When you’re a freelancer or business owner, it’s common to have more than one string to your bow. Making ends meet when you’re living off your wits can be a joyful yet difficult balancing act and in this series we’ve heard from plenty of folks who have more than one income stream, either through necessity, through sheer love of more than one kind of work, or both.
When I began this series, I introduced my own business as a tarot reader. What I didn’t go too much into was that at the time, I was also a freelance web designer! I interviewed Sean Desiree about their music career, but we talked a lot about the furniture-making business that tops up their income. Miyuki Baker refuses to put herself in a box, and is an artist, an activist and an academic — all of these things put cash in her pocket. And Emilie Wapnick, founder of Puttylike, helped kick off the Follow Your Arrow series with an amazing interview about multipotentialites, and having more than one ‘calling’.
Today, we meet Rebekah Erev, an artist and kohenet (Hebrew priestess). When she’s not making art that draws on her Jewish heritage, such as the incredibly beautiful Moon Angels oracle deck, she is officiating marriages and creating meaningful rituals for folks who are going through change. Rebekah is also working towards an MFA (fine art degree)…that she created herself!
In this heartfelt interview Rebekah talks us though her wonderfully varied working week, sharing the challenges and joys of doing creative spiritual work for a living, and explains why she’s on a mission to make spirituality accessible to all.
Rebekah Erev, Artist & Kohenet
San Francisco Bay Area
Hi Rebekah! Can you introduce yourself and your work? What’s your mission? Who do you serve? What are your key products or services, how do you deliver them?
I think technically I’m a sole proprietor. But when people ask me what I do I say (short answer): artist and Kohenet, Hebrew Priestess. For the longer answer I tag onto that: I’m a multi-media artist and I run a small business.
I self-published a set of divination cards inspired by the cycle of the moon and Yiddishkayt and Jewish teachings. So I sell that and art related to the deck. I also am a clergy person in a very unconventional way. A kohenet isn’t recognized in most Jewish circles as a legitimate position (yet) but I lead ritual, officiate life cycle events and offer counseling in a similar way a rabbi would. I also do readings with my deck and teach workshops related to the deck, Jewish identity and creativity.
My mission is to make art and spirituality more accessible to more people. I created the Moon Angel / Malakh Halevanah Deck for two reasons: One, because I saw, especially in the queer community how difficult it was to find tools and places to explore spirituality and two because I wanted to produce a piece of art that was affordable. As a kohenet I work with people of all or no spiritual backgrounds to create meaningful, unique rituals. Mostly I do weddings and commitment ceremonies but I have also helped (and very much enjoy!) create ritual around gender transition, baby naming, transition in or out of illness and mikvah (Jewish ritual immersion in water for cleansing). My workshops follow themes of developing personal power, finding one’s creative voice and exploring Jewish identity.
I sell my cards through a bunch of small businesses, they tend to sell particularly well through apothecaries. I also sell through my website. A friend recently asked me if they could sell my stuff out of their house because they have “a lot of queer Jews coming through.” This might be my new favorite retailer!
Can you tell us a little more about how your queerness and your Jewishness inform your work?
In terms of spiritual access, as queers we haven’t exactly been welcomed with open arms in religious spaces. But many of us crave spiritual community and we’ve had to carve out spaces for ourselves. And we have! I think a lot of us have turned to art as a place to find meaning and access other realms. Art explains the unexplainable and gives us a space to explore the mysteries we are so fascinated by.
I use Yiddish in the deck as a tribute to my ancestors and to the Bund, the Jewish socialist movement that was formed in Russia and active in Eastern Europe in the early 1900’s and before WWII. I love the ideas of the Bund and doikayt (hereness). This idea that as diasporic Jews we should focus on the issues of the country we are living in. The Bund applied this to the anti-semitism they were facing. As a relatively secure Jew living in the United States I see ways to transfer the idea of doikayt as working for justice for all people on this land we live on that is not ours. As life becomes more secure for Jews I feel called to use the philosophies and spiritual practices of my ancestors for healing and justice for the Ohlone land I live on.
How would you describe your approach to business? What personal qualities inform your approach?
I am an extremely creative person. I constantly have new ideas. I’ve been called the idea guy. I’m very project-based in my approach to work. I enjoy thinking about the intersections of my projects and how to share and develop them. I use this to fuel my work creating ritual with people. I also have developed a ‘dust yourself off and try again’ attitude that’s been super exciting for me. I have complete passion for what I’m doing so if something isn’t working it’s become exciting to me to brainstorm new approaches.
What does a typical day look like for you? Do you have a routine? What is your workspace like?
I wake up every morning and sweep my floor and tend my altar, then I meditate or do stretching and reflect on a Moon Angel card I draw (it’s real! I do actually use the tool I created!). The day can go several different directions after that. I’ve been working from home recently because there was a fire at my studio. So I might return emails, fulfill orders, edit video (low tech editor over here), reach out to new stores, have a meeting with clients, or do a reading for a client. Recently I’ve stepped into the world of applying for grants or residencies so that’s been taking up a good deal of time as well.
