As the Sukkot holiday transitions to Simchat Torah, bringing with it the temporary pause to our holy days, I think of what I always knew, this is not a holiday for our part of the world. This holiday is meant to be celebrated in the land of its birth, the land of Israel. Here, I often think, and say, the powers that determine our weather clearly think we’re doing a rain dance, a ritual where we shake our lulavs, rock and roll to darken the clouds, and water our homes and lawns prodigiously, singling out for the fiercest soaking, our fragile little huts which we call sukkot.:
I’ve spent many Sukkot in Israel, including in 1973. That year, as you recall, the chag was dampened by the blood of war and the fear that a small nation endures at such a time. The sons and grandsons, the husbands and fathers, were caught in the synagogues of the little country, bedecked in talitot, praying for forgiveness, for peace, for health, and receiving an ominous response as the foreign tanks prowled our land and our skies. How well I recall the shattering sound of the air-raid sirens, unknown in my life until that very moment.
In Newark, when I was a kid, we also dealt with air-raids. We called them drills. We were very serious about dropping our books, our pencils and pens and marching out to the hallways where we sat on the floors, hunched over. This, we were reassured, was to protect us in the case of a nuclear attack. It’s hard not to comment on the absurdity of those innocent days.
But, in 1973, when I heard those sirens I knew I had to deal with serious attempts to harm my children and my entire family. This was no drill. Yom Kippur was, for the enemies, clearly the best day to begin a war that no one expected. While we were caught up in the passion of prayer, those enemies were gathering their forces to finally destroy us.
All those drills in the hallways of Newark’s Chancellor Avenue School were to no avail. When the time came I didn’t know what to do! I only knew that I needed to retrieve my children, who were out and about in our wonderful Jerusalem neighborhood. I didn’t think, for a moment, that it might have been wise to do an inventory of available food so that I could dash over to Ramat Eshkol with its new Supersol and stock up. My American mind was not prepared for war. For drills yes. For real war no!
I recall the discussion outside our apartment building. We all heard the sirens but didn’t understand them, not us Americans, but also not the Israelis, the Russians, the South Africans, the Australians, nor the South Americans, nor any of the others in our melting pot little group. Could the sirens be a mistake? Should we turn on the radio to see if there was news? But, it was Yom Kippur. How could we desecrate our holiest day? It was a pilpul, a rabbinic debate on the most serious threat to our lives that most of us had ever encountered. There was the group, including, I confess, us, choosing to turn on the radio, and then, there were the others, declaring it “asoor”……forbidden. Finally, fear of the unknown overcame the negators and a radio was located and turned on.It did clear things up in two ways. It went on and there was sound, not the expected static, the sound of martial music. Thus, we knew that this was no error, no drill. This was war. It was terrifying.
What was most remarkable was not how quickly the daveners in the shul across Rehov Haganah turned into soldiers. In a lighter moment I would have thought of Superman, opening his shirt and showing us the giant colorful S, But these heroes did not turn into soldiers. In fact, they were already real soldiers, practicing how to be normal and observe a holy day at home with their families. The call to prayer could no longer be the call they were heeding. They were going to defend us, the children amongst us, and the elderly, and all those, like us, who could not help the war effort. As we turned on the community’s radio, they were already on their way.
But, remarkably, the sukkot went up the very next day. That was the miracle of Yom Kippur 1973. The Jews would not let their enemies have the final say. This was the time for building sukkot and they would indeed. We would! All who could would! Those fragile little huts peppered the streets of Jerusalem and all of Israel, in spite of the war.
Now, today, I am the grandmother of a chayal, a soldier of Israel. I worry for him. I pray for him. I also see what the IDF has done for him. It has prepared him to defend the land in a spirit of giving. He searches for ways to do his very best for the land and for his fellow chayalim. He has heard the stories of the miracles, of what has been done before him. Now it is his turn and may God be with him to steer him safely back to us! Ken yehi ratzon!