“Everybody’s had a feeling of walking into a space or being in connection with someone where they felt something, a change, a shift in themselves,” Naomi Azriel Izen tells me. Even if you’re a skeptic or non-believer (which, full disclosure, I’m not), chances are you’ve walked into a room, had Shabbat dinner with your friends or attended an event where something just felt…different. Cozy. Connected. Maybe even sacred.
Using Judaism as her lens, Izen’s work is to create these sacred spaces, to change and shift the energies and time in people’s homes and environments. A lifestyle designer, Jewish educator and ceremonialist, she holds a bachelor’s degree in design, has studied herbalism and is an ordained Hebrew priestess through Kohenet.
Izen and I spoke about the importance of changing the way your space looks, incorporating the five senses and elements, celebrating what’s special to you and how the key to setting an intention is to think of it as a “desired feeling state.”
How can we create a sacred space for Shabbat at home?
It’s really hard to make Shabbat feel different when we’re in the same space and we don’t leave our space. Actively change the way your space looks for Shabbat, [like] decking out your dinner table: putting a new tablecloth on, maybe adding some flowers or putting out different dishes. The act of setting the candles on the table and preparing all of the ritual items is going to deepen our connection and make the shift change; Shabbat already has those rituals in place.
Every single space that I create, I always think about all of the senses. It’s amazing because Shabbat actually honors all of them, and it honors all of the elements. The candles are fire, the wine is water, the challah is earth, and our prayers and our songs, that’s the air. So, we’re bringing in all of those elements, which radically shifts space and time.
In terms of the multi-sensory experiences like singing, that’s what we hear, even if we’re not with anybody. Touch is so important, and even giving yourself a blessing if you can’t receive a blessing from somebody else; hold yourself and bless yourself. Wear something that feels sumptuous and luscious to really embody the Shabbat Queen, the Shabbat King, the Shabbat nonbinary human that you are. All of those things are so important to radically shift and create the sacred space.
How do we create this space for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?
Most people love being in community and love having their huge families over and gathering in this way. But this year is an incredible opportunity to really look within and do our soul accounting and say, “OK, how did I potentially miss the mark this year? Where do I want to go back and reflect?” And to notice how far we’ve come. Even though we’ve had six months of quarantine, each one of us has shifted so much in the past year.
There are so many ways we can engage and create a sacred container and a sacred space for the chagim this year. [It’s] similar to creating a sacred space for Shabbat. I can’t stress enough how the act of changing your space shifts and changes things, so deck out that table or even create a little Rosh Hashanah altar space. An altar is really just a space to honor and raise up things and things to bless. If you’ve lost any family members or anyone you care about, create a separate space on a table, put out a nice cloth, put their photos up or even photos of people you usually celebrate with. Bring them into your space.
Get a special serving bowl or get that basket or even just lay the apples nicely on the table and bunch them up and have them look good. Get a beautiful bowl and fill it with honey, even if you don’t have a honey pot. Don’t just put your honey bear on the table; make it look beautiful and actively create that special space. You deserve to be in the most gorgeous environment, and you deserve to experience everything, even if you’re alone in your home.
What about Zoom services?
Don’t watch the Zoom prayers at your desk. Don’t do your prayer space in the same space you do your work. Create a space for yourself that’s going to feel like a sacred holy space. You don’t have to just sit and stare; it’s a different way of engaging with prayer, and you don’t even have to have your screen on. You can just listen; you can groove and you can move around and you can dance and you can feel whatever you need to feel.
How can people integrate introspection and reflection throughout their daily lives?
Everybody says they don’t have time. That’s just where we are in the world right now. There’s never enough time to exercise, there’s never enough time to cook healthy foods, there’s never enough time to connect with the people we love. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. There is time. If you care enough, you will make time, and time will expand if you put in the effort.
All it takes is five minutes of thinking inwardly. Shifts don’t just happen, and sacred space can’t actually be created if you don’t put intention into it. So, as much as people would love it to just happen, without putting in the work, it’s not [going to happen]. I invite everybody to engage just once before Rosh Hashanah—whether it’s only five minutes—to actively think about where they are now and where they’ve been and where they want to go. Or just actively think of where you are now. If you don’t actually take the time, you’re not going to get the sanctity out of our Jewish tradition because it offers so much richness, but it also offers us many opportunities to actually plug in and do the work.
What advice do you have for people who aren’t good at intention-setting or people who have set intentions before but haven’t followed through with them? How can people create meaningful intentions and keep themselves accountable?
I think that’s just being a human, where we make an intention, or we say we’re going to do something, and we fail; and then we say it again next year and we fail. New Year’s resolutions like these are a thing, and this is also a part of Judaism where we circle again every year. Every year we need to be freed from something; every year we need to say we want to do something different. It’s just being alive and being human.
In terms of making something actually happen, there are a few things. For me, instead of saying, “I’m going to exercise five days a week,” which doesn’t seem possible, I like to think of my desired feeling state. “How do I want to feel?” Maybe right now I wake up and feel sluggish and that’s why I want to exercise five times a week. Make your intention, “How do I want to feel in the morning? In the morning I want to feel vibrant, I want to feel alive.” Whatever it is. Desired feeling states are really great ways to start to actually create those changes in our life. Wake up every day and say it out loud as a practice: “I want to feel [blank],’” and you’ll start to embody it slowly. Maybe every day you want to feel something different—say it out loud and proudly own it.
How can we cleanse our spaces for the new year?
I sprinkle salt. Everyone has salt in their homes. Salt is an amazing protective mineral; sprinkle salt under your doors and around your doorways as an act of clearing the space, and also as an act of protection and keeping your space clean.
I would recommend cleaning your entire house. Do it intentionally; clean out the gunk from this past year and then ritually sprinkle salt around your house to bring in newness, clearness and protection for your household. You can also do that by smudging if you have sage or palo santo or cedar. I like to use cedar because it’s local and brings in such a positive vibe. You can also spray flower essence around your house to raise the vibes.
Want more? Interested in ritual/ceremony consultations or virtual workshops for getting in touch with embodied Judaism and sacred beauty? Contact Naomi Azriel Izen on her website, through email or follow her on Instagram.
This interview has been edited and condensed.