It seems inescapable that there are times when you must begin with a cliché before getting on with the business at hand. One example I can think offhand would be if you were writing an article about the latest selection of kosher wines, you would have to begin the article by reminding everyone for the twentieth time that twenty years ago the only kosher wines available were sweet Kiddush wines or poor quality red wines, etc. Then and only then, could you discuss the good quality of today’s wines. The same is true of Sukkot. I am planning to write a series of articles about the fun, interesting, and meaningful things we did over the Hag, but I have to begin with reminding everyone of two well-known and inescapable facts about Sukkot in Israel:
The best time of the year to be here is right now when the weather is perfect.
The best place in the world to be for Sukkot is here in The Land (although that’s true for any day of the year.) There, I have disposed of my obligatory clichés and I can proceed to write what’s on my mind.
It was Tuesday night, and the first phase of Sukkot was now officially over. My friend Steve S. had invited me to join him in his sukkah on the way back from Mussar Avicha, our shul. I didn’t want to stay too long; my family was waiting for me at home. But there was enough time to make a lashev b’sukkah (the blessing upon entering the sukkah) and then have a piece of cake and some melon. We started to reminisce about Sukkots of by-gone days in the Old Country, Steve and Ettie originally having hailed from the Albany area where it gets mighty cold this time of year. For them, if it didn’t rain – and the rain was frequent – that was considered sufficient motivation to sit in the sukkah, regardless of how cold it got and how many layers of clothing were required. Steve remembered sitting and waiting late in the morning for the sun to be high enough to penetrate the cold of the sukkah for an hour or two. And he remembered lining the sukkah with the local fruits of the fall harvest: various sizes, shapes, and colors of gourds and pumpkins. That reminded me of the first few years that we lived in New Jersey. Someone once suggested that we use corn stalks (readily available that time of year) for schach (what you put on top of the sukkah). It never occurred to us that what we considered as something spiritual and decorative would be seen by the local critters as food. The corn stalks we hung up one day would all be eaten by the next morning. We ultimately resorted to bland but absolutely inedible bamboo poles. But that vision of a sukkah festooned with the fall colors of the squashes and gourds led me back to something I thought about last year.
One of the great haval’s (it’s a shame) of American Jewish life is the fading away of this holiday from the consciousness of most of our landsmen. For most American Jews, the experience (if they have it at all) of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (and the never-ending time in synagogue or temple) is sufficiently daunting enough to last them for quite a while, thank you very much. If you want to do the fall harvest thing in America, there’s Halloween and Thanksgiving, which are certainly more mainstream and a lot easier to get into, as everyone else is doing it too. Enough of this separateness thing. There’s no need to take off another four days from work for parochial concerns and experiences. We’ve made our point, and let’s get on with our lives.
So if you want to do Sukkot, you have to understand what it is that is being celebrated and why it is zman simchateinu (the time of our happiness). Yet even for those of us in most of The Exile who are “religious,” our joy over the Hag is somewhat diminished by the fickleness of the weather. But the biggest limitation in America, as I see it, is the blandness of Chol Hamoed, the intermediate days between Sukkot and Shmini Adzeret/Simchat Torah, essentially “down time” when you try to limit your everyday activities. Personally, I always went to work because there wasn’t much else to do – especially if the whole idea is to be in a place where you could eat in a sukkah. Kind of limiting. Very few museums, parks, zoos, or places anywhere in The States fill the bill. The run-of-the-mill places like Great Adventures you can visit any time of the year. You might as well save your days off for another day, another time.
Here in The Land, Sukkot is The Time: time to tour the country, time to visit with family and friends, time to chill out, whether you are haredi, daati, masoreti, hilloni. People here who do not consider themselves especially “religious” enjoy sitting in their sukkah on The (one day) Hag, which is a national holiday – as is the last day, on which the staid Shmini Adzeret is enveloped into the emotional Simchat Torah. During the intermediate days, all the schools are off, government offices are closed, and many people are either off from work or take a day or two. There are special events and things to do, places to go, and, if you are of the mind, it’s not too hard to find a sukkah, even in parks and certainly in kosher restaurants.
I am especially fond of those few days here between Yom Kippur and Sukkot when you can see sukkahs being built in an hour (as opposed to the snail’s pace for most construction!) and when an arcane industry flourishes, the urgent merchandising of a citrus fruit, a palm frond, and some otherwise insignificant vegetation. It was during this season that Barbara and I visited The Land in 1980 and 1988; that was when I first “got it,” when I first understood what The Hag was all about and what was so special about being Here. In 2008, having some time on my hands, I made it a point to walk, camera in hand, around some of the religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem, including places in Geulah where we had stayed two decades before. Sort of a walk down Rehov Hazichronot (Memory Lane). Some things have changed: I don’t remember that twenty years ago they were selling boxes of plainly marked “Christmas lights” for sukkah decorations to Haredim. And all the tables of lulavs and etrogs that stretched all the way down Rehov Mea Shearim have been moved into covered min-shuks along King George and on Jaffa opposite Mahane Yehuda. Twenty years ago, I returned from Israel with the latest innovation, a heavy-duty plastic container, with zipper and handle, to hold my lulav; this year, every single person in Mussar Avicha had the identical holder. A handful of years ago, somebody had the brilliant idea of marketing sealed packages of myrtle branches. This year, for the first time, I saw similarly sealed packages of those troublesome willow branches, which otherwise wilt if you look at them the wrong way. But some things have hardly changed: the ingenuity of people building sukkahs in the most unlikely, incongruous places; the general bustle, the way Haredi men will spend an hour or more meticulously examining every lulav and etrog that a vendor has to offer (the way some women shop for hats or some of us men taste wine or single malts). Everywhere in the Geulah area, people were buying and selling something. Where else in Israel would you find young men shopping for neckties? And so I sent two days just walking and photographing around Malchei Yisrael and the side streets nearby, down Rehov Yeheskel and the Bukharin market. Needless to say, there were other things to do: shopping, cooking, and erecting our sukkah (a pre-fab model with cotton panels, which because we’re stupid Americans, we washed and put in the dryer last year, so that the cotton shrunk and we had a deuce of a job getting it to fit). By the time that zman simchateinu arrived, I at least was ready. No time to think about Tzipi Livni (here in The Land, negotiations over a coalition government would be suspended until Acharei Hahagim) or Barack Obama; nightmares are not conducive to a festive mood. Barbara was off from work, Natania was on vacation from the nishkia (the weapons storeroom where she is assigned), and there would be ample time to enjoy The Land. In the next several posts, I will describe some of the things and events which brought us joy over the eight days of The Hag. I hope your holiday was as pleasant as ours.