Because of the fire at my studio I spend a lot of time at my apartment on my laptop, in the pink chair that used to be my grandmother’s. It looks like a friend and I just found a new workspace so I’m looking forward to moving the chair out of my apartment! I also work at the public library and cafés in my neighborhood. I love co-working with friends and colleagues.
I’m also a practicing artist and student. I’m in a DIY MFA (Do-It-Yourself Master in Fine Art) program I co-created. Yes, I applied and I accepted myself! So I spend time developing curriculum, in class, attending public lectures and art events and making new work.
I try to spend four 10-6pm days on business, money-making tasks each week. I also try to spend 15 hours a week making new artwork. Sometimes that part is successful, sometimes not. And I try to take one full day off a week for Shabbat.
When did you know that this was what you wanted to do? And what were your early goals, your first steps?
I’ve always made stuff, since I was a kid. I was always drawn to spirituality, the obscure and to art. When I was in second or third grade I put a collage I made into the 4H fair. There was my strange piece with bubblegum wrappers, sticks, puffy paint and hair alongside the drawings of pigs and cows. Needless to say, I didn’t get a ribbon prize but I felt strangely proud of that. I liked my weird art. I think my family did too. We were one of the only Jewish families in the town I grew up in South Jersey and my mom with her hairy legs especially stood out. My family is pretty assimilated and I was raised by agnostics. When I was 11, I asked my mom if I could have a bat mitzvah and if we could join a synagogue. What kid does that?! So I guess you could say I had an inherent draw to the strange and spiritual.
The story of where I got to be where I am now is a longer story. Almost seven years ago my dear friends asked me to officiate their commitment ceremony. It was an amazing experience for me. At the time I was in a bad situation in life. I was in a cult, experiencing some pretty severe emotional and phycological abuse from that and simultaneously, breaking up with my girlfriend and my uncle had just passed. The day of the wedding my girlfriend (who was also in the wedding) wasn’t speaking to me and I had maybe slept two hours the night before. Anyway, as soon as the ceremony began I was altered into some kind of trance. The whole ceremony I felt I was channeling something, it wasn’t exactly me. Especially during the part where I chanted the seven blessings (a traditional part of a Jewish wedding they chose to incorporate). After the wedding my friends family didn’t stop calling me rebbe (an affectionate term for a rabbi). It really got me thinking. I seriously considered rabbinical school but eventually decided the Kohenet Institute training and learning to be a Hebrew Priestess was better suited for who I am. I kind of already was a Hebrew Priestess. Three years ago I completed my training and was ordained. It’s been a part time thing and almost a side thing but now I’m really starting to integrate it into all I do.
Before I started my business I was a public school teacher. Mostly I taught art. When I moved to California three and a half years ago I started to re-examine my life. I know, super typical move to Cali story. I started the Artist’s Way for the fourth time but this time I made it to chapter nine. That’s the chapter where you make amends to yourself. Part of why I had moved to California was because I had lived in Olympia Washington for thirteen years. For nine of those years I was in the cult and I didn’t make much art (except for demos for my students). Deciding to stop being a public school teacher and follow my deepest calling was my biggest amends to myself.
When I first made the change I decided, I’ll just get a job at a restaurant, I won’t have to bring my work home with me and it will be mindless. That way I can focus on my art and business more. Wrong! I have a learning disability and part of it is about auditory processing. Working in a restaurant was the worst possible job for me. ALL of the instructions and information are given out loud. I could not keep up. I’m very smart and have amazing compensating skills but it wasn’t enough to cut it. I got fired for the first time in my life. I ended up getting a job at a more mellow café and doing childcare which I’m much more suited for.
Why do you do this? What makes you spring out of bed in the morning? What’s the best thing about the work you do?
Each day I try to bring it back to my personal life mission: A commitment to my authentic expression of love and creativity. It feels really good to work for myself. I love it. I really enjoy business! I like all the different things I have to keep track of and think about. I love getting feedback from people that my work inspires them or has enriched their life in some way. But the truth is, in many ways it’s totally not about me. I feel like I listened to the voice inside that was leading me to this work. When I’m in a good place I don’t take any of it personally and instead work to be a channel for this vision.
And the worst?
The worst is when I get caught up in comparing myself to other business owners and artists, typical patriarchal BS. It’s really only been a year or so since I’ve been really doing this so I wish I could cut myself a break. But alas, the demons come out occasionally and I step in the poop.
What are the key challenges you face in your work? What are your tactics for overcoming these?
One of the biggest challenges has been spending so much time alone. Sometimes I co-work with a friend which is awesome! I love working with people to create rituals but most of the time I do work by myself. I am dreaming about my business growing and hiring an assistant! I’m also starting to collaborate more with other artists which is the cat’s pajamas.
How do you approach time management?
I don’t remember who said this to me but someone told me to always do the most important thing first. Another friend said, always do three things a day that will directly lead you to making money. So for me that’s how I try to structure my time. Also, I always eat three meals a day, and sit down for them.
And what about work-life balance?
