An American Facebook friend posted about how excited she was that her Ikea already has a Christmas decoration section — just in time to buy lights, etc. for her sukkah!
It made me laugh to think of Christmas — the quintessential Christian wintertime-stay-inside-by-the-fire holiday — alongside Sukkot, the Jewish holiday that is most about being outside.
But when I was sitting outside yesterday on our Jerusalem mirpesset balcony with my four-year old daughter looking at all our neighbor’s sukkot, I started to start think seriously about the things in common, like the Christmas tree.
“Look there’s another one,” I said to my daughter, pointing to a neighbor’s balcony that had been converted into a sukkah just by putting a bamboo mat cover over a structure that stands all year.
“It’s so small!” she exclaimed.
“Look at that one below that is so big,” I said pointing at one of neighbors who we were able to share a meal with last year.
That’s so much of what Sukkot can be like here, going from house-to-house and sharing some food and joy with neighbors and friends during a full holiday week in a way similar to what I knew during the weeks in between Christmas and New Year’s for my many years living in the United States. Especially during the years I lived and worked in Manhattan, I really loved the season and the many office Christmas parties and informal “drinks together” that came at the time of year. There was nothing religious about it. It was just joy and togetherness.
For my children, I hope that Sukkot will actually come to have deep religious meaning for them, especially as it is spiritually perhaps our richest holiday. But I don’t imagine I can start there or guarantee that will happen. What I can surely do, however, is try to give them what most Americans enjoy about their childhood Christmas trees and experiences — memories of a feeling of joy and togetherness that are tied to certain sights, smells, sounds and physical things. Christmas has its tree, Sukkot has the unusual, half-roofed structure we call the sukkah. It has the beautiful smell of the Etrog. It has the physical experience of waving the Lulav with its four species.
All this physicality is part of what makes Sukkot so special, and that sets it apart from more purely theological and prayer-centered holidays like Shavuot. Surely Shavuot is no less central to Judaism in a spiritual sense than Sukkot is. But Sukkot, like Christmas with its tree and family gatherings, has the power to grab people’s hearts — especially when they are still young children — in a way Shavuot never can.
I didn’t have this growing up in Long Island, New York — there was no Sukkot full of all this celebration and physical sights and smells. In a sense I didn’t need it. In that time and place, only two generations removed from the immigrant experience, my Jewish identity was so deeply ingrained that it didn’t need the support of a ritual “scaffolding” like Sukkot. But we live in different times. I don’t think I could give my children the chance to have such a deep emotional connection to the Jewish people and to Judaism if we weren’t able to live in a place where the sukkah on Sukkot is ubiquitous as the Christmas tree is in America.
But this year I won’t be giving them the experience of having, and of being, guests in a sukkah. We won’t be having people over for meals, nor will we be going to other people’s Sukkot. We live, I am sad to say, in the country with the highest Corona infection rate in the world. the only country to have to go into a lockdown for a second time. And we need to protect ourselves. The experience of the joy of zman simchateinu (זמן שמחתנו) is impossible if we do not have life itself.
May it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that we should all have health and joy. And that we may soon know a day when we can freely go from sukkah to sukkah again.