During the Sukkot holiday, the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles erupts in joyful celebration. Our forty-plus kosher restaurants all have sukkot attached. There’s a sukkah on top of Ralph’s supermarket. One could conceivably sukkah hop to a different hut every five minutes and not exhaust the inventory. Google “Sukkah’s on Fire” to see my music video showcasing an assortment of local sukkot, accompanied by a wacky parody of the Jerry Lee Lewis “Great Balls” classic. The next video in the cue will likely be my brother Yom Tov’s enormous Jerusalem-based sukkah going up in flames. A well-placed security camera caught the tragic conflagration and his kids mischievously added my song as a soundtrack.
For those driving down Pico Boulevard, it must look strange to see all the Jews happily parading with palm fronds. I’m sure people wonder what we are doing with those sticks. Well, what are we doing with those sticks? Waving the lulav is perhaps our most primordial chok (superrational commandment). We circulate the four species (willow, myrtle, palm and citron) in six directions during the daily Hallel service and then hold them aloft while marching around the bimah. It’s really weird and a lot of fun. Some say we are unifying four types of Jews with varying degrees of knowledge and merits. Another theory: the species represent our spine, eyes, mouth and heart. When I’ve complained of back pain, I’ve been advised to set aside funds daily to purchase a lulav. Evidently it’s a segula (protection) ensuring my spine is strong and straight like a quality palm frond. Some say waving in six directions plus the center acknowledges God’s omnipresence. Others maintain it invokes a blessing for rain or favorably impacts the lower seven kabbalistic s’firot. We’re not the only culture gesticulating with greenery: one friend experienced a drug-induced South American Indian ritual—when he worried his visions were drifting toward the dark side, the shaman rushed over and shook some branches, effectively dispelling the negativity. Sensible Jews typically steer clear of superstitious practices, but even the most straightforward among us spends the week waving these expensive plants.
We have epic parties of our own in our twenty-foot squared sukkah and often potluck with neighboring families. We create a new decorative theme each year; past innovations have included Japanese Spa, Autumnal Splendor, Four Species Disco and my personal favorite, a Nacho Libré inspired Sukkah De Los Luchadores.
When Sukkot arrives, I feel a palpable rush of simcha during that first Mincha/Ma’ariv service. I look around at my peers and can see in their expressions the exuberance of the season. The first minyan on any given holiday is about arrival. We made it—Shehecheyanu! Anything that hasn’t been done by candlelighting won’t be done, and believe me, we never finish everything. When it’s time to cease from melacha (acts of creation), we really do stop. The feeling of letting go is intensely liberating, especially when plunging into the ultimate season of joy, Sukkot.
I strive to keep the joy flowing all eight days of the week. I go into a half-time work mode so I can attend parties and chill in my own sukkah. Jewish law stipulates that any formal meals (involving motzi or m’zonot blessings) must be eaten in a sukkah. Not that I have to be coerced to dine al fresco—I love my sukkah! My kids each get their own carefully selected lulav and etrog and we proudly march about every morning holding aloft our arba minim (four species). This holiday offers permission for even the stodgy, stoic types to get on the same happy page, 24/7. We relish in the feeling of victory after our assumed favorable judgment on Rosh Hashana and whitewashing on Yom Kippur. Most of us have spent a month and a half of heightened scrutiny of our personal balance sheet. We reconnect with our true purpose; our elation is heartfelt.
I wish everyone could experience what it’s like to be in Israel during Sukkot. As much as I love celebrating in L.A., there is nothing like the unfettered joy of Sukkot in the Promised Land. In Israel, the celebration of Sukkot is of another dimension.
I experienced my first Israeli Sukkot in 1994, just before my brother Yom Tov’s wedding. I believe he planned his nuptials after this holy week to make the deepest impression on his extended family. At that point, I had been shomer mitzvot for a few years and thought I knew all about this harvest holiday. Wrong again.
My parents rented a perfectly situated four-bedroom apartment in the Rova Yehudi (Jewish Quarter) overlooking the Kotel. Sukkot could be spotted on every balcony, crammed in every courtyard, alongside every restaurant. Tens of thousands of Jews filed to and fro, armed with their four species in an assortment of rifle size cases. Each night, Yom Tov and I slept under the stars in our cozy sukkah. If we weren’t praying, we were eating. I noticed a few quirks in the local libations: Israelis served coke and orange soda exclusively—no water was offered at any party that we attended. Plus all the cake, candy, challah and honey one could ever want. A dentist’s dream come true!
