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September 4, 2015 | 20th Elul 5775

Sukkot Thoughts

October 21, 2001
Marc Rosenstein

The first Sukkot after we were married, we lived in an apartment in New York, and didn’t consider erecting a sukkah. The second Sukkot we were in a small apartment in Beersheba, which had a balcony, and we put up a sukkah just big enough for the two of us. We decided to sleep in it - and that night there was a dust storm. Back in the USA, the land of wide open spaces, cheap lumber, and plenty of storage space, we built a sukkah of masonite panels on a frame of 2 x 3s, easily and quickly assembled with bolts. At some point we even cut a window in one of the panels and hung curtains. Temporary, but solid, and, after a rain, smelling of wood. That sukkah remains my mental image of what a sukkah should be.

Here, of course, nobody has room or budget for such a structure; we have what all the neighbors have: a snap-together frame of steel rods, with walls of plastic burlap with eyelets for tying to the frame. It takes but a few minutes to put up, and takes up just a small corner of a storage room when folded. What it lacks in organic-ness and aesthetics I guess it makes up in vulnerability - and probably authenticity: if the Children of Israel in fact lived in sukkot during their wandering, I imagine they didn’t carry around heavy panels of wood. Still, somehow, the plasticness of it is always a bit of a letdown. And it should be noted that many of the sukkah decorations sold commercially here are produced in the Far East in the same factories (and from the same materials and patterns) as the Christmas decorations sold in North America. We ourselves have gone over mostly to plastic fruit, after one dinner guest too many was clobbered by a pepper that rotted off its string.

I mentioned all the neighbors; perhaps the nicest aspect of Sukkot here is that there are sukkot everywhere. In many neighborhoods, the parking lots outside apartment buildings are covered with rows of sukkot, and in the evenings, or on the afternoons of the first day and of Shabbat, the sound of singing fills the air in multiphonic stereo. Here on Shorashim, about half the families put up their own sukkot, and we have a large communal one as well, where various events take place for kids and families during the week.

Last year, our communal sukkah was also a “Sukkat Shalom” for one night, when in the aftermath of the riots that occurred during the High Holy Days, we invited Jews and Arabs from the area to gather for informal conversation, and were overwhelmed by the response. This year, a year later, our “Sukkat Shalom” was more natural and informal: one morning during Hol Hamo’ed I was in the office when our secretary pointed out the window. “Looks like we have visitors,” she said. And indeed, two teachers and 80 fourth graders from the Moslem village of Sha’ab had made the 30 minute hike across the valley - to visit our sukkah. We scrambled to put out cold drinks and candy, and one of the teachers translated my explanation sentence by sentence (Israeli Arabs start learning Hebrew in second grade). Interesting, these kids live as a minority in Jewish Israel the way I lived as a minority in Christian America - but I’m sure I knew more about Christian holidays from my environment when I was in fourth grade (when, as it happens, I played Santa Claus in the Christmas play) than they know about Jewish holidays; indeed, my impression was that they knew virtually nothing at all. Unprepared, and grasping for some relevant context, I finally made the connection for them of Sukkot with their fall custom of going out to the olive groves for the harvest. Families make an outing of it, for several days, picnicking together in the groves, while every family member of every age pitches in to beat the trees and collect the olives as they fall. A fall ritual, intimately tied to nature and to family, dependent on the weather, celebrating the harvest - and continuing despite (or maybe because of) increasing modernization and the move away from agriculture as a livelihood. I hope they got the connection....

Now the sukkah is rolled up and stowed in the crawl space and it is officially “after the holidays,” a time that is both depressing and exhilarating as one contemplates a calendar full of uninterrupted weeks and routine, productive work. But hey, it’s not so long until Chanukah...


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