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April 20, 2014 | 20th Nisan 5774

Camping out

Galilee Diary #201
October 3, 2004
Marc Rosenstein


You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens of Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God.
-Leviticus 23:42-43

Growing up in a Reform synagogue in the 50s and 60s, the only sukkah I ever knew was the one in the courtyard of the synagogue that we visited with our Hebrew school class. I didn't know anyone who had a sukkah at home. I built my first sukkah at Hillel, in college, panels of masonite nailed to pine frames, and refined the technique once I had my own back yard. Sukkot became my family's favorite holiday, despite (or perhaps due to) watching our sukkah collapse in a hurricane, carrying the whole set table into the house to avoid an aggressive delegation of bees, sleeping through a dust storm in our little balcony-sukkah in Beersheba, and other adventures.

Attached as I was to my pine-and-masonite method, I had to leave it behind when I made aliyah: apartments with sufficient storage space to keep the panels dry for 51 weeks are pretty rare here, and we reluctantly settled for what the local hardware store was selling: a snap-together frame of steel tubes, and grommeted fabric panels to tie on as walls. It doesn't feel very organic, but it takes up no space.

Lately, "permanent schach" - rolls of loosely woven reed mats imported from the far east, have become increasingly popular as roofing. But the municipalities still prune the public trees the week before Sukkot and leave piles of branches around the neighborhoods, as a public service and to discourage wildcat pruning by the residents. Perhaps most striking to immigrants from the west are the displays of decorations for sale in the markets - bright mylar tinsel cutouts that, had they gotten on a different boat from China, would have ended up on a Christmas tree.

I don't know the statistics on family sukkot here; clearly, all families who define themselves as "religious" erect a sukkah; but also, many families who do not observe other commandments observe this one. One sees the booths in every neighborhood, on balconies, rooftops, parking lots, and lawns - mostly fabric-on-steel, but here and there more creative solutions stand out. In non-religious neighborhoods, the kids collect boards, blankets, and miscellaneous junk, and build communal sukkot themselves - more as a temporary clubhouse than as a historical symbol. More than any other holiday, Sukkot in Israel is like Christmas in America - its physical presence is inescapable; its symbols are everywhere in the public sphere. The holiday defines the season.

But wait - Israeli reality is more complex than this idyll. The school year opens September 1. Sukkot is a week-long school vacation, at a time when the weather is good for travel - especially in Europe and around the Mediterranean. Istanbul, Rhodes, Prague, Budapest - cheap packages abound. Anyone experiencing Ben Gurion airport around the high holidays can easily form the impression that the country is emptying out. Until the government issued a stern terror warning this year, 100,000 Israelis were expected to cross the border into Egypt, to camp along the beaches of Sinai (probably not in conscious reenactment of the above biblical text).

Thus, in making the obvious and welcome decision to make Sukkot a secular school vacation, the Jewish state creates a conflict for the middle class - between commemorating the wandering by building a sukkah in the back yard, and living the good life by wandering the Jewish wilderness of Europe and Egypt.

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