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Oct 12 2011

Sukkah Lessons From a “Hard-Core” Jew

By at 10:42 am

“What is THAT?”

When I hear someone say this sentence in a certain tone as they peek into our backyard, it’s a good indication that it’s sometime just after Yom Kippur and they’re looking at our sukkah.

I grew up in a neighborhood full of Jews, but most of them were more on the “Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur-Hanukkah-bar mitzvah” side of the observance spectrum.  In contrast, we were deemed “hard-core” for observing other holidays generally. The fact that we went to synagogue instead of school on holidays such as Simchat Torah and Shavuot made my siblings and I curiosities. “Now you’re just making these holidays up,” one of my high school friends said when I returned to school after Shavuot.

Curiosities, though, were one thing. My dad getting out the tool kit, canvas, scaffolding and skhakh (the covering) for our reusable sukkah, though – that was closer to “weird.” And, as an ever-self-conscious adolescent, I was pretty sure that no one except us was eating breakfast, weekend lunches, and dinners in the backyard. I was sure no one had to make sure they didn’t trip over makeshift electrical lighting while they cleared the table. None of the other kids at school were trying to get warm in a down vest as they ate butternut squash soup, relishing the feel of steam on their faces. I even wanted my family to keep their voices down as we made the blessings, worried that our (Jewish) next-door neighbors would hear us and be freaked out.

This embarrassment, it’s important to note, was more hormonally-fueled adolescent logic than self-hatred.  But it was there, and it was very real. And as the years passed, it disappeared, like a dream that vanishes.

And that’s appropriate. Sukkot is a holiday that’s all about ephemerality. Everything that we see as permanent in our world–everything that we pour all of our efforts into, everything that stresses us out on a daily basis–is fleeting.

Sukkot is a tangible reminder of the intangible. For a week, we construct a deliberately flimsy house in our backyards or terraces in order to remind ourselves of our relationship to God. Instead of a roof, we have thin branches between which we can see the stars. For a week, we make a statement: we trust in God rather than more sturdy walls and rooftops to protect us, just as God did for the Israelites in the desert on their way to Israel all those years ago.

Our lives are a journey through years with signposts of milestones, but we cannot stop our feet from moving. With each time we put up the sukkah, our children are older. One Sukkot, they sit immovable in their car seats, and, in the blink of an eye, they’re helping to put up decorations and bringing out the food. Then, a few years later, maybe they’ll be vaguely embarrassed as well, and then that will go away.

And so Sukkot becomes a milestone as well – in Hebrew, z’man simchatenu, or a time for celebrating. It’s a beautiful opportunity to celebrate our families and our friends, whom we welcome in an uninterrupted stream of guests (and cooking!). Sukkot reminds us that our lives are beautiful, perhaps in part due to their impermanence. In the holiday, we express thanks for the harvest, and for the bounty of love in our lives.

Seriously, this is one amazing religion.

I just moved into a new house with my new husband and “old” kids, and now have a new baby, so this is our first sukkah here, all together. The boys will decorate it and express their hopes that the meat they drop will turn our local squirrels carnivorous. They are too young to know that we are the neighborhood oddballs. I hope they associate Sukkot with celebration of our family, and that I am lucky enough to watch them grow and celebrate many more together.

Of course, some things never change. The morning we put up our sukkah, our (non-Jewish) next door neighbor and my husband were talking outside. I heard them through our open back door.

“It’s a sukkah,” I hear my husband explain to the neighbor. “It’s to celebrate the harvest holiday of Sukkot. We eat outside for a week.”

“Why do you do that?” the neighbor asks.

“You’ll have to ask Jordana,” I hear my husband say. “She can explain it better. She’s a hard-core Jew.”

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