“I always knew that Sukkot was right around the corner, because it was – literally. From the rear of our full floor apartment, we could see the backyard of the Young Israel of Moshulu Parkway (the original building) where, of course, they put up a sukkah. But even without this graphic reminder, and that’s all it was because I had no idea what the sukkah was supposed to be, I would know. For there were four days in the fall that were classified “Jewish Holidays,” when nobody (except for the teachers and the handful of kids who were gentiles) went to school. I should mention that unwritten but clearly understood rule: don’t play in the school yard on a Jewish Holiday. We may not have been that religious, but we were not stupid!”
Who would have thunk that this boy, looking with at best idle curiosity from his bedroom window at the construction of a wooden hut – whose function he only dimly understood – would one day want a sukkah of his own? Yet we returned from our belated honeymoon to Israel in September 1980 with just that thought in mind. We were understandably reluctant to put one up on our sixth floor fire escape. So we relied on The Jackson Heights Jewish Center which had a huge sukkah and hosted fancy dinners the first two nights of The Holiday. Several years later, a couple we had met had one of their own in the central courtyard of their apartment building, which we could access only from their apartment. So of course, when we moved to the wilds of New Jersey, we put in a call to our nearby Lubavitch Center in Morristown, and they sent over a big wooden sukkah and two yeshiva bochers to assemble it. One of them was very handy, and did most of the work. The second guy went by the nom de guerre “Rashi,” and he was one of the least useful specimens I have every encountered. I have always described him as a human clamp reciting tehillim (Psalms.) As in “Hey Rashi, stop shuckling and hold that panel up a little straighter.” The irony was that there would be a hurricane watch throughout New Jersey two days later, and we would have to take the whole thing down and start all over again, which we did with the help of an elderly gentile neighbor, Mrs. Spruills, who was absolutely fascinated with what we were doing. Needless to say, this was the first and only sukkah ever assembled on Central Place, in Caldwell New Jersey.
The big, wooden sukkah moved with us to Passaic, New Jersey, where it had much company, and later to Teaneck, New Jersey, where it was replaced with a fiberglass model – just as heavy but not as pretty – which we jettisoned as part of our move to Israel, which brings us to our pre-fab model from Ace Hardware in Maale Adumim.
As much as we enjoyed our Sukkot holiday in The States, there was always something to dampen our spirits. The first problem was literally one of moisture. Inevitably, at some point in the holiday, it would rain. The table and chairs would get soaked; all the decorations would fall down; and the schach (the roof covering) would become a real wet blanket. The second problem was this madness, the “three day yuntif,” whereby Jews in The Exile keep two days of these holidays instead of the one day kept by Jews who have the sense and/or the fortune to live in The Land. So when Sukkot and Shmini Adzeret/Hoshana Rabba fall (as they often do) on Thursday and Friday, (which means that Rosh Hashana also was on Thursday/Friday) and you throw in Shabbat, that’s three days in a row for three weeks for which somebody (usually the wife, but in our case, me) has to shop and prepare festive meals. That’s a lot of meals and a lot of “Yuntif,” which is why NOBODY who lives in Israel wants to go through that.
Then there is the search for a sukkah – once you leave your own. You could probably chart a route in the hinterlands of the Great 48 where you could go 500 miles in between sukkahs. Even in New York City, you would be fortunate to find one that wasn’t the property of some expensive bistro. I was usually more fortunate. When I worked for the OU, I had only to walk one block to Battery Park to find one put up by the chaps from Lubavitch. There you would climb over people to find an available space on a bench, snarf down your food in the three to five minutes you felt you were entitled to before the next horde of people arrived, say the birchat hamazon in another thirty seconds, climb back over other people to leave, and know that you performed the mitzvah, but with very little simcha.
All of these are serious inconveniences. But the biggest problem in The Exile is that most of our Community has now lost any connection whatsoever to this Holiday. (We at least took off from school – even if we weren’t sure why!) As an example: we were visiting members of Barbara’s family probably around 20 years ago. It was near the end of October, and I remember that their son was in a great rush to finish dinner and leave. There was a community Halloween event and he needed to be part of it. His parents had a kosher home and attended High Holiday services at a proper synagogue, but their son had no concept of our Sukkot holiday. Yet he knew all about Halloween. The point is that in America, most Jews are overwhelmed by the secular calendar. Even if they have done Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, that’s three days off from work or school, and there is simply no more time for Jewish Holidays.