We attended several midweek Simchat Beit Hasho’eva (Joy of the Water Drawing) celebrations in Meah She’arim yeshivot. One of the nights, we came armed with guitars and played in a central courtyard for anyone who would listen. Our raucous renditions of the most popular Sukkot melodies generated a spontaneous circle of dancers and singers. Curious boys surrounded us and gawked at close range. I assumed that they were fixated on my considerable mullet hairdo. A few of them were convinced I was a Nazir (in biblical times, one could avoid grape products and cutting hair in order to deeply connect with God). At one point, a chassid with a mangy shtreimel and graying peyot (earlocks) circled me while scrutinizing my every square inch. He seemed to be fascinated by my beardless face and long hair and yet I knew all the Hebrew lyrics and was wearing tzitzit. He finally blurted out: “Ata Yehudi?!” (Are you a Jew?) I already felt out of place and struggled to maintain my composure. I stopped singing and replied defiantly, “Ken, ani Yehudi” (“Yes, I’m a Jew”). Before wandering off, he muttered, “Bo nireh” (“Let’s see”).
By 10:00 pm, we stashed our guitars and ventured to the largest yeshivot to dance. Each place was crammed with a clone army of Chassidic men marching like bearded penguins in lock step to bands playing reverb drenched, heavy metal klezmer. The lemming convention reached occasional climaxes when a favorite song would slow to half time, making everyone jump in place. We gleefully joined these human trains to nowhere and I was able to close my eyes and allow myself to be transported by the mob. Some were excited to include a clean-shaven guy in non-Chassidic garb, some weren’t sure if they should touch me. My feet got bruised and my shoes covered with muck. The sinks had been rigged to serve red Kool-Aid (yes, I’m serious). Occasionally a platter of greasy, black pepper-laced Jerusalem noodle kugel would appear and get decimated within seconds. I have never laughed harder, for longer.
Around 2:00 am, after four hours of dancing, Yom Tov and I sprawled out on a vacant picnic table in the cavernous Toldos Aharon sukkah. When I half jokingly asked, “Now where do we go?” he replied with utter seriousness, “Well, there’s only one place that’s still happening, but it’s in the middle of the Arab Quarter.” I believe if Jews want ownership of Israel, they must walk the land, without fear. Yom Tov and I strolled the now eerily quiet, littered streets armed only with our guitars. After ambling down a mile of moonlit cobblestone steps, we arrived at Shuvu Bonim, the Old City Breslov yeshiva.
Amidst the festivities, I spied that skinny chassid out of the corner of my eye. The same guy who seven hours earlier asked if I was Jewish. I approached to wish him a chag sameach (happy holiday) and he immediately hugged me and laughed saying, “Ken, ata Yehudi!” (Yes, you are Jewish!) He then ripped off his long white coat and motioned that I should wear it. While I did so, he balanced his furry shtreimel on my head and lifted me up on his shoulders. Me! All 6’3 of me! And he was a skinny, middle-aged yeshiva guy. Next thing I knew, I was above the vortex of madcap dancing, singing at the top of my lungs, crying tears of joy, my arms outstretched heavenwards.
Just before 5:00 am, the band abruptly stopped and the whole group donned their talleisim (prayer shawls), facing the rising sun for Shacharit. Through the windows, I could see the interplay of pale orange light reflecting off the stones of the Temple Mount. I prayed with these holy men with my last ounce of strength, thanking Hashem for the gift of my zany brother and the chance to have an unforgettable Sukkot experience in the Promised Land.
Sukkot is indeed the capital of joy. Just sitting in a sukkah is a delightful mitzvah. The rest of the world relies on the permanence of well-built buildings and homes. Jews believe the only shelter we truly need is under the wings of our Creator, as represented by the fragile sukkah. This is where we feel totally secure and totally joyous. When our forefather Yaakov made it back to the Holy Land after dealing with his crooked father-in-law Lavan for twenty-two years, the first city he established was named after the temporary pens for his flocks, Sukkot. In the words of Chassidic master Rabbi Leibele Eiger, at that moment he made permanent the condition of impermanence. Our human fragility can be a source of consternation or celebration. As Jews, we are commanded to celebrate! May we all merit to rejoice together in the ultimate sukkah in our Homeland, bimheira b’yameinu (speedily in our days).
Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. He has released 25 albums of his music, he produces music for various media in his Glaser Musicworks recording studio and his book The Joy of Judaism is an Amazon bestseller. Visit him online at www.samglaser.com. Join Sam for a weekly uplifting hour of study every Wednesday night (7:30 pm PST, Zoom Meeting ID: 71646005392) for learners of all ages and levels of knowledge.