I spend a lot of time working. I’m a Capricorn and it’s true what they say about us. I really enjoy working. Getting things done is one of my favorite things. But there was a point in December where I didn’t take a day off for weeks and I started to get really anxious. When I realized I hadn’t taken a day off in goddess knew how long, I was like, oh, I should plan a day off. I think I’ve gotten it pretty well figured out at this point. I always take one day off a week, I often draw or do art at home but I try not to be on the computer.
A friend and I (another artist) were talking recently about ‘work’, and how we use this word for waiting tables, making art, driving buses, teaching, for all kinds of work. The word ‘practice’ came up too. I’m still sitting with these words and how to frame what I do in the world. Sometimes filling an order and going to the post office doesn’t feel like work, I love it! And sometimes making a wig for a performance feels really taxing but I’m super invested in the process of using my hands to create something.
Can we talk money for a moment? What is your financial situation like, and how was it starting out?
When I first decided to do this I sold my car and downsized. I sold a bunch of stuff and cut down my expenses. In order to complete the art for the deck and get it printed I did an Indi-go-go campaign. I’m super grateful for all the people who pre-ordered and who bought art through that. It gave me the time and energy to finish the project and get it out in the world.
In this past year I’ve also gotten a business loan from my family. That has given me more time and do some things like get some help with my website, hire an accountant and a graphic designer to help with some marketing materials. But until a month ago I was still doing some childcare to keep things rolling.
The last couple months I’ve begun to make just enough to cover the basics, rent, food. This doesn’t include paying back loans or any extra stuff. I would love to have a car but biking everywhere is kind of amazing for keeping in shape.
Is your business sustainable now? How do you feel about the money side of ‘following your arrow’?
I’m not there yet but it’s really important to me to become fully self-sustaining through my work. At some point in the not so distant future I also want a family so I’m looking to make enough money to support another little person too!
Where would you like to see yourself in five, ten years’ time?
In five years I hope to have a family and be spending most of my work time making art. I have so many dreams!
Some of my vision includes blending my business more directly with my kohenet and art making practices. A friend of mine in Toronto, Orev (Reena) Katz recently did a mikvah (Jewish water ritual immersion) project for trans and queer people and our allies. I’m at the beginning stages of developing a project in the same vein in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In five years my dream would be to collaborate with Orev and other queer artists for a permanent space for that in multiple cities. In general I’d like to be working on art that integrates my kohenet work. I’d also like to be beginning work with death. In ten years I hope to be doing more death doula work. I’ve felt called to that work since I helped my grandmother in her transition over ten years ago.
How do you market your business?
I have done a lot of cold calls to stores, I don’t necessarily recommend it but I have found a bunch of retailers that way. I am fairly new to Instagram but I love it! Mostly clients for life-cycle events find me through word of mouth or meeting through mutual friends. I was on Wedding Wire for a while and got some great clients through that.
What’s the most valuable tool in your kit?
My perseverance and passion.
How does being LGBTQ impact on your business (if at all)?
I’m a big gaywad. I think that’s a positive thing. I definitely don’t hide it. My deck is for anyone, queer, straight whatever and I think it speaks to people regardless of their sexuality. But I do think a lot of my work in the world is within the queer community. I think I appeal to a lot of queer couples as an officiant because I’m queer. I find myself doing a good amount of counseling around queer family issues related to getting hitched. I’ve also done a lot of work within my spiritual community to carve out space for trans and queer people and it has paid off.
What three websites, blogs, books or people do you rate for business advice or ideas about your work?
I took a class with Lynda Barry many years ago and we share a teacher, Marilyn Frasca. Both of these teachers have had a huge influence on my teaching style and work, especially Marilyn. It’s kind of strange for me to not list all the artists and musicians who have influenced me because they are a huge part of who I am! But I will say some artist friends including Indira Allegra, Grace Perkins, Orev (Reena) Katz, Micah Bazant and Leif J. Lee are huge support and inspiration in my life as an artist.
Queer small business owners have also been a huge inspiration. Like everything in my life, the people I actually know and have relationships with are my biggest influence. Nicolas Weinstein of Homestead Apothecary has been an awesome support person for my business. I love his ethics around community and business. I also have been hugely inspired by Jen Lorang of Alchemilla. Along with a handful of other queers here in the bay area, she started a craft fair called Magic Makers. I sold my stuff there this year and it was completely wonderful to fill an old grange hall with queers selling locally made beauty to other queers.
What’s your hot tip for queer women who want to start their own business?
Take rejection as a blessing and a message of protection rather than have it mean something about you. As soon as I saw doors closing as gifts, I started to find other doors opening.
Find out more about Rebekah on her website, rebekaherevdesigns.com, where you can also pick up her beautiful Moon Angels deck (and if you’re in the UK or Europe, I stock them in my shop!) You can also catch Rebekah on Instagram @rebekaherevstudio.
Are you a queer business owner, entrepreneur or freelancer? Do you run your own charity or voluntary organisation? Is your side-hustle turning into a full-time gig? Maybe you quit working for yourself and went back to steady employment? I’d love to hear from you. (I am especially interested in hearing from queer women of colour!)
Drop an email to beth (at) autostraddle (dot) com and tell me all about your amazing work.