J.J Gross

Our fab, pre-fab Jewish festivals

It's doubtful that ancient sukkot had Arab waiters serving chateaubriand from mahogany cutting boards

Years ago in my (even) more heretical days, I happened to find myself in New York’s Temple Emanuel on Yom Kippur. Having grown up in the shtiebels of Brooklyn, it was somewhat different from my ‘girsa d’yankuta’, the version of my early childhood.

What stood out perhaps more than anything else was the enormous Ark, the doors of which, as if by magic, parted like the Red Sea to reveal half a hundred gorgeously bedecked, but rarely used, Torah scrolls. Of course this deus ex machina was simply a result of the bareheaded rabbi pressing a secret button embedded in his lectern. Yet, for the once-a-year-audience, it was a dramatic moment, likely the only one they would recall of an otherwise bland and canned religious performance.

I was reminded of this experience when reading about the new sukkah of Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Here, the Boro Parkian gaudiness of its atrium becomes, mirabile dictu, converted into a 100% kosher sukkah by dint of the effortless parting of its huge glass ceiling. Yes, the mere pressing of a button creates what is arguably the world’s tallest and least sukkah-like hut. Here, for the better part of a thousand dollars per day, visitors from Lawrence, Englewood, Beverly Hills and Palm Beach can fulfill the holiday requirements mehadrin min hamehadrin, in climate-controlled oblivion, under an obsessive-compulsively organized ‘schach’ in which clusters of grapes (real or artificial?) are perfectly spaced as if placed there by the ruler-wielding domestics of Downton Abbey.

How did this come to be? How did we get from millennia of jury-rigged huts, constructed of discarded doors and driftwood, to this meisterstucke of bacchanalian overkill? Is this what the holiday is supposed to be about?

The Torah commands us to live in sukkot for seven days. Among other things, this reminds us of the harvest in ancient Israel, when everyone would be toiling in the fields, and impromptu shelters were built in which to camp out during this joyous reaping of agricultural bounty.

I doubt any of those ancient sukkot had climate controlled HVAC, or Arab waiters serving chateaubriand from mahogany cutting boards. In order to remind ourselves of those bygone times, we would replicate these ephemeral shelters, eschewing the comforts of home for a different kind of warmth, the intimate camaraderie of family and neighbors, shared meals emerging from old shopping bags, perhaps an extra sweater in the colder climates.

I recall as a young child in the South Bronx no one had a private sukkah, as the buildings were mostly tenements. The shul sukkah was where people would gather, as men would shuffle through the streets carrying the provisions, children in tow. People who normally had little or no social interaction, would suddenly meld into a community of sharing — shared food, shared Torah, shared singing within this ramshackle sukkah of mismatched doors.

It may have been cold, yet the warmth of celebration, of the unique experience of community in its most basic sense, was palpable and unforgettable.

I was reminded of this during a 1979 visit to the Soviet Union, where I joined the sukkah meal of a handful of refuseniks in the debris-strewn courtyard of a grim building in Kishinev. It was cold. It drizzled intermittently. The KGB was lurking nearby. The sukkah itself was, yes, built of old doors. But the warmth, the kinship, the paradoxical feeling of transcendent safety was indescribable. If I had a thousand dollars a day to spend on my Sukkot vacation I would search far and wide for an experience like that, if only I could find one.

So the questions is, how did we get to this point? How did we move in less than 50 years from discarded doors to the parting glass of the Waldorf atrium? Do we imagine our grandparents, let alone our ancestors, would derive any spiritual pleasure from this hocus pocus? Would they even guess that they were in a sukkah altogether?

No doubt this degradation of the law’s spirit (along with the concomitant in extremis elevation of the law’s letter) is a product of the times in which we live. After all, even those of us with more modest means have sukkot that are the structural equivalent of the Swanson’s TV dinner: prefabricated, effortless and, honestly, quite bland.

Sukkot are no longer built. They are manufactured, mass produced, and can be snapped together within minutes, then stored like camping tents in special nylon duffle bags. They are definitely convenient, but they’re just not the same.

And it isn’t just Sukkot that has morphed into an efficient shadow of its former self. Passover is even worse. Indeed, the very idea of Passover, harking back to the Paschal sacrifice, was for intimate family groupings to share this meal and celebrate together the culmination of the tireless preparation that went into its making.

In more recent — but still more traditional — times the housewife, having worked herself to the bone in order to prepare the family seder, would be rewarded by her husband with a new piece of jewelry as a token of appreciation for all of her efforts.

Today, of course, the intimate family Passover experience has been supplanted by the endless Passover fresstivals in Miami Beach, Tuscon, Palm Springs and La Jolla. The family seder has been replaced by a mass extravaganza in the grandest of ballrooms, and the most difficult challenge facing the wife is now how to pack 32 pairs of shoes into a medium size Luis Vuitton suitcase. And yet, the piece of jewelry is still expected, the quaint relic of a more innocent and more demanding time.

I recall some years ago witnessing a truly bizarre spectacle in Miami Beach. It was the day before the seder at a jewelry store tucked away in the second floor of a nondescript building near Arthur Godfrey Boulevard. Apparently this shop does 90% of its business before Passover.

The place was six deep in the sort of men who drive top-of-the-line German cars and Lexuses, tough guys who wouldn’t hesitate to evict a widow from one of their apartment buildings in the Bronx if she were a week late with the rent, and manicured lawyers with monogrammed shirts, teeth as sharp as a shark’s and the bank accounts and mini-mansions in the Five Towns to prove it. Yet here they were like frightened little boys trying to score the right piece of jewelry for their tzatzka at the Fontainbleau.

It was evident that these guys knew that their wives would know EXACTLY how much the piece cost — and heaven help them if they spent a penny less. Even more terrifying for these poor blokes was the prospect of their lady cruising the boardwalk next afternoon and spying another woman wearing the identical piece. Because their bling-radars are that acute, and the penalty equally severe.

So this, then, is what our major Jewish festivals have come down to — an unprecedented degree of glatt kosher and chalav Yisrael, and about as bland and meaningless as a loaf of Wonderbread. So long as it costs enough, G-d will surely be happy.

The bottom line is that Orthodox Jewry has become obsessed with the letter of the law and largely oblivious to its spirit. It is a sign of the times that we are spiraling out of control in terms of a maniacal emphasis on humrot (stringencies) and hiddur mitzvah both of which are, in most cases, simply a matter of vastly greater spending: on the arbaa minim (the fours species), on the matzah, on the wine, on the tallit, on the meat and the milk, on the Shabbat table decorations and clothing­, while simultaneously becoming totally indifferent to the spirit of the mitzvah, which is often, if not always, to be found in intimacy, modesty, and limited gatherings.

Time for some serious soul-searching — assuming there is still something left of our souls.

JJ Gross
Jerusalem Hoshana Rabbah 5776
October 4, 2015

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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