Sukkot is an incredibly unique holiday in the Jewish religion. After spending the month of Elul preparing ourselves for T’shuvah, praying to HaShem to write us in the Book of Life for a healthy, happy, and prosperous New Year, then spending the 10 days in between Rosh Hashanah pursuing repentance, culminating in Yom Kippur where many spend most if not all the day in prayer for HaShem to seal us in the Book of Life for a good year, the holiday of Sukkot may seem a little out of place.
Then again, from a different perspective, Sukkot makes perfect sense. After beseeching HsShem we sit back, and we celebrate the bounty that HaShem has provided us in the harvest. In emulation of the journey from slavery to emancipation, the Jews exodus from Egypt wandering through the desert for 40 years, we build temporary structures and are commanded to dwell and live in them. And so, we leave the artificial security of our perceived solid homes and dwell in temporary structures demonstrating our faith and stating, “There by the grace of Hashem go I!”
My wife Robin says that Sukkot proves that Hashem is a male. She quips that no female would have scheduled such Chagim in succession considering the amount of food preparation that is required, especially outside of Israel. Besides the Sabbath’s in between, during which Jews prepare a meal equivalent to Thanksgiving feast in the US, there are 14 major meals including the fast preparation and break-fast which all occur in a 30-day period. In years where the celebratory days do not fall out on the Sabbath, add another 4 Shabbat meals to the tally.
Usually these meals are events unto themselves. They consist of family extended family and friends. In my Synagogue back in Irvine California, it would also include any visitors or guests who happen to be visiting our neighborhood. The meals last hours with several courses, great food, wine, drink, conversation and of course discussion of Torah. These meals are a unique time, especially in Israel. Many families here, regardless of their religious affiliation, appreciate the opportunity to gather, bond and share this precious time together.
When I was in the US, I was on the Board of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Orange County. This was a cross denominational organization that focused on educational activities for Southern California youth. Each year we would bring students from one of the top Hebrew High Schools to visit, interact with, and share their experiences with Jewish teenagers from Orange County. When I joined the board, I was quite surprised that on Friday night, there was no Sabbath meal prepared for them. Since most of them were secular, they believed the students wanted to experience a Southern California Friday night with such activities as going to the mall or to a movie.
I insisted on preparing a Sabbath meal and inviting the Students and their hosts. We were blessed with a large room in the back of our house where we fit 40 students, hosts, and some of the staff who warned me, that based on previous experience, the students would quickly go through their meal and then leave to complete their Friday evening.
My wife, children and I prepared a simple yet typically Israeli Friday night. It consisted of hummus, salatim (a variety of Israeli salads), zaytim (a variety of olives), fish, grilled chicken breast, rice, a green vegetable, fruit and cake for dessert. The students began arriving just before the Sabbath started and instead of rushing through their meal, they spent the entire evening into early in the morning sitting around the table and eventually taking over the entire house sitting, eating, talking, debating, laughing and singing. This is the Friday night experience they were used to from home. We were told later that it was mentioned it was a highlight of their trip.
Judaism, as it is practiced since the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple, is inherently a bifurcated religion. Part of it revolves around community; Jews are required to pray 3 times a day and the preferred way of praying is within a quorum of 10 men. Alternatively, Judaism revolves around the house. From the many celebratory meals, to ubiquitous laws, practices and customs that are centered around the home, it is clear the family home is central to the practice of Judaism. I would submit to you one of the shortcomings of the Conservative movement in America is its focus was all around the “Jewish Community Center” thus de-emphasizing the role of Judaism in the home. Without practice in the home Judaism is incomplete.
And yet, this year, Robin and I sit alone in our sukkah. Yes, we have the company of our dog, Izzy, who is always ready to take part in a dinner. We are also blessed with a cat, found on the street, as most Israelis do, a kitten barely alive that we nursed back to health. Now as she tightropes across the railing of our mirpesset (balcony) on the 5th floor and jumps to and from our neighbors, she is also seeking others to interact with on this Sukkot while giving Robin a heart attack.
Having made Aliyah 4 years ago, our first apartment did not afford us the luxury of building our own sukkah. So, we had to rely on the hospitality of others for our first Sukkot. By the second Sukkot we had moved into an apartment that came equipped with a sukkah balcony. It was one of the requirements that Robin had for finding an apartment. That year we hosted our entire family and I believe had several other guests. The same was true from our sukkah last year, but this year it is eerily quiet.
As I sit in the sukkah, I am reminded, from a poster that the owner of the apartment put on the sukkah he left us, there is a practice called Ushpizin. Ushpizin is an Aramaic word for guest, and it refers to a tradition to invite and be joined by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David on each successive night of Sukkot. Of course, I never go to such an event without my wife, so I am certain that these Patriarchs, Law Givers, Priests and Kings never join a family celebration without their wives. With these guests our sukkah table begins to fill up.
The practice of Ushpizin originates in Kaballah, the practice of Jewish mysticism. So, this is not a practice that I easily gravitate towards. I come from a very Mitnagdish background. Mitnagdim, which refers to those who oppose, were opposed to the rise of the Hassidic movement started in the 18th century in Europe. However, the study of mysticism and practice of its customs are not limited to Hassidim. Many Sephardim and Mizrachim also have adopted many of these ways. One of which is welcoming these guests to their sukkah.
