Shir Hashirim (The Song of Songs) to yourself, making yourself both the subject and object of love.

Part Two: Rejoining Community

(Wear something very comfortable and freeing. White, if that makes you feel good, or maybe bright colors. Especially if there was something that you liked to wear that your abuser didn't like or something you had that was destroyed. Use this as an opportunity to reclaim yourself through the way you dress.)

Enter the circle of friends/family that you have invited. Sit down in the middle of the circle. Together sing a niggun [a flowing wordless melody] of your choice.

In turn, face each of the individuals in the circle around you. Look at each other, think about what this individual has meant to you and your healing process and then say "I see in you/You are blessed with..." , recognizing a quality you love in this particular friend or relative. The friend/relative will then reflect back, like a mirror, the quality that you have recognized in her.

(For example, if the ritual was for me: I turn to my sister and say: I bless you for your insights and your sensitivity. She then says to me: "Tamara, you are blessed with insight and sensitivity." I then turn to whomever is standing beside her and repeat the exchange.)

What is achieved here is a blessing that restores power to the subject. You are actually naming yourself because what you value in others is a reflection of something in yourself.

When you have completed the whole circle, go around the circle again but this time instead of language you will use yourself as a mirror. Look at the first person in the circle and with your hand make a motion. The woman on the outside of the circle will mirror your motion back to you, adding her own motion to it. Take that new motion and repeat it for the next person in the circle. Keep adding motions so that you end up with a series of motions created by the whole group, begun with yours, that is mirrored back and forth between you and the group.

Before you leave the center of the circle to symbolically re-enter the community, take this time to express whatever you need to. You may want to read a testimonial. You may want silence or the opportunity to scream or say a prayer. You may need to physically rip up, break or burn something. You may want to ask for blessings of healing.

The individuals in the circle will now either actually cut your hair, braid it, or (most likely) take turns brushing it. If you don't want your head touched, brush your own hair. This is about returning to trusting touch and trusting your own touch is just as crucial as trusting anyone else's, perhaps more difficult. We start here not with touching skin but with touching hair a midway point on the way to opening up to intimacy after physical violation.

(Jewish tradition actually marks many transitions with hair. Traditional Jewish boys get their hair cut for the first time at the age of 3; traditional Jewish women begin to cover their hair when they get married. Hair is also a universal mode of connection between womensisters braiding each other's hair, a mother brushing her daughter's hair before bed.)

The individuals in the circle now take each other's hands. When you are ready, walk towards one link in the circle and join in.

Say Shehecheyanu together (traditional or alternative version) and then sing, first slowly and quietly and then building up to spirited singing.

Complete Ceremony