Growing up, I was blessed to celebrate many beautiful Sukkot holidays in America. As a small child, I’d help my Bubbie unwrap her dried multi-hued corn and glossy plastic grapes while waiting to taste her specialty stuffed cabbage. I learned to make lacy construction paper wall hangings with my Israeli grandmother and watched as my uncles would transform plain wooden walls into magical huts under the California sun.
When I became a mother, despite the chore of cooking for the (twice-as-much-work-outside-of-Israel) holiday, I relished the building, the creating, the adorning, the declaring that we’d leave our stability to live outside, under G-d’s roof.
But sometimes, a discomfort would wedge its way between the palm fronds and fake fruits. Neighbors would cast weary glances when a hut straight out of Gilligan’s island appeared on the porch of our condo in the tony seaside town where Jews weren’t welcome until the 1970s. We lived in a place where sukkah builders received letters from homeowners’ associations asking that these unsightly non-compliant structures be removed within seven days or face a fine — luckily just enough time to get through the holiday.
While still beautiful, Sukkot emphasized our “otherness,” with the strange looks and curious questions, a time when we had to learn to take things that weren’t ours, like Christmas lights and Halloween decor, and re-purpose them to fit our needs. It was one of many moments over the years that reminded us that in America, we were at a lovely stop on our journey, but we weren’t yet home.
Today, we are preparing for our second Israeli Sukkot. While last year we shed some tears for our pretty American sukkah and the life we left behind there, this year we are bubbling with excitement. We again experience the gorgeous chaos as everyone here prepares for the same holiday — our holiday! — at the same time. Tiny cars with open trunks hall over-sized palm branches through narrow streets. Competing booths sell lulavs and etrogs in front of the pizza shop, while supermarkets and makolets are so busy they run out of staples. The sounds of hammers and saws are heard throughout the streets mingling with the voices of children hanging chains and lights.
By tonight, our small city will be encrusted with the temporary structures of wood, canvas, plastic. Towering apartment buildings will be studded with sukkot on every balcony, the seeds on a strawberry. After dinner, children with full bellies will come out in droves and swarm the streets seeking treats, ogling the different incandescent sukkot, singing songs and telling stories at the different stops.
While in America, having a sukkah was a scarlet “J,” in Israel, we celebrate proudly, each in our own yards and on our own porches and balconies, but together as a people and as a nation. On Sukkot here, we are all settlers, we are all outsiders as we bare our vulnerabilities. We proclaim our shared faith with sticks and strings, bamboo and branches. We are a nation of hearts joined by daisy chains as we invite guests, both tangible and invisible, to come, to sit, to stay a while. We are not far from the desert where Sukkot first began, and we remember what it was like before we had a place to call home, with the Clouds of Glory but no army to protect us. We peek at the stars through the schach and we feel small, humbled.
This week, when we hold the etrog, we hold our hearts in our hands. We shake our spines and our lips and our eyes, north, south, west — and east. We’ve wandered everywhere, but under Him, even outside and especially here, we are home.
And while we may run out of chickens and eggs as our small, fierce Jewish country prepares for the same celebration at the same time, while we may get jostled at the shuk and brave crowds at parks and festivals and malls when we are all off for the same vacation, we also remember that we are all in this, together.