Welcoming a guest is not new in the Jewish tradition. We welcome Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet) to our Seder table every Passover. We welcome him to join us and hasten the Redemption. So welcoming guests, real or imagined in also a Jewish tradition.
Welcoming of a guest and ensuring that they are provided proper hospitality is a positive commandment from the Torah called Hachnassat Orchim. It was the commandment that helped connect me to my Rabbi when I was seeking direction as a young man. I spent many a Shabbat and Chag not only eating at his table but staying there since I did not have a place to go near the synagogue.
When I married, it was understood that I was going to thank my rabbi and his unbelievable wife for the kindness that they demonstrated by welcoming guests to our Sabbath table. Fortunately, my wife grew up in a family whose doors and table were always open thanks to her amazing mother, Rose. And my wife was only too happy to adopt the practice from my rabbi’s wife, of not setting the table until I came home from synagogue. If I saw someone new, I of course would invite them. If I saw someone who would be eating alone, they inevitably would end up at our table. There were several occasions when walking home from shul that I heard people talking Hebrew who ended up at our table. There was even a time where I was approached walking home for shul by Mormons who wanted to convert me. The fact that they ended up at our table that week and until the end of their mission and agreed not to knock on doors with mezzuzot is a story for another time.
Yet, with having all the experience of hosting guests, I really would not know what to say to all these great men and women from Jewish history. I do recall that once at my rabbi’s table, his 2nd oldest son, who today is a Rabbi, gave his rendition of meeting all these people. But instead of talking to them about Torah or Judaism, he imagined engaging and entertaining them by organization a baseball game for them. He even did the play by play announcing, “Avraham Avinu, steps up to the plate. David HaMelech winds up, and here’s the pitch. It is fastball, swing and a miss strike one.” The game was very entertaining to listen to, and yet, despite my history, I still come up short on how to entertain these people in my sukkah.
So, Friday evening, after the meal, I went back to the sukkah, had a drink, and talked to the one person no longer around that I am comfortable to speak with, my grandfather Chaim. When I was 4, my Grandmother Chaya died, and my grandfather came to live with us. Living in a garden apartment in Queens, with two bedrooms, my parents gave up the master bedroom and put my grandfather and me in one room. When we moved to New Hyde Park, my grandfather was given a room next to mine. He taught me a little Yiddish, to my parent’s great frustration. They could no longer speak about me in Yiddish. And he gave me many of my earliest Jewish memories including Sukkot.
He was a watchmaker’s apprentice from Kiev who was picked up by his ears and conscripted to the Russian Army in WW I. Since he showed mechanical aptitude, he was assigned to be a machine gunner since he understood complex machinery and could take apart, clean, and reassemble complex machinery. Surrounded by the Germans, he became a prisoner of war. In camp, due to the fact he knew Yiddish, he picked up German quickly and became the POW camp translator. After the war, he was returned to Russia, the revolutionaries labeled him undesirable and he was shipped off to Siberia. He escaped, walked across Russia back to Kiev, picked up his mother and emigrated to America.
It is no wonder that at that time he chose America over Israel. There was no Israel, and the reports from the people who chose to emigrate to a Palestine controlled by the British were not good. Life was not easy. People who ended up there at that time we the true Zionists.
I guess Grandpa Chaim was not a true Zionist. He was looking to make a better life for him and his family just as Jews wandering the world had done for centuries. America was known as the “Goldena Medina”, the golden land. And once here, he found a wife from Kiev, married, and had his own family. His home, strictly kosher and his synagogue was Orthodox; however, he himself did eat at establishments that were not strictly kosher. His daughter, my mother, went out and started to define her own Jewish identity, first joining the Reform Temple Emanuel in New York City, but eventually marrying my father, and becoming members of a Conservative congregation.
So, I spoke to him. I told him he has a great-grandson who we named after him. I told him we now all lived in Jerusalem and not the Goldena Medina. Once he arrived in the US, he believed that his new freedom allowed him to walk down the middle of Houston (pronounced Hows-ton) street, a major thoroughfare in New York City, on Yom Kippur. I told him in Jerusalem, I live on a very busy street, Derech Hebron, and on Yom Kippur you can walk down the middle of the street because nobody drives on Yom Kippur. And I told him that, just as he taught me, I make the blessing over the arba minim (four species) in my very own sukkah.
I told him how much I appreciated his sacrifice to make a better life for his family, children, and grandchildren. And although he took us to America, it was only a stop along an exceptionally long journey Jews have been making for thousands of years to get home to Israel. So, I told him I have now completed the journey for me and my family. We all are in Jerusalem. And although we cannot all be together because of the seger, the lockdown in Israel, we are together. The entire nation of Israel is sitting together in our collective sukkahs around the country. Many have been here for a long time, but the numbers coming home continue to increase as more Jews come home. Collectively, we are welcoming our Jewish brethren and guests into our sukkahs, our homes, our neighborhoods, and our collective country. And together we will build a better future for Jews and all who join us in Israel.