Not even for THE HAG! For Sukkot was known as THE Holiday. Even more than the other two festival hagim, Sukkot was the time when EVERYBODY (Jew and non-Jew) would ascend to Jerusalem for the almost non-stop sacrifices. It was when the world would be judged for rain, and, in case you don’t know, in this part of the world, if you don’t get rain in the winter months, you are in very deep doodoo. This was the time (during the intermediate days) of the Simchat Beit Hashoeva, a water gathering ceremony, of which it was said, that if you had never experienced this event, you had no clue what joy was. Consider that statement for a moment and then think about Halloween in America with the grinning plastic jack-o-lanterns on people’s lawns and the kids in stupid Darth Vader or Madonna costumes, and then shed a tear.
Here in Maale Adumim, our sukkah had even more company than in our communities in The States, because these temporary dwellings were not the exclusive property of “the religious.” We were told of one woman who “religiously” washes her clothes every Shabbat, seems uninvolved in Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, yet every year she puts up a sukkah and has a festive meal for her family, with lots of singing. There were sukkahs popping up like toadstools everywhere in our community, and all over Jerusalem, usually on the sidewalks near coffee shops, pizzerias, falafel joints, and restaurants, so that there was barely any room to walk.
Everyone was off from work or from school on Sukkot itself and on the last day, which here in The Land becomes Shemini Adzeret and Simchat Torah smooshed into one. On the intermediate days – sort of a semi-holiday – the schools were closed and some people (I honestly don’t know how many) were also on hofesh. And there was plenty to do all over the country, from political demonstrations to reclaim land previously promised to expand communities in Judea and Samaria, to hot air balloon festivals in the Negev. There were barbeques, small gatherings in small sukkahs, larger ones in larger sukkahs, and a huge ceremony at The President’s (Perez not Bush) sukkah. Barbara, Natania, and I spent that Shabbat with old friends in Efrat (where we got to spend some time with Bruce and April Abrams and a few minutes with the Wegleins. We went on a number of nature tours – thanks to AACI (Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel) and Nefesh B’Nefesh. It goes without saying that we found ourselves at the annual Jerusalem Food Festival, in which 40 mostly high quality restaurants were invited to set up stalls and sell “takeout.” And so, there I was, sitting in a sukkah in what I believe is the parking lot of the old Jerusalem train station, with a plate of grilled meat (from a posh place called Vacarro’s) perched precariously on my lap, hoisting a plastic cup of Goldstar, and looking through the schach at the stars. You can tell me it gets better than that, but don’t expect me to believe you.
The Really Big Event, of course, was the annual Birkat Cohanim ceremony at the Western Wall, whereby thousands of us Cohanim got to “bless” the assembled tens of thousands of people. When we were here in 1980, it was a relatively simple matter to get to The Kotel (getting on a bus to go back was another story – but not for now.) The only way to describe the scene now is by way of Yogi Berra, that the place is so crowded that nobody goes there anymore. I would have had to get there an hour early and deal with 30 or 40,000 other people at The Kotel plaza, and I simply wasn’t up to it this year. So I got up that Monday morning and had a leisurely breakfast in our sukkah, only to see in The Jerusalem Post that the event had taken place the day before. So not only didn’t I attend, but I didn’t even know what day I wasn’t going to go.
(But at least I have an excuse for that Sunday. What we did instead was attend a little gathering in honor of the birth of Naava Zemira Levine; and I will leave it her family to describe the event and the emotions attached to it.)
Even before The Holiday started, there were large signs all over Maale Adumim announcing the “Second Hakafot.” Perhaps because Shemini Adzeret and Simchat Torah are only one day, people in Israel have the energy to prolong the festivities after the Hag is over. So not only do people dance with Torah scrolls the last morning, but they repeat these Hakafot in the evening – this time in the outdoors with music and loudspeakers. The invitation to our community event – held in a schoolyard near our house – came from our mayor and his assistants and all the local rabbis. And people came by the hundreds from all over town to dance and to watch others dance. There was one time when I witnessed our mayor, Benny Casriel, (who is one of the finest public officials in the world) dancing with one Torah, Rabbi Sabato dancing with a second, and an Ethiopian oleh dancing with a third. Thanks to a very efficient speaker system and an enthusiastic MC, praises to G-d resounded through the length and breadth of our town, a little bit east of Yerushalayim.
After a while, I went home with the festivities still going on and the music still blaring. From my bedroom window I could hear our Russian neighbors, still in their sukkah, singing Russian songs – accompanied by someone playing a decent guitar – way into the night. They were having such a good time that I couldn’t think to get upset. It would be time enough the next morning to get up and start taking down our sukkah, the pre-fab model from the Ace Hardware in Maale Adumim.